The White House declared it “Tech Week,” inviting a group of CEO’s to repair the administration’s somewhat rocky relationship to the innovation industries. But for all intents and purposes, this turned out to be Healthcare Week in Washington.
The Senate GOP’s healthcare bill dropped with a bang on Thursday, drafted so secretly that even key Republican lawmakers didn’t know what was in it. The bill so dominated the Washington news that even Trump’s walk back of his Comey-tape threat got only a short ride in the spotlight.
Whether Congress really gets a health care bill done is anyone’s guess; for now, it’s a massive rethink of Medicaid and some significant changes to Obamacare. But away from Capitol Hill, the White House really is still getting stuff done, quietly continuing its broad rollback of Obama-era policies. As part of our weekly roundup of what’s really changing across the government, here are five big policy changes from the last week:
1. The Labor Department loosens a rule on beryllium exposure
You haven’t heard of it since chemistry class, but beryllium is a chemical toxic to lung tissue. The Department of Labor took years to finalize a rule protecting workers from exposure, and didn’t issue the final version until the tail end of Obama’s presidency—January 9, to be exact. It was always at risk of removal by the Republican Congress, which could have repealed it with just a majority vote, but it survived until now.
On Friday, the Department of Labor proposed a new rule on beryllium exposure; it doesn’t change the original exposure limits imposed by Obama but instead eliminates additional safety requirements for the construction and shipyard industries, such as conducting medical surveillance or providing training for those workers who are near, but not above, the exposure limits. Labor groups slammed the change, saying that it would lead to more lung disease and cancer among workers. Industry groups applauded the changes; the original rule, they argued, was too restrictive.
The DOL must still go through a full rule-making process, so the new beryllium rule won’t be finalized for months. In the meantime, the department said it wouldn’t be enforcing the Obama-era rule.
2. A new emergency alert for cops
We’ve all noticed the emergency warnings on television or radio, which alert audiences about a child abduction (the “Amber Alert”) or severe weather. Soon, there may be a new alert: a “Blue Alert” for when a police officer is missing, seriously injured or killed in the line of duty.
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously approved the first stage of rulemaking to add such a “Blue Alert” to the FCC’s Emergency Alert System (EAS), which was created in 1997 to enable the president to communicate quickly and directly with the American people in the case of an emergency. Stations are required to carry such presidential alerts but alerts for a child abduction or severe weather are voluntary.
A “Blue Alert” has already been implemented in 27 states; the FCC proposal would make it a national standard. The change has bipartisan support—it’s hard to see politicians taking a stance against showing concern for officer safety—but it also fits with the Trump administration’s focus on attacks on cops, and the Department of Justice’s pivot from Obama-era policies on police accountability toward a more protective stance on police.
3. The Yucca nuclear controversy re-opens
So … where is America supposed to put its spent nuclear fuel over the long term? A decades-old debate was reawakened this week when Rick Perry, the energy secretary, announced at a congressional hearing on Tuesday that he was reconstituting the Office of Civilian Radioactive Management, which ran a proposed Nevada site for long-term waste storage.
Throughout the Obama administration, with Nevada Sen. Harry Reid leading the Senate Democrats, plans to store nuclear waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain had no chance of actually happening. Now it’s back. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, since Trump’s budget included $120 million to restart the licensing process for the Yucca site; in fact, in May, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took the first steps towards restarting that process. But Perry’s words nevertheless created a sharp backlash from Nevada politicians who have long fought any plan to store nuclear waste in their state.
Perry somewhat walked back his comments at a separate congressional hearing on Wednesday, saying that “no decision has been made at this time with respect to the timing or the location, for that matter, of waste storage.” But the Office of Civilian Radioactive Management is still set to reopen during fiscal 2018. The next Yucca fight is just beginning.
4. The White House gets tough with Russia
Amid multiple congressional inquiries and the investigation by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, the Trump administration hasn’t done much to distance itself from Moscow. So it may have come as a surprise on Tuesday when the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on more than three dozen individuals and organizations involved in Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The announcement coincided with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko’s visit to the White House, but many observers wondered if the administration had a different motive: discouraging the House from taking up the Senate’s Russian sanctions bill. That legislation, which passed the Senate last week by a 98-2 vote, would limit Trump’s ability to ease sanctions on the Russian government. The White House has been working to water down or kill the Senate bill. The new sanctions can’t hurt those efforts.
5. Trump quietly releases another immigration executive order
It went almost entirely unnoticed: At 9:20 p.m. on Wednesday, the White House released a new executive order on immigration. Compared to Trump’s past orders on immigration, which have set off national protests and ongoing court cases, this one was minor. It makes a very small change to an Obama-era executive order, removing one section that directed the secretaries of state and homeland security to create a plan so that “80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within 3 weeks of receipt of application.”
So now, DHS and State can take more time to review nonimmigrant visa applicants. What’s the reasoning for this? Michael Short, a White House spokesperson, said in an email that the change was “a very straightforward step that removes an arbitrary requirement and ensures the State Department has the needed discretion to make real world security determinations.” He explained that the White House didn’t want to set an “arbitrary deadline” for reviewing and vetting visa applicants.
For people seeking nonimmigrant visas, which include everything from business travelers to foreign athletes to diplomats, this could mean longer waits as their applications are processed. But to the White House, any additional waits are simply a necessary step to keep the country safe.