It was a tough week for getting things done in Washington: The shocking attack on the Republican congressional baseball team, and then Donald Trump’s seemingly reckless tweetstorm about the Russia investigation, took up whatever oxygen was left after the Jeff Sessions hearings. “So much is happening in Washington and yet nothing is happening at all” read one recent piece of commentary.
But under the hood that’s not actually true. The White House dubbed the week “Workforce Development” week, following up on “Infrastructure Week”—and much like last week, it came with only minor policy proposals: Trump signed an executive order reducing regulations on apprenticeship programs and said the government would double federal funding for apprenticeships, although it’s unclear where that extra money would come from.
At the end of the week, though, things really started moving. On Thursday night, the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era document that allowed the parents of DREAMers to live and work in the United States, although the policy was the subject of an ongoing lawsuit and had never taken effect. It also declined to rescind an earlier memorandum on DREAMers themselves. And later this afternoon, Trump is set to announce a roll-back of Obama’s Cuba policy, strengthening the embargo.
And beyond the Oval Office, the Trump administration continues to make substantive policy changes, from a deal on beef with China to increased autonomy for the Pentagon. The Agenda is back for the second week of our new series in which we highlight five major policy changes you might have missed.
1. U.S. and China make nice on beef, dairy and poultry
Throughout his campaign, Trump railed against Chinese trade policies, vowing to label the country a currency manipulator and scaring the business community that a trade war was on the horizon. But Trump backed off his promise to officially label Beijing a “currency manipulator.” And in May, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the U.S.-China 100-Day trade agreement, calling it a “herculean accomplishment.”
Still, trade experts who looked at the details of the agreement, were less convinced. Many of the ten policy changes were already underway; on the new changes, China made few firm commitments.
This week, a trio of trade announcements revealed there was more substance to the deal than originally thought, if not quite “herculean.” On Tuesday, the Department of Agriculture announced it had finalized an agreement with its Chinese counterparts to allow U.S. beef imports into China, breaking a 14-year ban that Beijing has more-than-once promised to end. On Thursday, the U.S. and China signed a memorandum to promote U.S dairy products in China and on Friday, the USDA published a proposed rule to allow Chinese poultry products into the U.S.
These aren’t huge changes to the U.S.-China trade relationship, and some were in the works long before Trump took office. In fact, China promised last September to lift the ban on U.S. beef exports; the dairy agreement wasn’t actually part of the “100-Day” trade deal. But the trio of agreements show that even as Trump rails against Beijing’s trade policies, the two sides are still capable of compromising. For all the eye rolls that Trump’s initial “100-Day” deal invited, it’s looking a lot more real two months later, especially once beef shipments actually arrive in China, which Ross estimated could be as soon as 10 days. “Everyone has been justified in taking a wait and see attitude,” said Bruce Hirsh, a former assistant U.S. trade representative. “Even now, until actual shipments are accepted, it’s best to wait and see.”
2. Education Department targets Obama-era student protections
With student-loan debt a trillion-dollar issue, the Obama administration announced a new policy last October that would allow defrauded borrowers to have their federal student loans cancelled—an expensive proposition for the government, which would cover the cost. Student advocates, who had long pushed Obama to adopt such a rule, cheered the news, arguing it was simply a matter of fairness.
One problem: The rule wasn’t scheduled to take effect until July 1—and now it looks like it will never take effect. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced this week that the agency was delaying the implementation of the so-called “defense to repayment” rule indefinitely, on the grounds that it is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit. In effect, this means the idea is almost certainly dead: DeVos also announced that the department intends to rewrite the rule altogether, along with another major Obama-era education rule, known as “gainful employment,” that required colleges to meet certain standards or risk losing access to federal student loan dollars.
Unlike “defense to repayment,” the “gainful employment” rule was finalized in 2014 and had already taken effect, so the Trump administration will have to undertake a full rulemaking process to rewrite it, a time-consuming process.
The changes are a defeat for defrauded students and a big victory for for-profit colleges, which are disproportionately represented among both loan-fraud cases and colleges that leave students with high debt levels. For-profits loudly argued that the Obama administration was effectively trying to choke out the industry altogether. This week, DeVos gave it new life.
3. The Pentagon flexes its muscles
During the Obama administration, the military often complained that the White House was micromanaging its affairs, requiring high-level, interagency approval for decisions on troop levels or drone strikes outside of active warzones. Trump has dramatically reversed those policies, giving the Department of Defense wide autonomy to conduct overseas military operations.
That autonomy was on display in two countries this week: Somalia and Afghanistan. On Sunday, the U.S. struck the Shabab, a terrorist group, in Southern Somalia, the DOD’s first known use of additional war-making powers in Somalia. In March, the Trump administration had declared parts of Somalia as an “area of active hostilities,” which gives military commanders the same authority to conduct raids and strikes as they now have in active warzones like Iraq; it also reduces protections for civilians. Human rights advocates criticized the move, saying it effectively allows the Pentagon to conduct unauthorized wars with little oversight. U.S. officials responded that it was necessary to confront emerging threats quickly. The U.S. Africa Command was slower than the White House expected in launching operations after the March change; Sunday’s strike appears to be the first under the new authority.
This week, Trump also gave the Department of Defense the autonomy to decide whether more troops are needed in Afghanistan. Washington had been anticipating a decision from the White House on the proposed Afghan troop surge for weeks, with Defense Secretary James Mattis arguing in favor and White House officials like chief strategist Steve Bannon arguing against it. Trump’s decision to outsource the decision to the Pentagon is a big win for the agency and for Mattis—and an outcome that would have been unthinkable under Obama.
4. VA civil service reforms heads to Trump’s desk
For years, Congress has tried to reform the rules for firing workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, having grown frustrated at the difficulty of removing employees responsible for the scandal at VA hospitals in 2014, which eventually led to the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki.
This week lawmakers sent a substantive set of reforms to the president’s desk; he is expected to sign them in the days ahead. The legislation, called the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, creates a new office to provide greater protection for whistleblowers and significantly shrinks the time needed to fire VA employees. Previously, it could take months, if not years, to broom out problem employees; agencies often deemed it not worth the effort to try. Under the bill, the review structure largely remains in place for rank-in-file employees—it changed more for senior executives—but it sharply cuts the time for filing appeals and for the oversight board to reach a decision. It also lowers the burden of proof necessary for agencies to take action against employees. Groups representing federal employees, including the American Federation for Government Employees and the Senior Executives Association, said the legislation would undermine worker protections like due process. Veterans’ groups cheered the changes.
Civil-service reforms don’t often get much attention, but these are significant changes with bipartisan support, and government reformers are watching them closely. If they prove successful at the VA, lawmakers could soon look to implement them across government.
5. New food labels? Not so fast.
Not every Trump rollback targets a Barack Obama policy—some of them target Michelle Obama policies. The former first lady made healthy living her top priority during her husband’s presidency, promoting exercise with her “Let’s Move” program and working to improve the nutrition of school lunches. One of her big policy wins was the redesign of the nutrition facts panel, the one that appears on all the packaged foods you buy. Unveiled by Obama in May 2016, the first redesign in more than two decades makes the calorie number more visible and includes information on “added sugars” for the first time, provoking a sharp response from the sugar industry.
Food makers were supposed to start using the new labels by July 26, 2018—but on Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration put them on indefinite hold. There’s no timetable for when it could be implemented; industry groups had also been pushing to align the timing with another FDA rule on the disclosure of genetically-modified organisms, which isn’t expected until 2018. In a note explaining the delay, the FDA said the extra time was needed for manufacturers to print the new label. It said nothing about actually rethinking the redesign altogether, although it’s possible that could happen too.