Washington Post, by Reis Thebault, Hannah Knowles, Timothy Bella, Abigail Hauslohner, Paulina Villegas, Keith McMillan and Silvia Foster-Frau and Meryl Kornfield, April 20, 2021 at 5:20 p.m. PDT
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd on Tuesday, the conclusion of a closely watched trial that came nearly a year after Floyd’s killing catalyzed an international protest movement for racial justice.
“It’s not enough. We can’t stop here,” President Biden said in remarks at the White House after the conviction. The verdict is a rare example of punishment after a police killing. Advocates embraced it as an overdue measure of accountability but said they will continue fighting for justice and police reform.
“I’m going to miss him, but now I know he’s in history,” Floyd’s brother Terrence Floyd said Tuesday.
U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson has long emphasized he’s a Second Amendment believer. He just doesn’t believe some weapons should be legal or purchased without extensive background checks.
So it wasn’t a surprise that the Democratic congressman from St. Helena was thrilled hearing President Biden’s announcement of a series of executive actions to curb what he called an “epidemic” of gun violence across the country at Thursday’s Rose Garden Ceremony.
“Today is a new day and I’m proud to have a president willing to do the tough work needed to help prevent gun violence and save lives,” Thompson said in a statement. “We need action on all fronts, from the President and the Congress, to help keep our communities safe. Gun violence takes thousands of lives each year and costs our country nearly $300 billion each year. It’s an epidemic and we must act to combat it.”
Calling gun violence “a public health crisis,” Biden announced six executive actions, adding that “nothing impinges on the Second Amendment.”
Biden is tightening regulations of buyers of “ghost guns” — homemade firearms that usually are assembled from parts and milled with a metal-cutting machine and often lack serial numbers used to trace them. It’s legal to build a gun in a home or a workshop and there is no federal requirement for a background check.
Another action — more heavily regulating arm braces used to make firing a pistol more accurate — directly relates to the March shooting in Boulder, Colo., where such a device used to kill 10 people.
“Today’s Executive Actions are an important piece of what is needed to get ahead of the curve,” Thompson said in the morning statement. “These actions will better regulate ghost guns which increasingly are being used in gun violence incidents and concealable rifles like the gun used in the Boulder mass shooting. These are actions I have led the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force in asking the president to take.”
The executive actions “are critical steps forward in our work to prevent gun violence. But they cannot be our last steps as more action is still needed. I remain firm in my work to ensure the Senate holds a vote on H.R. 8, my bipartisan bill to expand background checks and save lives. Our work must continue,” Thompson said.
Later Thursday afternoon in a brief phone interview, Thompson reiterated his support of Biden’s actions.
“I’ve been lobbying for this,” Thompson said before catching a flight back to the Bay Area. “I’ve been pushing this ever since the president was elected.”
The Rose Garden event “was very exciting,” Thompson said, attending the ceremony with “a handful of members of Congress, two senators, and I think four House members. There were a number of people who had gun violence prevention groups and a number of those who have lost their children, wives, husbands, loved ones to gun violence.”
Thompson was invited after the ceremony to the Oval Office, where he chatted briefly with Biden.
“I mentioned that the last time I had been to the White House was to have a meeting on gun violence with his (Biden’s) predecessor (Donald Trump), who made all kinds of promises of what he was going to do and how he was going to fix it. By the time I got to my office, the NRA called him and he already reversed his position.”
Thompson hinted that it was a relief working a president good on his word.
“This president not only knows this policy and knows what he is talking about, he’s heartfelt and committed,” Thompson said. “Every victim here (at the ceremony), this president sat down with.”
Biden “has worked with us to find solutions to gun violence,” Thompson said.
A pro-gun organization, The Second Amendment Foundation, sent a press release out Thursday morning, warning the Biden administration “that if it steps over its legal authority with any executive action or order regarding the constitutionally-protected right to keep and bear arms, legal action is a certainty.”
The threatening lawsuit didn’t surprise Thompson.
“That’s what they do,” he said. “There were cops there today who experience violence every day. They’re not for suing. The victims aren’t for suing. Members of Congress who have come forward with solutions weren’t for suing. I don’t think the American people are.”
Thompson said his background check bill headed to the Senate is supported by 90 percent of the public.
If and when it passes the Senate and is signed by the president, “I’m going to jump for joy,” Thompson said. “There should be background checks and not soon enough.”
