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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: This Policy News Didn't Make Headlines, But It Still Matters

By Mary Mazzoni

U.S. President Donald Trump just wrapped up his second full week in office. It feels like much longer, doesn't it?

That's probably because of the tsunami of executive orders coming out of Washington in the early days of the Trump White House. The president's supporters say all this activity is further evidence that Trump is the kind of guy who "gets things done." But some analysts aren't so sure.

"This is definitely bizarre, rapid-fire presidential policy making," presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, told NBC News this week. "It really is a 'shock and awe' strategy that every day there's a new, radical initiative, and it doesn't give journalists or the public a chance to get a grip on what just happened."

So, is Trump just in a hurry to accomplish all of his "great" ideas? Or is this really a grand plan to shock the public into apathy?

Either way, businesses and the public are struggling to figure out which way is up. And a number of potentially groundbreaking changes are brewing in Congress and the White House to little fanfare. But we're not in the game of letting things slip through the cracks. Let's take a closer look.

Those immigration orders go way beyond the travel ban

Last week Trump made good on his campaign promises to severely restrict immigration. Two provisions received most of the press attention: plans for the border wall and a 90-day ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries.

Business leaders were quick to speak out about the travel ban in particular. And protests sparked at airports across the country over the weekend as travelers with valid U.S. green cards and visas were detained.

But the orders actually go much further. In addition to the border wall and travel ban, they include:

  • Suspend the U.S. refugee program for 90 days while a "review of the screening process" takes place. The order will also cut the U.S. refugee quota in half and block Syrian refugees indefinitely.

  • End so-called "catch-and-release" policies that allow individuals to await hearings at home. Previously, some of these people were released due to the overcrowding of facilities. But many remained free due to exemptions, including mothers with children, unaccompanied minors, and those who faced credible fear of persecution in their home countries.

  • Expand criteria for determining who should be prioritized for deportation. Earlier rules prioritized felons, individuals tied to gangs and repeat misdemeanor offenders. But the new order expands this criteria to include any undocumented immigrant convicted of a crime. Beyond that, immigrants who were charged with a crime that hasn't been adjudicated -- or even accused of a crime, without charges -- could also face deportation.

  • Hire 5,000 new border patrol agents and 10,000 immigration officers.

  • Cut off federal funds to so-called "sanctuary cities" -- those that do not inform the feds about undocumented immigrants in their custody or otherwise refuse to comply with the executive orders.

Meanwhile, some business owners warned that frayed relations with Mexico could kill cross-border commerce. And California says it's looking for ways to withhold money from the federal government and re-route it to cities that could be defunded by Trump.

New rule for regulations: Add one, kill two

Last week Trump promised to "cut regulations by 75 percent." Most Washington insiders are probably still chuckling about the plausibility of such an idea, but the administration appears resolved to give it the ol' college try.

In the first major step, Trump signed an executive order on Monday instituting a curious new rule: For every new federal regulation implemented, "at least two" must be rescinded. “This will be the biggest such act that our country has ever seen,” he declared, as quoted by Politico.

House tries to sell 3.3 million acres of federal land, then backs off

Last week Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah introduced a bill that would sell off at least 3.3 million acres of public land to reduce the federal government's debt. The lands in question span 10 western and central U.S. states: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

Chaffetz said the lands are “worthless” to American taxpayers and that they represent only a sliver of the Bureau of Land Management's 958 million acres.

But local stakeholders weren't having it. And the plan made strange bedfellows of vegans and big-game hunters, as environmentalists, outdoor-lovers and sportsmen united to oppose the sale.

After mass public outcry, Chaffetz opted to roll back his plans. Much like Beyonce's pregnancy announcement, the news came via Instagram. (What a time to be alive...) "Groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message," Chaffetz wrote under a photo of himself in hunting garb. "I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow."

So is this the end of federal land sales? Only time will tell. The GOP platform released last summer called for the disposal of “certain” public lands. But while Chaffetz's bill -- and others like it -- would require a signature from Trump, the president may not be on board with mass federal land sales, one of his top energy advisors told the Huffington Post last year.

Uncertainty looms around Endangered Species Act

Once championed by President Richard Nixon, the Endangered Species Act has been on the Congressional chopping block for a while.

The previous Congress enacted over 250 amendments, bills and riders aimed a stripping key provisions from the law. Their wish-list items included restricting the number of species that can be protected, exempting certain industries and limiting lawsuits.

And Trump’s nominee for Interior Secretary, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), could be cause for concern, writes Cassandra Carmichael of the Hill. Zinke, who was confirmed in committee this week,  appeared friendly to ESA rollbacks during his stint in Congress.

"He has championed expanded oil and gas development on public lands, and moved to exempt agribusiness from ESA regulations," Carmichael wrote. He also led federal efforts to remove federal protections from some species, such as wolves and lynx. And some Congressional Republicans, including House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, seem just as determined as ever to pursue similar policies.

Congress uses obscure law to roll back environmental protections

This week GOP lawmakers revived the little-used Congressional Review Act to roll back key environmental measures from the Barack Obama administration.

The first shoe dropped on Wednesday. Under an Obama-era regulation, publicly-traded oil and gas companies are required to disclose payments they make to foreign governments. The rule dates back to the 2010 Dodd Frank Act.

But the House voted to kill the provision, saying it was unnecessary. Ironically, the decision came on the same day Rex Tillerson was confirmed as Secretary of State. Tillerson once lobbied against the regulation while CEO of ExxonMobil, Vox reported this week.

The next day Congress nixed another Obama regulation that restricts coal companies from dumping mining waste into rivers and streams. Other rules on the hit list include methane waste regulations and restrictions on drilling in national parks.

Trump could fill more federal benches than any president in 20 years

Of course the news this week centered around Trump's nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But the new president's ability to shape the judiciary doesn't end there.

Senate Republicans refused to approve judicial nominees for the last two years of Obama's presidency. That leaves a whopping 114 vacant federal judge positions. U.S. Courts data shows that to be the most vacancies in at least 20 years, Grist reported.

Conservationists worried that Trump may use his position to stack an anti-environment federal judiciary. But from a corporate social responsibility perspective, the story goes much deeper.

Trump proudly touts himself as "pro-business." But when it comes to federal judges, a pro-business stance usually boils down to letting corporations off the hook for their misdeeds. If the U.S. can't prosecute companies for violating its laws, where's the incentive for firms to become more responsible? And how can responsible companies differentiate themselves if their rule-breaking counterparts are given a free pass?

The reality that new federal judges may be reticent to hold companies accountable is unsettling at best. But in the long run, it may not matter.

Trump's unpredictable (and often unsavory) first days in office have stirred more top companies to comment publicly about their core values. "We are witnessing a new chapter in the evolution of CSR," Reed Bundy, founder of Ethostrategies, wrote on TriplePundit this week.

Image credit: Flickr/Tony Alter

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni