Posted February 28, 2017 by Shiney Varghese
Earlier last week it was reported that President Donald Trump is about to issue the next set of executive orders, this time targeting environmental safeguards for water and climate put in place in 2015. The water rule — formally titled the Clean Water Rule, but commonly known as Waters of the United States (WOTUS)—and the Clean Power Plan are two of the most comprehensive environmental rules issued by the Obama administration. The Clean Water Rule stipulates which water bodies are automatically covered under the Clean Water Act. Similarly, the Clean Power Plan was developed under the authorization of the Clean Air Act, which requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take steps to reduce air pollution that harms the public's health. The Plan, for the very first time, provides carbon emission guidelines to existing power plants.
On the campaign-trail, Mr. Trump had promised to undo these rules, if elected. His first step towards this was to nominate Scott Pruitt—someone with a clear record of hostility for environmental and public health protection at both state and federal levels—to head the EPA efforts. Emails released last week shows close coordination between his office and fossil fuel interests in Oklahoma when he was the attorney general of the state.
Last week, Mr. Pruitt told Wall Street Journal that “he expects to quickly withdraw both the Clean Power Plan (President Obama’s premier climate regulation) and the 2015 Waters of the United States Rule.” This withdrawal carries out the 2017 plans of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which opposes rules such as the Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Rule that are seen as regulatory over-reach by the EPA. This anti-regulatory agenda is shared by a many corporations engaged in manufacturing, mining, energy sector, agribusiness or construction.
In the meantime, Congress is using a formerly seldom used law, the Congressional Review Act (CRA), to attempt to nullify dozens of environmental and other regulations put in place by Obama administration in its last months in office.
CRA: A stealth weapon to facilitate deregulatory efforts
The CRA is a little known legislative procedure—used only once successfully since its passing in 1996—as a way to make it easier to overturn regulations, which are issued by executive branch agencies, pursuant to statutes passed by Congress in the first place. The CRA created a period of 60 "session days" (days in which Congress is in session) during which Congress could use expedited procedures to nullify a regulation without going through the normal process to change or terminate the legislative authority for a rule.
Under that mechanism, Congress does not go through the politically hazardous process of killing the Clean Water Act itself, but instead kills a rule to implement that Act. CRA resolutions are not subject to the procedural requirements in the Senate, such as a filibuster and the 60 vote requirement to end a filibuster. Technically, the President could still veto a CRA resolution, but that seems unlikely now with this administration. The CRA process also stipulates that no rules that are “substantially similar” to the nullified rule can be developed in future, unless authorized by a new law, even if an existing law demands the development of the rule.
The CRA mechanism is being utilized now to overturn rules that are the results of years of public consultations. For example, on January 30, Reps. Bill Johnson (R-OH), Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and David McKinley (R-WV) introduced HJ RES. 38-115 “Disapproving the rule submitted by the Department of the Interior known as the Stream Protection Rule.” With President Trump’s signature, this resolution became apublic law on February 16, and nullifies the Stream Protection Rule finalized by the Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement on December 20, 2016.
The Stream Protection Rule, developed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), had sought to address the impacts of surface coal mining operations on surface water, groundwater, fish, wildlife and the productivity of mining operation sites. It included reforms to revise 33 year old regulations for coal mining and was formulated after an extensive and transparent public process that spanned several years.
According to an Associated Press report, “The Interior Department said the new [Stream Protection] Rule will protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests, preventing debris from coal mining from being dumped into nearby waters.” According to the Stream Protection Rule Regulatory Impact Analysis by OSMRE, the “Proposed Rule is estimated to yield downstream improvements in 292 miles of stream annually” benefitting those communities living in the vicinity of polluting industries and mines, especially if they were accessing their drinking water from polluted sources. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) points out that “the Stream Protection Rule limited the amount of mining waste that could be deposited into streams and required mining companies to monitor the water for coal contaminants and report the findings to the public. [...] But now this protection has been stripped from these communities through use of the Congressional Review Act to repeal the rule.”
Even if the forthcoming executive orders targeting Clean Water Rule or Clean Power Plan are deemed illegal—as some Attorney Generals have suggested in late 2016—these Congressional initiatives have the effect of undoing important regulations that would have improved water quality, public health and environmental health. Moreover, since the rule was reversed through the CRA mechanism, the EPA will be unable issue any new rules to ensure source water protections under the Clean Water Act—compromising the drinking water quality in these mining communities—for a very long time.
This is not an isolated example either: the 115th Congress has introduced more resolutions using CRA in its first ten days than any previous Congress has attempted in its entire term, as shown below in the Washington Post graph.
Community interest vs. corporate interests?
The need for better regulation to ensure safe waters and clean air for American people has been evident for decades. Then the question is: who is interested in the repeal of laws that protect our environment? Who wants corporations to continue their pollution? Certainly not local communities who use the local waters.
Sen. Todd Young, of Indiana, said that "eliminating this provision”, would bring his constituency one step closer to the goal of better jobs that pay better." In an opinion piece he wrote: “this regulation does nothing to protect waterways. Instead it’s an attempt to end coal mining operations that employ so many Hoosiers and sustain our communities.” The coal industry has been saying the same thing too. The National Mining Association (NMA) has claimed that the Stream Protection rule would result in up to 281,000 job disappearing. However, they all seem to have ignored reports on analysis by the Congressional Research Service: According to their assessment, on an average, while the rule would result in reduction of 260 coal related jobs in a year, it would also generate an average of 250 new jobs every year.
This local reaction to Stream Protection Rule rollback from a retired tristate coal miner, Bil Musgrave is telling. Unlike Sen. Young, he was clearly in support of the regulation, and said: “I think that the coal companies and other industries have been abusive of the environment in the past." He’s right: the lack of clean water and presence of sooty air is likely to be much more acute in the coal mining communities than among communities farther away. The Stream Protection Rule would have helped reduce the water related health problems faced by coal mining communities such as his.
However, to the industry executives, corporate lobbyists, and the Congress men and women who voted on their behalf to roll back the Stream Protection Rule, corporate profits are a priority over the health of the community—let alone the environmental impacts and the health impacts farther away. They and the President will use the language of job creation to justify this kind of assault on regulations. Who wins? Definitely not the coal mining communities.
Trump’s trade policy is a series of contradictions wrapped in a mystery. While advancing a boldfaced pro-business agenda, promising to gut regulations and reduce public spending on healthcare and other social programs, he has also claimed to care about American workers and jobs losses caused by trade agreements like NAFTA that were specifically designed to reduce regulations. While his own businesses have included licensing deals for goods produced in developing countries known for poor labor standards, publicly he attacked U.S. companies that offshored jobs to lower costs and promised to rewrite the rules to somehow bring those vanished jobs back. He promises to negotiate better trade deals but is poisoning the political atmosphere for negotiations with xenophobic proposals such as building a wall and ordering to ban migrants. Exactly how his administration will reconcile all of those contradictions is a mystery, and there are real reasons for alarm over his lack of commitment to international human rights standards.
Exactly who is really in charge of his trade policy is another mystery. While he has nominated Robert Lighthizer as United States Trade Representative (USTR), he has also established a National Trade Council within his administration, led by Peter Navarro, and has indicated that Wilbur Ross, his pick for Commerce Secretary, would lead the negotiations to revamp NAFTA. U.S. trade negotiations have always involved representatives from various government agencies (as well as the corporations represented on the Trade Advisory Committees), but those collaborations were always led by the USTR. This time, it’s not so clear.
This obfuscation, while important in itself, is also a signal that the Trump administration and his party will continue to ignore a key popular demand on trade: a transparent and democratic negotiating process where ultimately, accountability resides with Congress. Opponents of NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), including labor, have consistently opposed existing processes that essentially limit Congressional oversight and approval to a thumbs-up or thumbs down vote. Rather than opening up the negotiations to input, the Trump administration appears to be creating an even more byzantine path to trade policy that will prevent members of congress from weighing in, much less allowing for any real public participation by those sectors most affected by trade.
Robert Lighthizer’s nomination as head of USTR is not so much an issue of his qualifications rather it is his intentions and his authority to make any real changes in our failed trade policy. Lighthizer is a lawyer who once served as deputy trade representative and brings significant experience in Congress and the office of the USTR. He has valuable experience from the other side of the table too, having represented Brazil and China in previous trade talks. (Because of this experience, provisions in the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act that would disqualify him from serving as USTR will actually have to be waived by Congress). His firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP, has focused on traditional trade litigation representing corporate interests.
