Sometimes it seems like the only consistent policy coming out of the White House these days is vindictiveness.
Case in point: Still seething over California’s end-run around its plan to roll back fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions targets on new cars, the Trump administration has launched an antitrust investigation into four automakers that reached an agreement with the state to make their cars run cleaner.
The administration also sent a letter to California officials warning darkly of “legal consequences” if the state does not abandon the agreement. And it’s considering revoking California’s long-standing authority to set tougher auto pollution standards than those required by the federal government — an authority Congress has provided at least since 1967 in recognition of the state’s own efforts to clean its dirty air.
This is a blatant attempt to use the power of the federal government to bully companies that disagree with the president. It’s especially galling that the administration would use the threat of a Justice Department investigation to pressure automakers to make cars that are worse for consumers, worse for the environment and worse for a rapidly warming planet.
In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the four companies — Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen of America, Honda and BMW — had reached a deal with the state in which they agreed to ignore the Trump administration’s plan to relax tailpipe emissions standards. Instead they would continue making their fleets more fuel-efficient and cleaner, albeit at a slightly slower pace than the original Obama-era rules required.
The rationale behind the deal was straightforward and hardly the kind of nefarious backroom dealing suggested by the Trump administration. California has the unique authority under the Clean Air Act to set its own auto emissions standards, no matter the Trump rollback, and other states can then adopt California’s model.
Carmakers plan their fleets years in advance and don’t want to sell different cars to meet different standards state by state. They want one nationwide standard. Automakers pushed the Trump administration to forgo the rollback, saying it would hurt their bottom lines and produce “untenable” instability. They wanted a compromise with California. The administration refused. So a handful of companies volunteered to meet California’s standard.
Sources told the Wall Street Journal that the Justice Department’s antitrust enforcers had acted on their own initiative — really? — out of concern that the four major automakers had conspired to limit competition by agreeing to a tougher California standard. Under the department’s logic, consumers would be harmed by reducing the availability of lower-mileage vehicles in the state.
But it’s routine for regulators to get industry feedback on the rules they’re developing. And antitrust experts say there’s nothing illegal about industry figures banding together to support a public policy, even when members of that industry take opposing positions on what the policy should be. There’s so little legal justification for what the Justice Department is doing, Congress should conduct an inquiry into why it’s happening.
It’s laughable to think that the Justice Department is suddenly worried about cartels. According to the American Antitrust Institute, enforcement of federal antitrust law has taken a nosedive in the last two and a half years. Meanwhile, the administration’s torching of federal regulations has terminated countless pro-competitive policies adopted by its predecessors.
No, the Justice Department’s move fits into a pattern of the Trump administration bringing the hammer down on those who rile the onion-skinned president. Examples include the department’s lawsuit against AT&T’s acquisition of CNN’s owner, Time Warner (the lawsuit failed), its effort to deny local policing grants to states like California that don’t support the administration’s immigration policies, and the president’s threat to withhold disaster aid to California’s fire victims because of the state’s logging rules.
Now the president is mad that car companies don’t want the regulatory relief he’s proposed, and he’s mad that companies chose to side with California. Rather than admit he was wrong and accept defeat, his administration is willing to use its immense power to try to punish dissent.