Trump is Using the Pandemic to Further Shred the Social Safety Net

By Elliot Mincberg, Senior Fellow, People For the American Way

A monochromatic image of a person’s hands holding an empty wallet.

Recent reports that the Trump administration is planning a “sweeping effort” to “repeal or suspend” federal rules affecting business on issues such as workplace safety, health care, and the environment, all in the name of economic recovery from the current pandemic, should come as no surprise.

These efforts to shred the social safety net, which began under FDR’s New Deal, have become part and parcel of Trump’s presidency. Well before the pandemic, Trump was already pursuing that goal through a combination of regressive policies and far-right judicial nominations. Now, he is using the pandemic as an excuse to continue.

We don’t know precisely which rules protecting workers and consumers Trump will try to roll back. But we have a good preview from what the administration has done before the coronavirus reached our shores. For example:

  • In Trump’s first year, enforcement cutbacks by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration contributed to an almost doubling number of coal miner deaths rising from eight in 2016 to 15 in 2017. The number remained at 12 in 2019.
  • In 2017, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration abandoned plans to regulate combustible dust, although explosions and other incidents cause hundreds of deaths and injuries.
  • In 2018, the Department of Transportation delayed indefinitely a proposed rule that would have required heavy trucks to have speed limiting software in dangerous situations, which was expected to save almost 500 lives and nearly $5 billion in costs annually.

The second part of Trump’s plan to shred the social safety net, however, is even more long-lasting and dangerous, as discussed in a recent report a recent report from People For the American Way and the Alliance For Justice. Since Trump began nominating judges to serve for life on the federal bench, particularly on the Supreme Court and the powerful courts of appeals, Trump’s judge-pickers have looked for nominees with judicial philosophies that oppose regulation of business to protect health, safety, and other values, and also oppose New Deal legislation, including Social Security, Medicare, and more recently the ACA — key parts of the social safety net. Such judges, right-wing backers hope, will uphold Trump cutbacks, as well as strike down present and future legislation and rules that cannot be eliminated through the political process.

For example, Neil Gorsuch, who was chosen as Trump’s first Supreme Court pick in part because of his opposition to deference to administrative agencies, wrote a 2018 5-4 decision which, as Justice Stephen Breyer put it, undermined “the entire heart of the New Deal” by making it impossible for workers to take collective action to combat wage theft.

Another Trump nominee, Eighth Circuit Judge David Stras, praised a Supreme Court justice who voted to strike down New Deal programs and minimum wage laws during the infamous Lochner era. Stras was recently the deciding vote to effectively rule unconstitutional a North Dakota law protecting farmers from big equipment manufacturers because it allegedly violated the freedom of contract. A conservative Bush judge dissented because the ruling improperly “second guesses” the state legislature.

During our health crisis, the plan continues. Trump ally Mitch McConnell is vowing to push through more Trump appellate nominees and to urge senior Republican judges to retire and make room for them, despite the urgent need for more Senate action on the pandemic. Indeed, one such retirement produced a recent nomination to the powerful D.C. Circuit of Justin Walker, who vociferously opposed the constitutionality of the ACA and stated that a good judge should be a “warrior” for conservative causes. In fact, Walker wrote an article praising the “roadmap” that Brett Kavanaugh created in a dissent for how to overturn the ACA.

Instead of focusing on supporting Americans through the pandemic, Trump is using it as an excuse to further his plan to shred the social safety net. Congress, the media, and the American people must speak out, file lawsuits, and take other actions to stop any repeal of crucial rules that protect our health and safety. We must also oppose more confirmations by the Republican Senate of lifetime nominees to the federal bench like Walker, who will pursue a similar goal.

And in November, Americans must vote to prevent further damage and to hold both Trump and complicit members of Congress accountable for their actions.