How he will bring his relevant experience to the role (as confused as that role is) is important to know, and the Senators reviewing his nomination should ask tough questions. First and foremost, he should be asked how he will reconcile the contradictions evident in the current administration’s trade approach, and how he would develop a cohesive trade agenda.
These questions could include:
Of course, the big underlying problem is that U.S. trade policy is held hostage both by the corporate advisors who actively participate in trade talks, and by the undemocratic Fast Track rules that prevent meaningful public participation or real accountability to Congress.
It is imperative to revamp trade policy so that it supports sustainable economies and livelihoods rather than corporate profits. Civil society groups around the world have been pushing for a radically different framework for trade regulation for decades. Their vision of trade is one that supports sustainable economies and livelihoods, not just simplifying profit-making for a few economically powerful corporations and their financiers. Trump and his advisors are critical of the trade strategy that has been in place in the U.S. since the Reagan years. Yet, with no clear agenda or interest in diplomacy, the idea of tweaking NAFTA or entering into new bilateral deals with better outcomes for working people, farmers and the environment is simply not credible.
It’s hard to see how all of the contradictions in the new trade policy can be reconciled or how to make progress in the face of unprecedented conflicts of interest within this administration, but it won’t be for lack of pressure by farmers, unions, environmentalists and others committed to a very different vision for trade and global governance.
Posted February 23, 2017 by Dr. Steve Suppan
In theory at least, federal nanotechnology programs during the first three years of the Trump administration will be guided by the “National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategic Plan,” (NNI) released on October 31, 2016. The 26 agencies coordinated under the NNI have spent at least $25 billion since 2001 in basic and applied research, in diagnostic and testing infrastructure and in prototype manufacturing to enable start-up firms—often originating in university research—to find investors for their products. The current applications of the atomic to molecular scale nanomaterials are expanding beyond cell phones, semi-conductors and other electronic equipment to nano-encapsulation and more targeted release of medicines and agricultural chemicals, to name just two classes of applications.
In the preface to the NNI Strategic Plan, Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s chief science advisor wrote, “During this administration, nanotechnology research and development has evolved from a focus on foundational discoveries aimed at understanding and exploiting nanoscale phenomena, to an enabling technology. Revenue from the sale of nanotechnology-enabled products in the United States has grown more than six-fold from 2009 through 2016 and is projected to exceed $500 billion in 2016.” Such sales projections are likely to bedazzle the Trump administration. Regulation of these products on the basis of validated exposure data in humans and the environment was not accomplished during the Obama administration, notwithstanding the recognition of at least one NNI workshop that such data was necessary to ensure the safety of and sustainable markets for nanotechnology enabled products.
Given the knee-jerk reaction that regulation “kills jobs,” and imposes costs to industry without benefits—called the “The $1.75 Trillion Lie” by economist Frank Ackerman and regulatory lawyer Lisa Heinzerling—and the intention of the Trump administration to eviscerate the mandate, staff and budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, will it be possible to realize the NNI’s fourth strategic goal to “Support responsible development of nanotechnology?” This is not a rhetorical question. In a post-fact administration and Congressional majority, it is very, very tempting to believe that more than $500 billion in sales of nanotechnology-enabled products can be achieved only if there are no nanomaterial risk assessments to serve as a basis for regulation.
In the “NNI Supplement to the President [Obama]’s 2017 Budget,” federal investment in agriculture and food applications of nanotechnology is dwarfed by the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy nanotechnology budgets. Nevertheless, in the interdisciplinary world of nanotechnology, fundamental research of nano-biosensors or nanotechnology-enabled coatings may later be applied to food and agriculture products.
IATP’s comment to the draft NNI Strategic Plan noted, “NNI agencies have failed to secure the cooperation of product developers to enable exposure scientists to provide regulators with validated data for Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) based risk assessments of products incorporating ENMs [Engineered Nanoscale Materials].” Without such validated data, regulators cannot determine which applications of nanotechnology require risk assessments and according to which risk metrics.” Past voluntary industry programs, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Nanomaterial Stewardship Program, have failed to secure industry cooperation to enable the EPA to know: which nanomaterials, and in which applications, are already in commerce; which are releasing nanomaterials to the environment; and whether it is in the manufacture or product use phase.
