A political week that began with the chaotic TV interview spree of Sam Nunberg, former aide to President Donald Trump, ended with the bombshell that Trump had decided to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un face-to-face. In the middle came Trump’s new tariffs on imported aluminum and steel and the resignation of Gary Cohn, his top economic adviser.
Unlike most of Trump’s headline pronouncements, the tariff announcement was a real policy change, and one that makes a lot of Republicans unhappy. But they’ll be far more pleased with the rest of what the Trump administration did this week—actions that didn’t garner such big headlines, but helped continue its steady shift away from Obama-era policies, including a DOJ lawsuit over California’s sanctuary city laws and a new, business-friendly approach to enforcing wage-and-hour rules at the Labor Department. Here’s how Trump changed policy this week:
1. The DOJ sues America’s largest state for its “sanctuary cities” policy
During the first year-plus of Trump’s presidency, the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has attempted to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities—places that don’t actively help enforce federal immigration laws—by threatening to withhold valuable federal policing grants unless they toe the line. But states and cities have repeatedly refused to comply, saying that the DOJ’s threats were illegal, and effectively daring Sessions to challenge their state laws in court.
This week, the DOJ obliged when it filed a lawsuit against California. The suit argues that three California laws designed to protect undocumented immigrants are illegal because they interfere with Congress’ constitutional right to set and enforce immigration law—the same argument the Obama administration successfully made to overturn an Arizona law that attempted to crack down on undocumented immigrants.
The suit represents the high-water mark of one of the most striking conflicts of the Trump era: The commitment by liberal local and state governments to actively resist the parts of Trump’s agenda they don’t like. In a speech to law enforcement officials in California, Sessions slammed California politicians for protecting dangerous criminals; California politicians and immigrations right activists called the lawsuit a political stunt by Sessions. Neither side is likely to back down, and most legal observers expect the case to eventually reach the Supreme Court
2. The Department of Education protects student loan companies
With Americans now owing, collectively, more than $1 trillion in student loan debt, more than a dozen states have passed new laws designed to crack down on abuses by student loan collectors and increase protections for borrowers. Often called a “Borrower’s Bill of Rights,” this effort was partially in response to actions by Trump’s Department of Education, which has rolled back some Obama-era rules intended to protect borrowers.
On Friday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attempted to void those state actions, issuing an “interpretation” that federal law pre-empts state law, and therefore states don’t have the power to regulate these student loan companies. Consumer advocates and many state officials, including some Republicans attorneys general, have forcefully argued against such a move, saying it infringes on states’ rights and will leave borrowers at risk of predation. The Education Department defended itself by saying that the growing patchwork of state laws was costly for companies, leading to higher costs for students. It added that its borrower protections were adequate to safeguard students.
The interpretation isn’t a new rule, and doesn’t repeal or immediately affect state laws. But it sends a clear message to states considering filing lawsuits against student loan companies: The Department of Education won’t be on your side.
3. The Labor Department introduces new program on wage theft
Over the past few decades, dating back to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, federal and state policymakers have created important labor protections for workers, from the minimum wage to rules on overtime pay. But as a recent POLITICO investigation determined, federal and state authorities often lack the resources to enforce those laws, allowing employers to underpay their workers by billions of dollars each year without consequences.
This week, the Department of Labor introduced a new pilot program that attempts to reduce such “wage theft” and improve employer compliance. The Payroll Audit Independent Determination program, or PAID, would allow employers to voluntarily self-report instances where they underpaid workers, repay those lost wages and avoid extra penalties under the law. The program, a six-month pilot, is designed for companies that accidentally underpay their workers but are afraid to come forward and make it right, worried about additional penalties from the DOL. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said workers, under PAID, would get their back wages faster and without having to file a lawsuit.
Business groups cheered Acosta’s proposal, calling it a common-sense solution to a tricky problem, but workers rights’ advocates were sharply critical, saying it would actually encourage more companies to steal from their workers, giving them something of a “get-out-of-jail free card” if they were caught.
4. HHS rejects Idaho’s Obamacare workaround
Throughout 2017, congressional Republicans repeatedly tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, eventually settling on repealing the individual insurance mandate in their tax-reform bill. But Republican-led states have continued seeking ways to undermine the main provisions in the law—and no state has gone further than Idaho, which announced in January that insurers could sell plans without Obamacare’s consumer protections, including the requirement that insurers cover everyone with a pre-existing condition.
Many legal experts were skeptical of Idaho’s legal argument, and on Thursday the Department of Health and Human Services rejected the approach, saying in a letter to Idaho’s governor that it violated federal law. The letter criticizes Obamacare, but says that the ACA “remains the law and we have a duty to enforce and uphold the law.”
The letter itself doesn’t overturn Idaho’s plan, but like the Education Department’s interpretation on state laws on student loan companies, it sends a strong message on who the government will support in a potential lawsuit. And it discourages other states from following Idaho’s lead and attempting to allow new insurance plans that do not comply with the ACA.
5. OSHA delays enforcement of beryllium rule
On January 9, 2017, less than two weeks before Obama left office, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, within the Department of Labor, released a final rule protecting workers from exposure to beryllium, a chemical toxic to lung tissue that is often used in the aerospace and electronics industries. But just a few months into Trump’s presidency, the Labor Department weakened the rule for the construction and shipyard industries while suspending the compliance date until March 2018.
This week, the Labor Department suspended the compliance date for another two months, telling companies that the agency effectively won’t enforce the law until May 11. Critics slammed the DOL for another delay, saying it would leave workers at risk. But it does appear that the beryllium rule will finally take effect. The DOL release is clear: “OSHA Will Enforce Beryllium Standard Starting in May.”