Will Trump's Authoritarian Impulses Derail His Deregulatory Successes?

Tariffs, threats to use antitrust regulations against big tech firms, and an interest in social media regulation could overshadow one of the adminstration's big victories


The only thing that's likely to stop President Donald Trump's deregulatory push is Trump himself.

Trump has presided over two years of near-record low growth in the size of the federal regulatory state, and his administration has hacked away at both the total number and the annual cost of federal regulations, rules, and so-called "regulatory dark matter" like regulatory guidance letters and notices. According to an annual report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute assessing the size and cost of federal regulations, released Tuesday, Trump has delayed or withdrawn more than 1,500 Obama-era rules that were in the pipeline, and has kept his promise to repeal two rules for every new one passed.

But there are warning signs that progress might be slowing, says Clyde Wayne Crews, CEI's vice president of policy and the author of the annual "Ten Thousand Commandments" report.

"Despite the progress made on regulatory reform under President Trump, American consumers and businesses are still on the hook for the 'hidden tax' of federal regulation," said Crews in a statement. "And that progress is further threatened by President Trump's own regulatory impulses on issues ranging from antitrust enforcement to trade restrictions to food and drug matters, and more."

Those impulses have driven the president to impose numerous restrictions on foreign trade, including tariffs that are costing the U.S. economy an estimated $1.4 billion each month. This week, he made news by threatening to hit American businesses and consumers with a new round of import taxes on goods from China.

Elsewhere, Trump has threatened to use antitrust laws to go after successful businesses like Amazon, Google, and Facebook. He's overseen the creation of a new "technology task force" at the Federal Trade Commission to scrutinize mergers and has criticized the corporate alliance between Comcast and NBC. Trump has also suggested regulating Facebook and other social media platforms—something that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is all too eager for—and has floated the idea of nationalizing the rollout of 5G telecommunications technology, instead of letting mobile internet providers handle it.

On all those fronts, the CEI report warns, Trump may be undoing his own deregulatory success by growing the size of the federal government and inflating its power to interfere in the affairs of private businesses.

"Trump's own regulatory impulses are a concern, particularly where he demonstrates prominent public agreement with regulatory advocates on issues such as antitrust and regulatory action against tech firms and traditional media companies," writes Crews.

Still, the overall regulatory slowdown is impressive. According to the numbers compiled by Crews, the Trump administration issued 3,368 rules during 2018—just slightly more than the 3,281 rules issued in 2017, the year that set the record for the fewest new regulations approved since 1976 (when the National Archives began counting federal rules).

One of the most blunt ways to estimate the size of the federal regulatory state in a given year is to count up the pages of the Federal Register, that behemoth of a book that annually tracks the growth of the federal leviathan. For 2018, the Trump administration piled up 68,082 pages. That's up from a mere 61,308 pages in 2017, but still well below the levels set by George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's administrations, which regularly clocked in at 75,000 to 95,000 pages.

Even with Trump's rollback, Crews estimates that the sum total of all federal regulations is a $1.9 trillion "hidden tax" on Americans. That's a larger total than all personal and corporate income taxes combined, and works out to a $14,600 burden on every household in the country.

So, yes, Trump's promise to hold the line on federal regulation seems to be paying off, even if the regulatory state is still massive—and massively expensive.