The Struggle Ahead

Matt Shudtz

Nov. 10, 2016

Where do we stand now that the election is over and the presidential transition is beginning? That's a common question these days. Those of us striving in the public interest had come to expect progress, and now that expectation has been dashed. For eight years, President Obama and his team of dedicated public servants did something remarkable. With their deep appreciation and respect for our system of government, they created conditions ripe for a vigorous and uplifting debate about the public policies that shape our lives. Now we are left to wonder if those conditions will endure.

Public interest advocates from countless walks of life had settled into a groove over the last eight years. Progress on environmental protection, public health, workers’ rights, civil rights, criminal justice, and many other fronts was never as fast as we would have liked, but we knew that if we kept up the grind, progress would come. Now we’re left wondering. Will familiar faces from the Bush and Reagan years be back again, ready to roll back hard-won policies that protect health, safety and the environment? Or will President-elect Trump usher in a new cadre with new strategies for achieving their vision of how our government ought to operate? And what is that vision? Mr. Trump ran a campaign full of soundbites and tweets but generally lacking in policy specifics and an awareness of the notion of separation of powers. As policy advocates, we’re entering a brave new world.

The future is hazy, but it is safe to say a few things. We cannot expect to see any real progress on reducing smog and particulate matter in the air, much less greenhouse gases or toxic air pollutants. We cannot expect to see any real progress on eliminating the nutrient and sediment pollution that is choking our local streams and rivers, our treasured estuaries, and the Great Lakes. We can count on being stuck with the decades-old rules that leave us vulnerable to chronic diseases and frequent injury from workplace hazards. And where President Obama set out to make our government a model employer in terms of equal pay, fair wages, family-friendly leave policies, and equal opportunity for all, we know that President-elect Trump has a different track record as an employer.

The election cycle is never-ending, so we might retain some hope that Mr. Trump and his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill will let our bedrock environmental and public health laws remain relatively unscathed. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act and others are popular across the political spectrum. Voters will not abide major amendments meant to reverse 40 years of progress.

Instead, Republicans will likely engage in a more sophisticated sabotage, to borrow a term coined by CPR Member Scholars Tom McGarity and Sid Shapiro. Despite the fissures within the Republican Party, two strategies unite them. By manipulating our basic administrative laws and policies, they will not only stop progress but also roll back public safeguards that we have come to rely upon. And look for further budget cuts to the enforcement programs that give our laws teeth. A hollow government pleases the anti-regulatory crowd almost as much as no government at all.

The fight to preserve the basic functions of our government will be difficult. We have crouched down in a defensive posture before. But we have never done so in the face of such uncertainty regarding an incoming president’s core values, beliefs, or vision. This is the dawn of a new era for CPR and our allies throughout the public interest community. The ground beneath us may be shifting, but it will not move our foundation and it will not obscure our view of the horizon. 

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