The IATP comment also noted the failure of infant manufacture formula makers to consult with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before adding ENMs to baby formula, despite the FDA’s voluntary Guidance to Industry on use of nanomaterials in food and beverage products. This is just the most notorious case of the industry’s failure to cooperate with a NNI agency. (For more background on this industry failure to cooperate with FDA’s Guidance document, see “Nanomaterials in baby formula: why?”)
Notwithstanding the failure of many users of nanotechnology and nanomaterials to cooperate with the federal government to enable the “responsible development of nanotechnology,” the U.S. government continues to provide technical support services, seminars, start-up project seed money, and nanomaterial fabrication, detection and characterization infrastructure. At what point does industry’s failure to cooperate endanger the future of public investment and policy for nanotechnology?
In December, Tomo, a Brazilian academic journal, published IATP’s “Rationales for Food and Agriculture Applications of Nanotechnology and Exposure Science Required for Its Regulation.” The article is based on a presentation, given originally in Spanish in October 2015, to a Brazilian Research Network on Nanotechnology Society and Environment (Renanosoma) seminar at the University of Seragipe. The first part of the title is probably self-explanatory. Scientist entrepreneurs explain the relevance of their research to developing food and agriculture products to “feed the world” while doing so without further damaging the natural resource base of agriculture. However, the second part of the title is perhaps less self-explanatory.
Scientists at research alliances such as the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnologies have developed experiments and mathematical models to track the release and impact of an array of engineered nanoscale materials in water, soil, air and plant life. Life Cycle Analysis quantifies and evaluates ENM release impacts from nanomaterial fabrication to nano—enabled product use to the release of nanomaterials in landfills or in the treated water residues that are applied as a cheap fertilizer on agricultural lands. Other research centers have worked to determine the release of and human exposure to nanomaterials by ingestion, inhalation and via the skin. (A Spanish scientist, who researches how nanomaterials cross biological membranes (lipids), compared the current understanding of nanomaterial risks to the early understanding of radioactive material risk.) In order for the data from such life cycle nanomaterial exposure experiments to have regulatory validity, the data must be gathered as part of a regulatory process.
To that end, on January 12, the Environmental Protection Agency released a long awaited rule on industry reporting and record keeping of nanomaterial manufacture and product use. Jennifer Sass, a toxicologist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, welcomed the rule noting, “This shouldn’t be a big deal for companies. It’s just one-time reporting for existing nanoscale materials, and one-time reporting for new discrete nanoscale materials before they are manufactured or processed. Companies are only required to disclose what they know! Consumers deserve to know, too.”
The rule, sought for in a 2008 legal petition joined by IATP, is just a first basic step towards making public what the nanotechnology product developers know about the nanomaterials they are using. A forward thinking nanotechnology industry will not complain to the incoming EPA administrator that nanomaterial recordkeeping and reporting is “burdensome” or an impediment to “innovation,” or “job-killing.” Rather, the industry will cooperate with this very modest beginning to develop a validated data base and metrics for risk assessment of nanotechnology-enabled products. Only such cooperation will enable scientists to determine which products pose few, if any, risks, and enable product developers to make their products safer and the markets for those products more sustainable.
Posted February 22, 2017 by Tara Ritter
Rural communities vary greatly in their geographies, economies, and politics, but one similarity is that they will all be impacted by climate change, and the people that live there have an important story to tell. The Rural Climate Dialogues (RCDs), co-hosted by IATP and the Jefferson Center, sought to explore how climate change is manifesting in rural communities across Minnesota. A newly-released set of 8 video interviews with RCD participants tells the stories of how climate change has impacted them and their communities.
Many of the stories convey a stark contrast between rural life as a child and present day conditions. Troy Goodnough from Morris said, “I love my state, I love Minnesota, I love being Minnesotan, and I love winter. But I’m not really sure that I’m going to get cross country skis for my son, because the winter’s not really there… The way that my son will experience Minnesota isn’t going to be the same way I experienced it as a kid.”
