Politico

5 things Trump did this week while you weren't looking

Written by Lisa

It was another wild political week, as Democrats racked up electoral wins across the country on Tuesday and The Washington Post published allegations that Judge Roy Moore, the GOP Senate candidate in Alabama, had a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl. In Congress, the Senate released its counterpart to the House tax plan, and President Donald Trump met with the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan on his first trip to Asia.

Did those change any real policies? Not yet. But behind the headlines, the Trump administration did — pushing through some major changes to Obama-era policies on everything from the protection of organically raised livestock to the rules for state Medicaid programs. And three departments reversed a major legacy of the Obama era: the opening to Cuba. Here’s how Trump changed policy this week.

1. Big changes coming for Medicaid
Buried in almost every version of the Republican health care legislation this year was a little provision that would have enabled states to make a major change to their Medicaid programs, by requiring people to work if they’re going to get coverage. When those bills died, it appeared that Medicaid work requirements died with them.

But this week, Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services and a longtime supporter of work requirements, sent a strong message that work requirements are back on the table. In a speech to the country’s Medicaid directors, Verma lambasted the Obama administration’s approach to Medicaid, calling it a “tragic example of the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and argued that requiring Medicaid beneficiaries to work would improve the program.

The speech doesn’t result in any immediate policy changes, but CMS is reviewing at least seven waiver proposals from GOP-led states that would impose work requirements on their Medicaid populations. The details around each waiver vary and it’s unclear whether Verma, who helped design a work requirement policy in Indiana that was rejected by the Obama administration, will ask states to tweak their submissions or when she will approve the first waiver. But her speech this week was a clear sign that big changes are coming to Medicaid — even without any help from Congress.

2. USDA delays organic livestock welfare rule
The day before Obama left office, the Department of Agriculture made one last attempt to improve conditions for organically raised animals, publishing new requirements on everything from that ensuring animals have daily access to the outdoors to acceptable euthanasia methods to bedding material during transport.

Conservation groups, animal welfare groups and many organic farmers cheered the news and USDA officials made a public case for the rule. But this week, those arguments came up short when the agency announced that it was delaying the rule until May 2018—the third delay since Trump took office—and said it found both legal and policy issues with the Obama-era rule, including errors in USDA’s original cost-benefit analysis of it. The move is a victory for many large egg producers, who had sharply criticized the rule as unnecessary and argued that it would raise costs for consumers.

But it’s also likely to disappoint a lot of people: The USDA also revealed that the vast majority of the 47,000 commenters on the proposed delay supported the rule. Just a few dozen wanted it withdrawn or suspended. And just a single person supported delaying the rule — the action ultimately chosen by the agency.

3. New Cuba sanctions
In June, Trump appeared before cheering supporters in Miami to announce a rollback of Obama’s opening to Cuba, saying that he was “canceling” the “one-sided” deal, imposing new travel restrictions on Americans visiting the island and cutting off transactions with companies connected to Cuba’s military, security and intelligence services. But for months afterward, the agencies responsible for implementing Trump’s directive — the Treasury, Commerce and State departments — were quiet.

Finally, on Wednesday, the agencies released rules announcing the policy changes. Americans can no longer visit Cuba individually for educational purposes — tourism is banned by law — and instead can do so only as part of a licensed group. The State Department also released a list of roughly 180 Cuban entities with which Americans and U.S. companies cannot conduct direct financial transactions, including multiple Cuban drink companies that trade experts said would be nearly impossible to enforce. Contracts signed before Thursday, when the new sanctions took effect, were grandfathered in, so hotel chains like Marriott won’t have to withdraw from agreements with entities on the State Department list.

Supporters of the Obama-era Cuba policy lambasted the move, saying it would set back efforts to open Cuba’s economy and political system, and they said Trump was hypocritical to issue the changes during a trip in which he was visiting two Communist countries, China and Vietnam. But the new rule also provoked sharp words from the two biggest Cuba hawks in Congress, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart who were both at Trump’s June speech. In separate statements, Rubio and Diaz-Balart both criticized bureaucrats for watering down Trump’s directive and said they expected the three agencies to reform the new rules. A State Department official defended the rule in a statement, saying the agency “examined a range of sources” in compiling the list — but also said that the agency will review the list periodically and potentially add new entities to it.

4. DHS ends protected immigration status for Nicaraguans, extends it for Hondurans
Trump’s immigration crackdown has largely focused on undocumented immigrants, including the so-called Dreamers who were effectively protected from deportation during the final years of the Obama administration. But Trump also has some levers of power over immigrants residing in the country legally — but, as a big move this week showed, using those powers can prove complicated.

On Tuesday night, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was ending a special immigration status for 5,300 Nicaraguans, giving them until January 2019 to leave the United States. But the agency also announced it was extending the protected status of 86,000 Hondurans for six months. Temporary Protected Status, as it is officially known, allows foreign nationals whose home country is hit by a war or natural disaster to temporarily live and work in the U.S. The Trump administration has argued that the TPS program has been abused and promised to crack down on it.

The highly watched move drew a sharp rebuke from Democrats, who said many of the Nicaraguans had lived and worked in the U.S. for decades and deserve to stay here. It also appeared to draw an opposite rebuke from White House chief of staff John Kelly, who reportedly called DHS Acting Secretary Elaine Duke to ask her to revoke TPS for the Hondurans as well. Duke angrily rejected Kelly’s request, and the episode quickly leaked to multiple news agencies, an inside look at the complications the White House faces implementing its immigration crackdown.

5. USDA withdraws Obama-era rule on genetically engineered products
On Sept. 16 of last year, the Obama administration released a new, far-reaching framework to clarify the regulatory roles of the three agencies overseeing biotechnology products, from chemicals to pharmaceuticals, the first comprehensive update in almost 30 years. Currently USDA, FDA, and EPA share responsibilities for overseeing biotech products, which have gone from a scientific novelty to a multibillion-dollar industry since the rules were introduced in the 1980s. As part of the new framework, USDA released a 32-page rule on the day before Obama left office, creating new restrictions around biotech products, including genetically engineered crops.

The ideas was to streamline the regulatory process and ensure that genetically engineered products did not pose a risk to consumers. But industry groups protested the new framework, arguing that the rules contradicted one another and imposed unnecessary costs on companies. On Tuesday, the USDA officially reversed course and withdrew the rule. Secretary Sonny Perdue argued that the Obama-era plan imposed unnecessary costs on the industry and would restrict innovation, and promised to work with stakeholders to develop a new rule. It’s just the latest regulatory rollback in the Trump era.

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