5 things Trump did while you weren’t looking

Behind the scandal-of-the-day news, the White House really is changing American policy. A new series from The Agenda explains how.

All eyes were on Washington this week as the Trump administration hosted a series of events to promote its infrastructure policy—highlighting the president’s proposals to cut red tape, reform air traffic control and rebuild America’s roads and bridges. The president held a signing ceremony Monday, took his message to the American people in Ohio on Tuesday and invited governors to the White House on Thursday. “Infrastructure week” dominated the news.

Just kidding. It’s true—he really did do all those things—but you’d be forgiven for having no idea they happened. The eyes on Washington were all glued to the drama around former FBI Director James Comey.

Infrastructure Week didn’t contain any new actual policy proposals, despite an exultant tweet from Vice President Mike Pence calling it a “banner week for infrastructure,” and Trump didn’t sign a bill. Instead, he signed a purely symbolic document in support of Rep. Bill Shuster’s plan to create a nonprofit to oversee air traffic control, and released a vague list of infrastructure principles that had already been released in his budget.

But behind all the theater, stuff really is happening in Washington. Trump’s political appointees are—slowly—getting settled into their new jobs, reviewing Obama-era policies and leaving their fingerprints on the bureaucracy. These changes don’t make national headlines, and they probably won’t be mentioned in a tweet from the commander-in-chief—but they could affect the lives of everyday Americans.

So you don’t miss these changes, The Agenda is launching a weekly series highlighting five important policy changes that took place in the past week. It will track how Trump’s agenda is being implemented across the government, even as the White House remains politically bogged down by the Russia investigation and struggles to work with Congress. And what better week to begin than this one when Washington was fixated on one Senate hearing room, while Trump’s appointees continued to roll back Obama’s agenda and sweep in a new era of conservative policy.

1. A boost for Uber and McDonald’s.
It’s the most controversial question in the labor world these days: When is a worker an employee, and when is he or she an independent contractor? That question has been especially controversial for “gig economy” companies like Uber and Postmates. But increasingly, regular businesses are also opting to classify their workers as independent contractors, which can cut their labor costs sharply by not obliging them to offer benefits like health insurance or pay employer payroll taxes. According to one recent study, the percentage of workers employed as contractors grew by almost 30 percent from 2005 to 2015.

In 2015, the Obama Administration gave workers a win on this one: It issued a guidance document explaining how the Department of Labor would interpret the law, outlining the economic tests it employed in determining whether an employer was misclassifying its workers. The Department of Labor had already been using that policy in enforcing the law, but putting it in writing sent a clear message to employers across the country that the Obama administration was serious about cracking down on worker misclassification.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration withdrew the guidance document. This was a win for business owners in any number of sectors—not just Uber, but industries such as farming and construction, which increasingly use independent contractors. The withdrawal of the document doesn’t change the underlying law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, or the DOL’s current interpretation of it but sends a strong signal to employers that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta plans to interpret it differently than his predecessor. “The big story is not that, for whatever reason, they pulled down guidance,” said David Weil, who issued the document under Obama. “The real question is what else comes with this.”

Acosta also withdrew another Obama-era guidance document on how the department will determine whether a parent company, like McDonald’s or Subway, is jointly responsible for its franchises’ labor violations. As with worker misclassification, the Obama-era DOL interpreted the joint employment standard favorably for workers; its withdrawal is a victory for businesses.

2. A trade war with Mexico averted—for now.
Trump has stormed on about the North American Free Trade Agreement, calling it a “trading disaster” and vowing to rip it up, suggesting that a trade war with Mexico may be on the horizon. But on Tuesday, the United States and Mexico went the other direction and actually came to a deal, averting a potential trade crisis when they ended a dispute on Mexican sugar exports. The showdown was seen as a first test for the two countries as they, along with Canada, seek to preserve and update NAFTA later this year.