Similarly, Katherine Sublett from Winona shared, “I was raised on the river. My mother’s hobby was fishing and that’s how we got introduced to Minnesota, because we’d always come from Chicago up here fishing. Back then we could swim in the Mississippi, we could eat as much fish as we wanted. Now I wouldn’t go into the Mississippi without shoes on, I wouldn’t eat any fish out of the Winona Lake. I mean, it’s just not up to par.” Still, she sees hope for change: “I think we the people are the solution. If we can get together and implement, educate, learn about what we can do to explore different energy options, how we can do things differently on the farm and protect our trout streams – I just know we are part of the solution.”
Each interview expresses some call for individual or community action on climate change, with a strong belief that rural communities can and should act. Caleb Tomilla from Glyndon said, “There are things we can do… It is a global issue, but there are community and individual issues too that can be dealt with.” Melissa Weidendorf from Grand Rapids said, “I’m not really sure why climate change has to be a political issue. It doesn’t seem like it needs to be.” She added, “I think when you’re talking about rural communities there’s a really big opportunity there.”
The video interviews capture a wide range of expertise—a mental health professional, a railroad worker, a motivational speaker, a paper mill worker, a sustainability coordinator, and an organic farmer all share their perspectives. These personal stories complement the Rural Climate Dialogues State Convening final report, which outlines the climate change priorities of rural Minnesotans and how state agency program offerings can best resource these priorities.
In many rural communities, there are limited opportunities to talk about climate change and develop climate action priorities. However, rural residents and communities can develop innovative solutions to local and regional challenges, ensuring rural Minnesota remains vibrant and prosperous. The experiences and stories shared in the video interviews provide a glimpse into how climate change is affecting rural communities, and illustrate that rural residents are ready to tackle the climate challenge.
The video interviews were compiled with help from the Center for Rural Strategies.
Posted February 16, 2017 by Ben Lilliston, Juliette Majot
President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a record of hostility for environmental and public health protection at both state and federal levels. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt may be best known for suing the agency he hopes to lead 14 different times in an attempt to block EPA rules protecting the air and water. In his own state, Pruitt disbanded the Attorney General’s environmental protection unit and repeatedly sided with agribusiness and energy interests over protecting the environment.
In the 2016 election Pruitt supported and, according the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, inserted important language into a resolution that would have changed the state’s Constitution to prevent the state legislature and local governments from protecting their land and water from agriculture-related pollution “without a compelling state interest.” This so-called Right to Farm resolution was soundly rejected by Oklahomans at the ballot box.
A coalition including many family farmers raised objections to the resolution, arguing that its broad language went too far toward making it difficult to regulate out-state and foreign-owned corporations like the Chinese-owned hog giant Smithfield and Brazilian-owned beef company JBS. Both operate in Oklahoma. Objections also centered on how the resolution would restrict the state’s ability to protect its water, particularly related to a series of discharges from large hog, cattle and dairy waste lagoons in the state. According to theTulsa World Herald, the resolution would “give enormous legal protections to big-time corporate agriculture.”
The proposed Right-to-Farm law is largely drawn from similar versions as part of a national strategy led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC develops model state legislation designed to benefit corporate interests, such as laws to limit citizens’ ability to sue when injured by dangerous products from chemical companies; laws to curb workers’ rights; and laws restricting regulation of hydraulic fracking. ALEC praised Trump’s selection of Pruitt for the EPA calling him “just the right person to bring fresh leadership and much-needed reform to an agency currently out of control.”
The Right to Farm resolution wasn’t the only time Pruitt has carried water for agribusiness. In another case reported on by the New York Times, Pruitt chose to refrain from aggressively seeking damages from poultry companies polluting Oklahoma waters. That decision was reached after Pruitt received major contributions from representatives of the poultry industry, according to the Times.
In 2014, Pruitt stepped in again on behalf of agribusiness, veering well beyond the borders of Oklahoma to join other state Attorneys General in an attempt to block an EPA deal to clean up the Chesapeake Bay from farm-related runoff from fertilizers and animal waste.
Pruitt’s well-documented disregard for environmental protection appears to be precisely what the new administration is looking for in a new head of the EPA. Pruitt’s close ties to the oil and gas industry are evident in his partnerships with energy industry donors. During his confirmation hearing before a Senate committee he refused to recuse himself, should he head the agency, from future legal action pertaining to the 14 lawsuits has already brought against the EPA. The Center for Media and Democracy sued Pruitt on February 7, after waiting two years for him to turn over at least 3,000 emails and other correspondence with oil and gas companies.
