The GOP's Race to Repeal

by Matthew Freeman

April 04, 2017

This June marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, the great sea battle that was the turning point of the war in the Pacific. The American victory over the Japanese at Midway, a tiny atoll literally midway between California and Japan, ended the period of expansion of Japanese-held territory in the Pacific. And so began the long, bloody march that led to Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and that eventually led American bombers to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Last week, we all witnessed another turning point that 75 years from now could well be understood to have had similar importance. President Trump’s executive order abandoning the Clean Power Plan and practically every other federal regulatory initiative to address climate change marks a grim turning point in the global effort to combat the most serious environmental challenge in the history of human life on the planet.

So naturally, this sorry milestone was the lead story in newspapers and on television programs across the land, right? Yes, if you happen to read the New York Times, but if you’re a Washington Post subscriber, your story was buried on page 6. The top story on the regulatory front for Post readers, and for readers of many other newspapers and internet news sites that day, was about congressional Republicans voting to repeal an Obama-era regulation preventing internet service providers from selling data about your online habits and app usage.

Without doubt, the repeal of that regulation is an outrage. It’s an indefensible giveaway to big corporations that, because they are already making a mint, have generously shared some of their wealth with federal policymakers. (Verizon gave away $1.7 million to congressional candidates in the 2016 cycle; Comcast gave $3.3 million.) The closest thing to a colorable consumer-oriented argument that the industry mustered for the repeal was paraphrased by the Post thusly: “Industry backers say that allowing providers to use data-driven targeting could benefit consumers by leading to more relevant advertisements and innovative business models.”

Exactly! That’s something we’ve all be clamoring for: Better-targeted advertising. Please, sell my browsing history, now!

The vote to repeal the internet privacy rule is one of 15 to clear the House. The Senate has approved 13. So far, 11 have been signed by the president. The rules repealed were all adopted by the Obama administration in its last six months or so in office, making them vulnerable to the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to repeal regulations adopted within that time frame, and to do it in the Senate under rules that don’t permit a filibuster. That means the GOP needs only 51 votes, and they’ve got them.

The president quietly signed the internet privacy repeal this Monday. Among the other rules Congress and the president have repealed:

  • A stream protection rule that prevented mining companies from dumping waste into nearby streams and waterways, thus endangering local drinking water supplies.  
  • An anti-corruption rule that required resource-extraction companies (as in mining and drilling outfits) to report payments made to local governments, and to do it by county as a way to discourage corruption.
  • A fair pay and safe workplaces rule that required companies bidding for federal contracts to disclose violations of federal labor laws for the previous three years.
  • A gun rule to make it harder for mentally disabled people to purchase firearms.
  • An unemployment benefit rule to limit the use of drug-testing as a pre-condition for benefits.
  • A worker safety rule requiring employers to keep and maintain records of work-related injuries and illnesses.

Still in the repeal pipeline are rules to prevent states from denying funding to Planned Parenthood  and to allow cities to sponsor retirement savings plans for lower-income workers.

The unifying aspect of all these rules is not that they lack clear benefits or that they are a burden on the economy. Instead, they share three features: First, powerful political or corporate interests don’t like them. Second, they’re subject to the Congressional Review Act because of the timing of their adoption. Third, because they were promulgated by the Obama administration, they’re subject to the GOP’s rampant and persistent campaign to undo any hint of the Obama administration’s success they can reach.

The media coverage of this race to repeal has been fairly slight, with the press distracted on the substantive side by the president’s executive order signing ceremonies and by the train wreck of an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and on the flashy news side by the various scandals and Keystone Cops displays emanating from the White House.

But the rules targeted by the GOP are consequential, and they tell us whose interests the congressional majority and the president are working to protect.

When he signed his executive order directing the federal government to hereafter ignore climate change, the president surrounded himself by coal miners, continuing to pretend that he can revivify an industry that has lost market share largely because natural gas is cheaper and cleaner. It’s a pose; coal-mining jobs aren’t coming back.

But if he succeeds in dismantling the Clean Power Plan and in scuttling the rest of the Obama record on climate change, Donald Trump may have landed a blow as deadly as any struck at Midway three-quarters of a century ago. May our great grandchildren forgive us for letting it happen.

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Media relations consultant Matthew Freeman helps coordinate CPR's media outreach efforts and manage its online communications. His media relations experience in Washington spans more than 30 years, and his client list includes a range of organizations active on the environment, education, civil rights and liberties, health care, progressive organizing in the interfaith community, and more.

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