“It has the potential to be the most significant action Biden took on day one.” That’s what Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin of the Center for Progressive Reform said about the executive order called Modernizing Regulatory Review (MRR)—although he recognized such a statement might sound “absurd” given everything else the new president did on that day. Goodwin was talking about an executive order (EO) that got little attention from mainstream journalists other than the HuffPost reporter who interviewed him. I initially heard about it thanks to Tim Corrimal’s show, but the Brookings Institute’s in-depth analysis of the MRR also generally tracks with the optimistic assessment from Goodwin. Cass Sunstein, who ran the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) during President Obama’s first term, also strongly praised the change in a post at Bloomberg.
The memo directs the OIRA, which is housed in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to take a new approach when doing its job—namely reviewing regulations proposed by the executive branch. I know that the previous sentence may have left some of you nodding off into a dream about drowning in alphabet soup. (There are worse ways to go.) But trust me, if you breathe air, drink water, or buy, well, anything, there’s a pretty decent chance that what Biden just did will help you and yours stay safer and healthier—or maybe even just stay alive.
The key section of the document calls for the appropriate offices to “provide concrete suggestions on how the regulatory review process can promote public health and safety, economic growth, social welfare, racial justice, environmental stewardship, human dignity, equity, and the interests of future generations.”
In addition to those important priorities, this Biden-Harris EO mandates that the review of regulations “promotes policies that reflect new developments in scientific and economic understanding, fully accounts for regulatory benefits that are difficult or impossible to quantify, and does not have harmful anti-regulatory or deregulatory effects.”
Finally, the memo requires that any such review “ensure[s] that regulatory initiatives appropriately benefit and do not inappropriately burden disadvantaged, vulnerable, or marginalized communities.”
One might think all this would be obvious to anyone with a sense of fairness, an interest in actually getting things right based on the best available information, and a concern for justice. One who harbors such illusions clearly hasn’t dealt with Republicans.
Biden’s MRR differs from most of the other executive actions he has taken thus far in that it doesn’t target rules created by his immediate predecessor. Instead, the 46th president is going after a structure created by the godfather of modern conservatism in all its forms (including virulent race-baiting, although that’s not the topic of this post): Ronald Reagan.
With EO 12291 on Feb. 17, 1981, Reagan created the OIRA. Its goal was simple: Find ways to block regulations. The guts of the EO are contained in this section: “(R)egulatory action shall not be undertaken unless the potential benefits to society from the regulation outweigh the potential costs to society.” Sounds reasonable … until it’s time to define benefits and costs to society. Those definitions have rested solely on the basis of dollars and cents. If saving lives costs too much money, well, to paraphrase Col. Jessup from A Few Good Men, “people die.”
At the time, progressives knew what Reagan’s order would mean. Richard Ayres, a leading environmental activist who co-founded the National Resources Defense Council, called this approach to assessing the value of regulations “basically fraudulent.” Going further, he noted: “They are trying to put into numbers something that doesn’t fit into numbers, like the value of clean air to our grandchildren. Cost benefit analysis discounts the future. It allows costs to flow to small groups and benefits to large groups and vice versa. It is concerned with efficiency but not with equity. It is deceivingly precise and ignores ethical and moral choices.”
How’s that for a slogan that sums up an entire movement: “Conservatism: We’ve been ignoring ethical and moral choices for more than 40 years!”
California Rep. Henry Waxman, a long-time progressive champion, added: “It is very dangerous to think we can quantify the way we make policy judgments. We don’t know how to measure the true cost of health or disease.” Waxman was very clear about why this EO was one of the first actions taken during the Reagan presidency: It would enable Republicans to “use cost-benefit analysis to reach decisions that will favor business and industry in this country rather than the public.” Waxman couldn’t have been more right, either about this specific action Reagan took or about Republican priorities across the board.
President Bill Clinton issued a change in 1993 that reduced OIRA’s scope, but unfortunately left the basic framework relatively intact. Other tweaks have been made, including in 2011 under the Obama-Biden administration. But the order issued by the new Biden-Harris administration will, hopefully, usher in a new era for OIRA, one that differs not just by degree, but by kind.