Pruitt’s record on climate change also demonstrates his lack of suitability to head the EPA. In line with his well-funded allegiance to the fossil fuel industry, Pruitt has denied the scientific consensus on human contributions to climate change. Not a passive denier, he led efforts by the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) to challenge the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce air pollution and promote renewable energy production. The flexible state-specific plan has the potential to benefit rural communities in the country’s transition to renewable energy. RAGA has raised over $4 million from the fossil fuel industry since 2014 – much of it linked to opposing the Clear Power Plan and stalling investigations into ExxonMobil’s efforts to promote climate change denial.
In an embarrassing incident that revealed Pruitt’s intimate relationship with polluters, a 2014 letter he wrote to the EPA and Department of Interior on his Oklahoma Attorney General letterhead opposing efforts to regulate mercury air pollution was found to have been written by the oil company Devon Energy. Pruitt had simply cut and paste.
President Trump’s selection of Pruitt to run the EPA is a major blow to efforts to address water and air pollution, climate change, and will hinder transition from polluting fossil fuels toward cleaner renewable energy. The nomination will further entrench corporate agribusiness interests at the expense of protections for rural water and land. His nomination should be swiftly rejected.
Posted February 15, 2017 by Ben Lilliston
Just before this posting, Andrew Puzder withdrew from consideration for Secretary of Labor. We welcome this development for the reasons stated below.
If one believes, as we do at IATP, that the public sector has a role in ensuring the safety, prosperity, and dignity of work, then Puzder's nomination must be opposed strongly and without reserve.
Until last week, it was still unclear whether Andrew Puzder still wanted the position in the Trump administration for which he has been nominated, Secretary of Labor. Late to file his paperwork, Puzder was on the verge of going the way of other of Trump's nominees who could not untangle their personal fortune from themselves in order to enter public service. Of course, even with all the i's dotted and t's crossed to get to the hearing that is scheduled for February 16th, Puzder's professional history and apparent worldview make him a unique threat to the very department he's been nominated to run.
There are approximately 21.5 million workers in the U.S. food system, the largest sector of employment in the nation and growing. Despite that, frontline food chain workers make the lowest hourly wage compared to all other industries, according to a Food Chain Workers’ Alliance report. To make matters worse, agricultural labor is excluded from protection under the National Labor Relations Act. This was a giveaway in the 1930s to racist senators to exclude a primarily black population from workplace rights which has been extended to today to exclude protection to a largely immigrant workforce. If any population needs a greater voice in government, it is the people who produce what we eat. The Labor Department, though far from perfect, is the closest thing they have to that voice in the federal government.
The U.S. Department of Labor, like many other government agencies, has a mission statement. It's mission is, “To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.” Pudzer's record as a fast food CEO, however, is one of direct opposition to this mission. CKE Restaurants, which Puzder has run for 15 years is owned primarily by Roark Capital Management,a private equity firm named after the protagonist of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, a literary foreshadowing of Puzder's attitude towards workers.
In his time as CEO, CKE incurred over 1,100 violations through Department of Labor investigations, affecting over 1,500 workers and costing over $300,000 in penalties and back wages. Puzder’s rhetoric regarding workers, according to the website that promotes his nomination, is, in essence, that regulations, like minimum wage and overtime rules, cost jobs because businesses can’t afford to hire. Even if this dubious claim were true, which it’s not, that rhetoric is, at best, irrelevant to the Labor Department’s mission. DOL exists to improve conditions for workers, the vast majority of whom already have or had jobs.
Not surprisingly, there actually is a department that IS tasked with creating jobs, the Department of Commerce whose mission is “to create the conditions for economic growth and opportunity.” If the senators who question him are concerned about government efficiency, they might ask why he thinks two government departments should be doing the same thing. At best, Puzder demonstrates a clear lack of understanding about the department he’s been nominated to run, and at worst, he will extend the conditions of CKE Restaurants to vulnerable workers across the country by turning a blind eye to violations of workers’ rights.
The apparent good news is that four GOP senators are withholding their support of Puzder, leaving the onus on GOP leadership to bring them back into the fold for this nomination to go through. We add our voice to the growing chorus, including over 100 Food and Agriculture organizations, urging the opposition of Andrew Puzder to become Secretary of Labor.
