When it comes to getting funds to Puerto Rico, the inspector general’s report identifies a series of key changes that got in the way of taking effective action. One of this was months of meetings with the Office of Management and Budget about the rules for releasing grants and who should be eligible to bid. As a result, HUD was blocked from even posting notices to release the funds. OMB was still making changes even as HUD was trying to post those notices, and kept batting back the notices even when HUD thought they were done, making for additional delays.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. HUD and OMB were still unable to even get much of the relief funding posted by a self-imposed deadline of May 2019. In fact, much of the funding did not become available until January 27, 2020.
And that was just one of the problems. Other funds should not have been affected by these delays, as they weren’t subject to the same kind of OMB review that delayed the largest tranche of funds. Except that HUD chose to make them subject to the same negotiations, resulting in the same delays. Even though the funds were then available to distribute through grants, HUD chose that moment to revise the forms needed to apply for grants, and delayed assistance for Puerto Rico even longer while waiting for those new forms to be created.
The inspector general’s report does not conclude that this was a deliberate effort to slow walk the money and punish Puerto Rico for being insufficiently grateful for Trump throwing them some paper towels … but it certainly isn’t difficult to come to that conclusion. As the Post pointed out, OMB had never previously required any agency grants to go through a review process like the one targeted at funds for Puerto Rico.
In the EPA inspector general’s report, the problem isn’t decisions that were made too slowly or given too much review. It’s decisions that were made more or less instantly, with no review at all.
The SAFE Vehicles Rule is the rule that sets both the fuel efficiency standards and the emissions limits for passenger vehicles. In 2018, Trump announced that he was raising the limits for cars over the next decade, allowing them to burn more gas and produce more emissions. The rule is jointly controlled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the EPA, but agencies should have reviewed the science behind the proposed changes.
However, had the EPA reviewed the rule, it would have been forced to detail how much additional gas consumers would use over the 2021-2016 period, and how much additional pollution would result. To avoid this, the EPA used one simple trick: Don’t look.
Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt decided that the SAFE Vehicles Rule would be based solely on NHTSA modeling and analysis and that NHTSA would draft the majority of the preamble text.
By law, the EPA was supposed to do a separate analysis of how the change would affect vulnerable populations. It didn’t. It was supposed to report out a set of Action Development Process milestones showing the progress on evaluating changes to the rule. That got skipped. And all these deviations from the standard process were supposed to be documented. Didn’t happen.
What both reports show is that under Trump, agencies felt free to ignore existing process, rules, or laws and simply do things as they wanted. Whether that meant the OMB acting to indefinitely stall funds going to Puerto Rico by insisting on a set of unprecedented reviews, or the EPA deciding to skip all reviews and just sign off on work that never happened, the result was giving Trump what he wanted—and hurting those he wanted to hurt.
And as similar language makes clear in both reports: “Delays and denials of access and refusals to cooperate negatively affected the ability of the [Office of Inspector General] to conduct this review.” So we know it was bad. We just don’t know how bad it was.