Donald Trump ran for President on a promise to hold the power players and corporate interests in the American economy more accountable to regular people. During the campaign, Donald Trump promised that if elected he would “break up the special interest monopoly and give power back to the citizens.” He defined the special interests as “wealthy donors, large corporations and media executives.” There are myriad ways that he already has reneged on that promise—not the least of which is by installing those very same power players in the most powerful positions in the White House and throughout the executive branch. For example, I count almost 100 years’ worth of collecting paychecks from Goldman Sachs among Trump appointees and their immediate family members.
But there is an even more fundamental, yet less widely known, way that Trump has broken his promise to hold the have-mores accountable to the have-lesses. He is making the conduct of corporate America less transparent to the American people by limiting the amount of information about corporations and power players that the government collects and subsequently makes available to the public. For example, in its short time in office, the Trump Administration has:
- Relieved federal contractors from the responsibility of reporting their labor law violations and telling their workers if they are treating them as employees or independent contractors;
- Made it easier for employers to fail to keep records of when their employees get hurt or sick on the job;
- Rolled back a rule to require publicly traded oil, gas, and mining companies to report when they make payments—e. possible bribes—to foreign governments;
- Eliminated the annual report by the Office of Government Ethics on whether political appointees had signed an ethics pledge and whether the Administration had hired any lobbyists to be political appointees;
- Failed to release White House visitors logs;
- Curtailed the public reporting through press releases when the Department of Labor finds companies have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act or the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Other important transparency measures are in danger of being gutted, based on the executive orders that Trump issued during his first days in office to delay or halt all pending regulatory actions, pending Congressional Review Act resolutions supported by Republicans in Congress, and Trump and his appointees’ anti-regulatory rhetoric. Transparency measures in danger include rules requiring:
- Reporting on the ratio between CEO and rank-and-file worker pay;
- Expansion of the EEOC’s EEO-1 form to include more information about pay discrimination;
- Reporting by mine operators to miners about any existing hazards at the beginning of each shift;
- Protection for workers who share information about their pay; and
- Electronic posting of records of the injuries and illnesses that workers suffer on the job.
In 2007, my former colleague David Weil wrote a book with Archon Fung and Mary Graham, Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency, in which they made the case for the potentially transformative power of government transparency. They looked at this kind of transparency, which they called “targeted transparency,” that the Obama Administration later embraced: that is, the disclosure of information useful for consumer choice, market forces, and more informed participatory democracy. From greater financial disclosure by corporations to several initiatives to increase corporate reporting on employers’ health and safety records to mandating better communication about hazards between chemical facilities and communities, the Obama Administration empowered the public to participate in the regulatory process by initiating these many new corporate reporting requirements. Yet the early Trump rollbacks are already disempowering the public.
This reining-in of information truly gives away the con that Trump has played on the American people. Corporate accountability and fairness is impossible without information. Instead of allowing individuals to access this information and, in doing so, better understand how corporations are behaving, therefore making informed decisions based on that information, Trump is asking the American people to trust that his Administration will keep an eye out for them—that he will use his mighty power to tweet if he sees anything amiss.
Needless to say, the Trump approach is a poor substitute for real empowerment. It is, however, an especially poor substitute when the federal government’s own commitment to regulatory enforcement is about to take a big hit. By proposing massive budget cuts to the agencies that keep Americans safe, treated fairly, and protected from corporate fraud and corruption, Trump has signaled that federal enforcement will be waning. With access to less information, the public will be in no position to step into the void. The public, for example, won’t be able to bring pressure to bear on companies by choosing not to patronize those with poor safety, environmental, or ethics records, or by drawing the attention of the media to those records. Moreover, they will not have the information they need to hold politicians accountable for allowing lax enforcement. Trump’s promise of accountability will no doubt prove to be as shallow and fleeting as one of his tweets.