The next Secretary of Agriculture will have to hit the ground running, because the manure is hitting the fan. Farm income has fallen for three straight years. The farm income to debt ratio is the highest since 1985. President Trump’s decision to tear up the Trans Pacific Partnership, pick a fight with Mexico and threaten other key trading partners limits the potential for expanded exports. Trump’s executive order to crackdown on new immigrants will likely disrupt dairy, fruit and vegetable production and meat processing in the U.S. A series of proposed seed/chemical company mergers threatens to greatly reduce farmers’ seed choices. And extreme weather events linked to climate change continue to disrupt agricultural production around the country.
For his part, President Trump seems to have put farmers and the rural economy on the back burner. Trump’s pick for Agriculture Secretary, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, was the last of his cabinet selections. Perdue is embedded in industrialized agriculture. He grew up on a farm, and has run businesses selling fertilizer, grain and a broad array of agricultural exports. But nothing in his background indicates he has the vision and leadership to address the big and increasingly complex challenges facing farmers today.
A veterinarian by training, Perdue is a political player. He served on Trump’s agricultural advisory committee, where the campaign’s talking points emphasized the need to “defend American agriculture against its critics”, fight the so-called Good Food movement, prevent states from dictating food and agriculture policy, and reduce regulations.
Perdue closest ties are to agribusiness. Perdue has been a champion of the contract poultry industry in Georgia, the largest poultry producer in the country. Like former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Perdue was named Governor of the year by the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO). As Governor, Perdue signed an industry bill restricting local government control over any crop management or animal husbandry. Not surprisingly, agribusiness is a fan of Perdue. His selection immediately won over the endorsement of the National Chicken Council, the American Sugar Alliance, the North American Meat Institute, and the International Dairy Foods Association, among others.
There are conflict of interest questions for Perdue—as there are for many of Trump’s nominees--regarding his continued agribusiness holdings. As a two-term Governor, Perdue refused to put his investments into a blind trust, a break with previous Governors. Later, a series of real estate deals and tax breaks, from which Perdue benefited personally while serving as Governor, raised questions, reports the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Like the President, Perdue has mocked concerns about climate change, writing that those calling for climate action “are so obviously disconnected from reality.” Over the last six months, Perdue’s home state has experienced almost a remarkable series of extreme weather events. First a prolonged drought throughout the southeast. Then, Hurricane Matthew hit southeast states. Followed by intense wildfires in the region. And most recently, a series of winter tornadoes killing 18 people and injuring more than 40 people hit Mississippi and Georgia.
As Governor, Perdue signed into law one of the nation’s toughest laws on undocumented immigrants. But his position seems to have softened in recent years, warning Republicans against a “gang-type mentality” on immigrants.
Perdue’s lifelong status quo approach to agriculture is an outdated skill set and, wrong fit for the 21st century problems of the farm-to-fork continuum. Perdue is expected to come up before the Senate Agriculture committee later in February. Here are some key questions he should answer:
These are complex and difficult questions, the answers to which will require effective and innovative leadership, an understanding of farming of all sizes and production methods, the ability to stand up to corporate interests, and an incorporation of current federal and academic science into USDA policy making, particularly when it comes to climate change. The USDA is one of government’s largest agencies with over 90,000 staff, a budget of $150 billion, and programs on agriculture, food and nutrition, energy, forestry and rural development. If confirmed, Perdue’s management of what President Lincoln called “the Peoples’ Department” will deeply affect the lives of farmers, workers and eaters, rural communities and the sustainable use of natural resources for agriculture. If Perdue avoids responding to the kind of questions we have posed above, it will be a sign that the “Peoples’ Department,” will be a Corporate America First department during the Trump administration.
Posted February 1, 2017 by Dr. Steve Suppan
Next week, the U.S. Senate will consider President Donald Trump’s nominee to direct the presidential Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Representative Mick Mulvaney (R-SC). Mulvaney will propose huge spending cuts to compensate in part for the $10 trillion deficit that will be triggered by Trump’s promised tax cuts and infrastructure spending over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Part of those cuts will almost certainly hit federal child nutrition, agricultural research and conservation programs.