By broadening the definition of costs and benefits beyond what can be calculated on a balance sheet, Biden’s MMR makes enactment possible for far-reaching protections likely to be blocked under the old system. Stuart Shapiro, a public policy professor at Rutgers University who used to work at OMB, explained that the previous approach to regulatory review stifled necessary measures: “Because the benefits are harder to measure, cost-benefit analysis always puts regulation at a disadvantage.” It’s more concrete to say that a specific environmental rule will cost businesses X dollars. However, what is the exact benefit in dollars to a life saved—or a life improved, for that matter? Those benefits are very real to actual people but were not given the proper weight because of the way the costs and benefits had been defined—until Biden came along, that is.
Don’t just take the word of progressives on how much of an impact this new policy will have; listen to how much conservatives despise it. The so-called Competitive Enterprise Institute is a libertarian think tank that, for all intents and purposes, never met a regulation it didn’t hate—especially on the environment. They published a post by Clyde Wayne Crews, a senior fellow and vice president for policy, which squealed that Biden’s MMR would end up “gutting the restraint of the past four years” and “effectively do away with cost-benefit analysis altogether.” Based on how that analysis operated, I’d say good riddance.
As for the last four years, the core of the twice-impeached president’s regulatory review policy was typical of the thoughtlessness of his administration in general. Rather than establish some kind of objective standards to measure the effectiveness of regulations—standards that would certainly favor corporate fat cats—the disgraced despot just said, “If there’s a new regulation, they have to knock out two.” That’s a direct quote—I’m not kidding. In a nutshell, that really was his new rule.
More broadly, The Man Who Tried To Overturn An Election He Lost seriously weakened environmental protections and totally hamstrung our country’s efforts to combat climate change. Hana V. Vizcarra, who researches environmental policy at Harvard, characterized what Trump did over four years as a “very aggressive attempt to rewrite our laws and reinterpret the meaning of environmental protections.” Trump’s anti-regulation regime went beyond the environment, including attacks on labor protections, health protections, education-related protections, and more.
The one wide-ranging piece of legislation enacted by the Republicans under Trump was the Rich Man’s Tax Cut, and Biden certainly needs to undo that giveaway to millionaires and billionaires as quickly as possible. But the other major policy “accomplishments” that need to be undone are in the area of regulation, where Trump had more room to operate by executive order and other executive branch actions. Now President Biden has that same authority, and his new MMR makes clear he knows how to use it.
We’ll likely be seeing one example of the impact of Biden’s executive order when he issues regulations—which we expect to see very soon—on so-called “forever chemicals.” The real name for them is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), but their nickname derives from the fact that they “never break down in the environment,” as the Environmental Working Group explained. That’s not all:
Very small doses of PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases.
During his 2020 campaign, Biden promised to take action on PFAS as part of a wide-ranging plan to “secure environmental justice and equitable economic opportunity.” This is the first step among what will be many, but much of his agenda would likely have been neutered or even blocked under the old regulatory review rules. His new MMR was thus a vital first step in clearing the path for the specific changes he will carry out to protect all Americans’ health, safety, and much more.
It’s very important to remember that what Trump did was no different than what other Republicans have done going back four decades. Conservatives, over and over, wrongly decry as “red tape” the very rules that prevent a relatively small number of immoral, greedy sharks from causing real injury in the blind pursuit of profit—not to mention making it that much harder for the honest business owners who act morally to successfully compete.
Since long before the Orange Menace moved into the White House, his party has been in thrall to corporate interests, and hostile to the interests of consumers—also known as the American people. Even if Republicans purge Trumpism and the Trumpists from their party—something they absolutely must do for the sake of our democracy—the conflict between the parties on regulatory issues will not go away.
When it comes to regulations, one party favors the powerful and the wealthy, and the other works for all of us. It really is as simple as that.
Bruce Springsteen’s 2006 song, “Long Walk Home,” offered a stark metaphor for George W. Bush’s America. The protagonist returns to a hometown peopled by friends who, having abandoned their ideals, have become strangers to him.
Since 2016, that feeling has rung true for many of us, arguably to an even greater extent.
But the song is also resolute and hopeful about the long walk back to enduring ideals, a better town and a better country. Its most memorable lines are:
You know that flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t
That positive message came to mind this week, as the nation stepped back from a president who would do anything he could get away with and as we took key steps toward installing a successor who values the public interest and public health.
More specifically, the Electoral College officially affirmed Joe Biden as President-elect. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans finally recognized Biden’s win, albeit shamefully belatedly.
Moreover, a New York nurse received the first shot in the national coronavirus inoculation campaign. The FDA cleared a second vaccine for imminent approval.
