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EST. 1915

Brief History of U.S. Agency Freezes

Danielle Sheahan

Last month, President Trump ordered a halt to new agency regulations, which also included the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) grants and contracts. In addition to other issued executive orders, concern was also drawn to the freeze, the potential dismantling of the EPA, and the long-term impacts or potential outcomes. While it was alarming for some, it is common practice in American government, when a new administration is transitioning into the White House, to freeze a federal agency or agencies.

This is a common because it allows the new administration to review anything the previous administration was trying to push last minute. There are many reasons why reviewing the work of the former president is needed, such as the new administration being opposed to, and wanting to stop certain policies or ensuring that mistakes were not made due to haste. This also enables the incoming presidential administration to better understand the piece(s) of legislation and make adjustments as they see fit and make appearances of adhering to campaign promises to the best of their ability.

There are many examples in American history of an incoming administration issuing a freeze on federal agencies so that the administration could scrutinize and criticize the agencies’ current policies, legislation, and projects. For example, if a person looks back to the news from January 21st in 2001, USA Today reported that President George W. Bush blocked regulations his predecessor, President Bill Clinton, set forth. Clinton, like many presidents before him, was trying to get remaining initiatives on his agenda approved before the end of his term. Bush ensured that these last minute approvals would be blocked by having his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, send out a moratorium to hinder the Clinton Administration’s final regulatory decisions. The moratorium explained to the agency heads what the next step was and allowed some exceptions to the freeze. Similarly, eight years later, proof can be found that the Obama Administration also halted operations of all agencies when they first entered office on January 20th, 2009.

This moratorium was issued by Rahm Emanuel, who was appointed as the Obama Administration’s Chief of Staff, to the heads of executive departments and agencies stating the regulatory review halt and its exceptions. This memo closely mirrored the moratorium card sent out in 2001 by the Bush Administration, and both designated that they applied to all new federal regulatory process that were not absolutely essential - further supporting the claim that agency freezes are common practice. The moratorium from the Obama Administration reads as follows:

“No proposed or final regulation should be sent to the Office of the Federal Register for publication unless and until it has been reviewed and approved by a department or agency head appointed or designated by the President after noon on January 20, 2009.”

- Rahm Emanuel, Obama Administration’s White House Chief of Staff

Since there is evidence of agency freezes in other transitioning presidential administrations, it should not have been a great surprise that the Trump Administration did the same. However, it was. This might have been partially because so many younger voters have not actually been cognisant or cared about the previous presidential transition between Bush and Obama, so the issued freeze might have come as a surprise. Whatever the reaction, Trump’s Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, ordered a freeze on all agencies’ most recent regulations posted and/or pending regulations on the Federal Registrar. One of the most immediate effects of the issued freeze was the Environmental Protection Agency having a hold on the grant programs and contracts. The hold was ultimately lifted on January 27th and according to the Washington Post, the acting EPA administrator Catherine McCabe explained in an email that zero programs were altered or delayed during the hold on operations. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be any changes implemented in the Agency later, but for now, grants and contracts are treated the same as before. Even though reviewing the EPA’s grants and contracts is not always one of the major objectives focused on during a freeze, the freeze itself is just standard procedure. Ultimately, Trump’s freeze on the EPA specifically, was more standard procedure than a means to dismantle the entire EPA from the get-go like so many thought. As said before, changes may be implemented later, but for now, EPA grants and contracts remain the same.


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