OMB is not only responsible for proposing the President’s budget to Congress, but also evaluates the costs and benefits of each and every federal regulatory action. In a press statement for the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards (CSS), IATP wrote, “Mulvaney would have approval and veto power over budgets to implement and enforce—or not—federal regulations. Under Republican deregulatory bills, only a rule’s costs, as claimed by industry, are evaluated, while its social, public health and environmental health benefits are ignored. Senate approval of Mulvaney would unleash a budgetary assault on agricultural conservation, food safety, nutrition programs and food assistance, farmer and food worker safety, food labeling, and other farm to fork rules.”
IATP was one of 52 organizations that signed the CSS letter opposing Senate approval of Mulvaney. Among the reasons for disapproval, IATP finds this one particularly compelling in relation to the scientific basis for food, agricultural and environmental policy: “Rep. Mulvaney’s nomination threatens the scientific integrity of our public health and research institutions. He believes global warming is ‘based on questionable science’ and has even questioned the scientific consensus that the Zika virus causes the birth defect microcephaly. He has gone one step further and questions the necessity of government-funded research.”
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan lauded Mulvaney’s nomination: “Mick Mulvaney is the absolute right choice . . . In Congress, he has been a conservative reformer from day one, proposing solutions to fix the budget process and our regulatory system.” These solutions have included voting against a budget to keep the government open for business in 2013, which Mulvaney characterized as “good policy.” He voted against raising the federal debt limit in 2011, which could have resulted in U.S. government default, triggering a global economic recession according to a 2013 Treasury report cited in a Public Citizen brief on the Mulvaney nomination.
The conservative journal Forbes warned Trump’s Secretary of Treasury nominee, Steven Mnuchin, that Trump’s proposed tax cuts would add $7 trillion to federal debt over 10 years unless offset by spending cuts. One place Mulvaney will seek tens of billions of dollars in cuts is in the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other Farm Bill nutrition programs, as he did during the 2013 Farm Bill debate. In a BuzzFeed report, he stated, “If we broke that unholy alliance between ag and nutrition once and for all, then I could vote for just about every subsidy in the book that they could think of if they [the Senate and House agriculture committees] could make some real structural long term changes.”
Though he failed to disjoin SNAP from the Farm Bill and cap SNAP payments at their 2008 pre-recession levels during the 2013 Farm Bill debates, as OMB director, he will have greater influence over SNAP payment levels and eligibility rules. He was willing to vote for any commodity program subsidy in order to gut SNAP in the midst of the Great Recession. But following the Obama administration-guided economic recovery and reduction in SNAP spending (SNAP spending fluctuates based on the number of people in need), Mulvaney will have to find more Farm Bill-related budgets to cut in order to meet the debt and spending-cut demands of Speaker Ryan and President Trump.
At Mulvaney’s January 24 hearing, he did not recognize a “nexus between climate change and OMB.” As OMB director, he will have the power and the support of other climate change deniers among the Trump nominees to propose to Congress cuts in budgets for climate research and programs, including that in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For example, eliminating the USDA’s Climate Change Program Office wouldn’t save much money in the federal budget, but elimination could help keep other USDA programs in the dark about how they would be affected by climate change and what they might do to help rural communities and farmers adapt to “climate change,” whether or not those two demonized words are used in federal agricultural policy.
It is tempting to suggest that because the average tenure of an OMB director is less than two years, Mulvaney’s damage to the federal budget cycle will be limited. However, Mulvaney will be making detailed and specific cuts to realize the three elements of his patron’s, Speaker Ryan’s, vague budgets, which according to Paul Krugman are: “1.) Huge tax cuts for the wealthy. 2.) Savage cuts in aid for the poor. 3.) Mystery meat,” i.e. trillions promised to be raised through closing unspecified tax loopholes and trillions in unspecified cuts. Krugman writes that Ryan has “been a huge beneficiary of false balance” in mainstream media looking for a model of fiscal probity in the Republican Party.
Given the rate, scale and specificity of OMB proposed spending cuts, Mulvaney is very unlikely to be the beneficiary of false balance for long. As Trump, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dole out tax cuts, contracts, subsidies and federal resource giveaways to their electoral donor base, Mulvaney will be tasked with slashing the budget, staff and infrastructure of programs that serve the vast majority of the U.S. public. Even this so-called budget hawk may tire of wreaking the budgetary carnage required by his masters.