WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg moved Wednesday to undo key deregulatory actions by the Trump administration, an overhaul that department officials said was necessary to address challenges that include climate change, racial injustices, the coronavirus pandemic and the economy.
In an obscure but potent bureaucratic step, Buttigieg formally deleted many internal departmental rules and policies put in place under his predecessor, Elaine Chao, that were part of the push by President Donald Trump’s administration to pare back regulations, and in some cases, limit their enforcement.
The changes at the Transportation Department are an outgrowth of a broader effort by President Joe Biden to reverse Trump’s executive orders directing federal agencies to sharply limit their regulatory reach. Embodying the now-removed Trump orders was one that instructed department officials to find two regulations to eliminate for every one they imposed.
The Trump administration approach, including at the Transportation Department, was welcomed by some industry representatives, conservatives and other critics of perceived government overreach. It was criticized by safety and environmental advocates, who said the federal government was ceding its responsibility by giving businesses too much sway.
“It is the policy of the United States to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens placed on the American people,” Trump said in one of his early executive orders.
Biden responded in one of his orders: “It is the policy of my administration to use available tools to confront the urgent challenges facing the nation.”
Buttigieg’s order Wednesday pulls back from the Trump administration’s posture by, for example, deleting 2019 regulations that governed how and when department officials can take enforcement-related actions or issue guidance documents covering cars, trucks, airplanes and pipelines.
In federal filings supporting its more limited enforcement approach, Trump transportation officials had emphasized the need “to provide more transparency to the regulated community” and to avoid using inspections “as a game of ‘gotcha’ with regulated entities.” They also pointed to the broad benefits of “streamlined and clarified regulatory processes.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Buttigieg said sticking with the Trump administration’s approach at the Transportation Department “would hamstring the department’s ability to respond quickly and effectively” to major national problems, among them transportation-related racial inequities and climate change.
Steven Bradbury, the department’s former general counsel and acting deputy secretary under Trump, said regulations covering enforcement were designed to guarantee due process. Rules covering the issuance of government guidance were meant to ensure such documents did not impose costly new obligations beyond what are required by regulation.
“Those are basically good-government principles that have great value,” Bradbury said. “It’s quite disappointing that the department would reverse course.”
Current Transportation Department officials said some of the deleted regulations are “duplicative” of those found elsewhere in departmental procedures that remain in effect, according to federal filings. Provisions affecting “the public’s ability to interact” with the department on new rules will remain an important part of the Code of Federal Regulations, they said.
Wednesday’s action was, in part, meant to smooth the enactment of new federal regulations and other steps to support the objectives in Biden’s executive order titled “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science To Tackle the Climate Crisis,” according to the filings.
That order instructs heads of government agencies to review Trump-era actions and prepare for reversing those that run counter to the new administration’s goals.
There are specific deadlines, in some cases, including for tailpipe pollution regulations overseen by the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Separate pieces of the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era emissions standards must be addressed by April and July of this year, according to the order.