POLITICS
03/16/2017 09:32 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2017

This Conservative Senator Is Trying To Woo Progressives With Bills He Says Restrict Trump

James Lankford said Democrats should back his bills because they'll keep the president's agency heads in check.

ZACH GIBSON via Getty Images
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) looks for bipartisan support for his package of bills on the regulatory process.

WASHINGTON ― A Republican senator is trying to pitch progressive Democrats on a package of bills that he says will limit President Donald Trump’s powers.

No, it’s not a joke.

Conservative Sen. James Lankford, who was elected two years ago, wants progressives to give his bills a chance, arguing they aren’t on the “far-right edge” but are admittedly not far left either. Instead, he figures, they’re the kind of bills Washington should be working on at a time when Republicans and Democrats couldn’t be further apart.

The Oklahoma Republican introduced his four-bill package on reforming the regulatory process last week. The goal, he said in an interview, is not to take anything away from the regulatory process but to find some common ground and improve it.

One of the bills, co-sponsored by moderate Democrat Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), would require an agency to post an “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking” for any major regulation at least 90 days before it publishes a notice that it intends to change, repeal or craft a rule (essentially adding a new layer to the process). Another bill ― the one Lankford is really trying to sell liberals on ― requires science-based decision-making at agencies. The other two would require an agency to provide a simply worded 100-word summary when giving notice of a proposed rule, and would clamp down on guidance documents, which are meant to interpret regulations. 

“Regardless of who is president, we should have a good, reasonable process ― regardless of who is running what agency,” Lankford said. “My guess is I may have some colleagues that are more left-leaning that will now look at the way that regulation is done and say, ‘I want to make sure President Trump follows the rules.’”

Even if taken at face value, the package, to many progressives, would appear to be a deregulatory one, but Lankford hopes that after multiple conversations with his colleagues they will come around.

The sell? When Democrats say they are concerned one of Trump’s agency heads is going to undo Obama-era regulations, or completely reshape or dismantle an agency, Lankford points to his bills as an answer, by adding transparency and more opportunities for people (especially opponents) to weigh in on the process.

Concerns surrounding new Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt have already come up among Democrats. Last week Pruitt said he didn’t believe the science was sound on whether carbon dioxide contributes to global warming. (The overwhelming majority of scientists agree that it does.)

Lankford knows Democrats aren’t happy with Pruitt, and so he wants them to look at his “Better Evaluation of Science and Technology Act,” which would tell agencies to use the best available science and peer-reviewed science as a way to keep Pruitt in check.

“If you’re concerned about science, let’s talk about the BEST bill that I have that deals with science and how do you define it, making sure every agency has to follow it,” Lankford said, recalling one exchange he had with a Democratic senator recently.  “If there’s concern, to say, EPA is going to ignore science now, then we should be able to work together to figure how we’re going to do good science regardless of who is there.”

But Lankford doesn’t share his Democratic colleagues’ concerns about Pruitt, a fellow Oklahoman and friend. That’s something that isn’t lost on the very progressives he’s trying to woo.

Amit Narang of the Public Citizen watchdog group, said, “It’s not very plausible to me that the intent of this bill is to hold the EPA head accountable, and I worry some of the details will allow for the same type of strategic questioning of consensus science that was very effective for the tobacco industry for a long time. We’d be very happy for Sen. Lankford to make clear to EPA head Pruitt that his most recent statements of CO₂ not playing a role in climate change are overwhelmingly disputed by scientists.”

Narang, who has testified before Lankford in the Senate, admitted that, though he isn’t a fan of Lankford’s science bill, the one adding a layer to the regulatory process by requiring advanced notice might be something Public Citizen and progressives in general could get behind.

“To his credit, he does have some legislation in here that could make rule repeals go a little bit slower,” Narang said. “There is a possibility in the short-term a couple of these could make it slightly harder for agencies to get rid of rules under Obama. I will concede that.”

But Narang added that when the next administration comes in, it would also make it more difficult to accomplish an agenda a new president’s team would support.

Yogin Kothari, Washington representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Lankford’s bills “in theory sound nice” but in reality are “misleading.”

“The goal seems to be to really shut down how science-based decisions are made at agencies,” Kothari said. “The way I read the language is there’s a lot of attachment points where I could see well-funded litigants arguing something is amiss.”

Kothari added that he doesn’t think any progressives would back the package.  

“Just because it might slow down something for the next two to four years doesn’t mean it’s good policy,” Kothari said. “We’re not looking at just the next two to four years. Good policy doesn’t go by a political calendar.”

Still, Lankford didn’t seem deterred from testing the waters with liberals.  

“Some of my Republican colleagues want to go a lot farther with regulatory reform. I get that,” he said. “Some of my Democratic colleagues will say I don’t want to limit any agency from doing any action it already takes too long to do.”

But he thinks Congress has taken too much of a backseat, telling agencies to “make the decision and Congress is off the hook.” 

“Where there are things that need to be done, we’ve got to have Congress re-engaged,” he said.

Lankford also attempted to make the case that Democrats should be relieved Republicans are undoing certain regulations, such as an Education Department requirement that federally funded teacher preparation programs be evaluated on how well students performed.

“For your readers... if you’re going to have Betsy DeVos make all the decisions about education, about how teachers are evaluated, about how students are evaluated and how schools are evaluated, then leave that regulation in place,” Lankford argued, referring to Trump’s controversial education secretary.

A lot of Lankford’s motivation also comes from the widening divide between Republicans and Democrats.

“If you bring polarizing ideas out, it enforces more polarization. If you bring ideas out and say this is a common-ground issue and that regardless of who’s in the White House this is an issue that needs to be dealt with, i think it starts kind of pushing us back together.”

Whether that’s possible under Trump ― whose actions and policies make Narang and Kothari skeptical ― remains to be seen.

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