Last week, the US Department of Agriculture reversed itself and allowed for the planting of genetically modified alfalfa without restrictions. As Tom Philpott highlights, this appears to have been a political decision. USDA chief Tom Vilsack was apparently ready to halt the planting of GM alfalfa until the White House meddled. According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House intervened because of their new mantra of limiting “burdensome” regulations. And Maureen Dowd even mentioned the cabinet-level concern over GM alfalfa, and making sure it could be planted. Philpott writes:

If White House political strategists rallied behind deregulated alfalfa, USDA chief Tom Vilsack has been much more ambivalent on the topic. Alfalfa is a prodigious pollinator — meaning that different varieties can cross-pollinate and transfer genetic material. It’s a forage crop for pastured animals, and farmers also grow it to store as hay to feed cows in winter months. For organic dairy producers, a steady supply of organic alfalfa — and organic alfalfa seed — is crucial for survival […]

With Friday’s decision, the industry triumphed. Vilsack skulked away from his previous position. Normally, “USDA rolls over for biotech industry” isn’t a newsworthy event. Ever since the days of former vice president Dan Quayle — intellectual author of official U.S. policy toward GMOs — the novel crops have benefited from minimal government regulation.

But this time was different; a USDA chief had publicly declared his willingness to defy the industry, and then was evidently forced by political pressure from above to cravenly abandon that defiance.

And this isn’t the only instance of kneecapping the regulatory agencies this week, and not just at USDA, where Monsanto has more juice than the cabinet secretary. Labor has taken notice of a series of withdrawn rules at OSHA:

On Jan. 19, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) withdrew a proposed reinterpretation that would have strengthened its workplace noise standard. On Tuesday, the agency temporarily withdrew a proposed regulation that would restore a column on employer injury and illness logs to record their workers’ musculoskeletal disorders.

Seminario said she doesn’t think there is “a direct cause and effect” between the withdrawn rules and Obama’s new executive order on regulations, which was announced alongside a new regulatory review, but expressed labor’s worries about the situation.

“We are greatly concerned and dismayed by both of these actions. Clearly, the political environment has changed, but the need to protect workers has not,” Seminario said.

You could argue that the agencies themselves are cowering in the face of expected Congressional oversight hearings. But it sure seems like the word has come down from the top to withdraw the rules.

The “flood” of regulations over the last two years never actually happened, as Cass Sunstein pointed out in a Congressional hearing last week. Yet, in response to a CEO-led drumbeat about burdensome rules, the Administration has bottled up even more of them.

David Dayen

David Dayen