To use a phrase that Donald Trump misused so often, so dishonestly and so ridiculously, we’re finally rounding the corner.
A Rough Road
We still face an awfully long, awfully rough road ahead. In addition to the good news, the week also saw the United States top 300,000 official Covid fatalities (with the true Covid toll, measured in excess deaths, standing at over 350,00).
The worst is yet to come this deadly winter. Total lives lost here could reach half a million or more. Debates and egregious inequities regarding vaccine distribution will roil our country and the world.
We also could see Trump at his worst in his final weeks in office. Both before and after he sails off into his post-presidency sewer, he’ll do his best to poison our democracy. His supporters will try to make a fiasco out of Congress’s normally pro forma tallying of electoral votes on January 6. And if there is one lesson we’ve learned about Trump, there’s no low to which he won’t go, including lows we might not even imagine.
Finally, it’s clear that our problems transcend Trump. Even if he disappears from the scene, he’ll leave behind a Republican Party whose de facto denigration of democracy is only rivaled by its refusal to address climate change and the myriad other problems plaguing the country. What’s worse, a big chunk of the public supports such stands.
Back to Bruce
Which brings us back to Bruce and to some sense of hope. His assertion, “that flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone,” takes on retrospective resonance. The judiciary, including many Trump appointees, consistently rejected the president’s preposterous attempts to overturn the election. That flag still flies.
Springsteen’s insistence that there are certain things we won’t do originally applied to the Bush administration’s violations of our values, with torture topping the list. The administration shattered standards set in stone (even as it upheld some others, such as the president preaching tolerance toward Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11). It did so at the price of what the flag represents, of ideals we needed to restore.
Trump has committed so many transgressions that it’s hard to know where to begin listing what he’s done that previous American presidents would not do. Costing hundreds of thousands of lives through pandemic denialism and lies? Ripping hundreds of migrant children from their parents, perhaps permanently? Spewing and spreading hate at every opportunity? Seeking to destroy our democracy?
We’ve Been Here Before
But let’s recall the good news: This week saw us set out on the long walk to undo Trump’s legacy, to restore some normalcy and decency to our governance, to launch policies that will help millions of Americans and – after months of incompetence, indifference and disinformation – to conquer Covid.
We’ve trekked on such paths many times before in our history, never completing the journey but often achieving significant success. Springsteen wrote “Long Road Home” two years before Barack Obama’s election most recently took us back onto a positive course.
Obama’s presidency was far from perfect. However, he led the country out of a very dark phase, rescued it from an economic abyss, enacted health care reforms that helped many millions and otherwise showed us what our better angels can accomplish. The fact that Trump succeeded Obama does not negate such progress.
A “Long Road Home” also says this:
Here everybody has a neighbor, everybody has a friend
Everybody has a reason to begin again
My father said, “Son, we’re lucky in this town, it’s a beautiful place to be born…
We can begin again by grasping how lucky we still are, compared to so many other countries on their own obstruction-strewn roads.
I know that “lucky” is that last word we might want to use, in view of both the last four years and our many troubling long-term trends. I by no means suggest that we should be happy with our situation.
Nonetheless, America’s relative levels of wealth, education, resources, security and institutional independence and competence place us in a better state than numerous less fortunate nations. We should remain aware that reformers and ordinary citizens in those places have prevailed over their own, even more desperate plights or are now striving to do so.
Consider South Africa, for instance. Nelson Mandela aptly named his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom partly because of the decades of sustained struggle he and his anti-apartheid movement undertook. Like his fellow non-white citizens, he endured potentially spirit-crushing racist indignities and abuses for much of his life. He then spent 27 years in prison.
And he prevailed, leading the defeat of apartheid and ascending to his country’s presidency in 1994.
And consider Cambodia. As I write this, an old friend and other leaders of the country’s pro-democracy opposition party plan to fly back there from abroad early next month, to face trial and quite possibly jail on trumped-up charges.
Why? In order to shine an international light on the repressive thugocracy ruling the country. And to continue, potentially at great cost, their own long walks to freedom.
We can ignore such other nations’ struggles that should inspire us. We can view the wreckage Trump has wrought as impossible to overcome. We can surrender to the obstacles that he, McConnell and so many others throw in our path. We can understandably wonder what kind of populace accords him so many votes.
Or we can accept that the fight for freedom is never-ending, that the long walk home is grueling and that, while we can never get all the way there, we have reason to begin again.