A Trump administration policy that could cheat food service workers out of hundreds of millions of dollars in income was knowingly misrepresented by White House leaders over the objections of career staffers, casting doubt on the reliability of the facts and figures the president’s team uses to push for policies that affect millions of people’s lives.
Staff in the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) insisted that an announcement of changes to tipped worker pay rules should include their professional estimates of the potential downside for workers, Bloomberg BNA reports. When Labor Secretary Alex Acosta disagreed and moved to delete the bad news from the administration’s paperwork, OIRA head Neomi Rao tried to block the now-incomplete regulation from moving forward.
Rao’s staff wanted the rule to include an official estimate of how much worker pay could end up diverted to managers under the proposal: $640 million, a much lower figure than the “billions” that Acosta’s own staff had reportedly found in their earliest calculations. But if you’re trying to rewrite pay rules in the food sector, $640 million in legalized pilfering is still a lot to swallow. Better to get that down, or better still, make it invisible.
Acosta turned to Mick Mulvaney, currently serving double duty atop the Office of Management and Budget and at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for help. Mulvaney has groomed a public image as a teller of hard truths and master of wonky details over his years in Washington. But in this instance, BNA’s sources say, he sided with Acosta and ordered the inconvenient figures dumped down the memory hole.
The story is a classic example of ideology trumping fact. There may be good reasons to revive the old tip-sharing pools that Obama-era regulations constrained. But waves of analysis of the Acosta proposal had found that unscrupulous managers and owners would be able to include themselves in these tip pools, effectively siphoning off a large chunk of frontline workers’ pay to their own pockets. Rather than acknowledge those analyses and prepare counterarguments for why such abuses would be unlikely, or additional provisions to the rule to address the loophole, Acosta and Mulvaney simply erased the problem and moved forward as though it didn’t exist.
Such cavalier treatment of contradictory evidence bodes ill for the administration’s broader approach to rewriting the rules of the economy. President Donald Trump has repeatedly said that cutting red tape and shrinking the regulatory state are priorities for his time in office. But it now appears “Trump’s sweeping effort to cut government red tape may happen without keeping the public apprised of the costs and benefits,” BNA wrote.
Politicians often play it loose with the public when describing their policy ideas. It’s easier to talk about freeing ranchers from persnickety federal land management rules, for example, than it is to say that redrawing the lines of national monuments would make a lot of money for oil, gas, and mining companies.
But away from the election-season rhetoric, there are supposed to be rational organizations weighing the pros and cons of any given idea. A group of impartial, dispassionate experts who only report what the numbers say are an essential ingredient in making policy decisions that will be best for the country. Imagine a proposal on carbon emissions that might slow the threat to coastal communities from sea-level rise while also pushing up costs for some consumer goods in the short term. Partisans who seek elected office and campaign checks will have messy incentives to play up one side or the other of that trade off. But in theory, there’s a group of people like OIRA — career staffers who care about what the numbers say — who can tell us all what the exact nature of the trade-off is.
Trump’s deregulatory crusaders appear determined to mute and bypass those adult voices, to use their gut instead of their brains to set the rules that will govern the economy for all 320 million Americans.