WASHINGTON -- Facing the prospect that President Donald Trump could lose his reelection bid, his Cabinet is scrambling to enact regulatory changes affecting millions of Americans in a blitz so rushed it potentially leaves some changes vulnerable to court challenges.
The effort is evident in a broad range of federal agencies and encompasses proposals like easing limits on how many hours some truckers can spend behind the wheel and setting federal standards for when workers can be classified as independent contractors rather than employees.
In the bid to lock in new rules before Jan. 20, Trump's team is limiting or sidestepping requirements for public comment on some of the changes and brushing aside critics who say the administration has failed to carry out sufficiently rigorous analysis.
Some cases, like a new rule to allow railroads to move highly flammable liquefied natural gas on freight trains, have led to warnings of public safety threats.
Every administration pushes to complete as much of its agenda as possible when a president's term is coming to an end, seeking not just to secure its own legacy but also to tie the hands of any successor who tries to undo its work.
But as Trump completes four years marked by an extensive deregulatory push, the administration's accelerated effort to put a further stamp on federal rules is drawing questions even from some former top officials who served under Republican presidents.
"Two main hallmarks of a good regulation is sound analysis to support the alternatives chosen and extensive public comment to get broader opinion," said Susan Dudley, who served as the top White House regulatory official during the George W. Bush administration. "It is a concern if you are bypassing both of those."
Administration officials said they were simply completing work on issues they have targeted since Trump took office in 2017 promising to curtail the reach of federal regulation.
If Democrats take control of Congress, they will have the power to reconsider some of these last-minute regulations through a law last used by Republicans at the start of Trump's tenure to repeal certain rules enacted at the end of the Obama administration.
But the Trump administration is also working to fill key vacancies on scientific advisory boards with members who will hold their seats far into the next presidential term, committees that play an important role in shaping federal rulemaking.
Few of the planned shifts have drawn more scrutiny and criticism than a Labor Department proposal to set federal standards for defining when a worker is an independent contractor or an employee, a step that could affect millions of workers.
The issue has come to a boil as states like California have tried to push companies like Uber and Lyft to classify workers as employees, meaning they would be entitled to benefits such as overtime pay and potentially health insurance, a move that the companies have challenged.
The proposed Labor Department rule creates a so-called economic reality test, such as whether workers set their own schedules or can earn more money by hiring helpers or acquiring new equipment.
In the proposed rule, the department said it cannot predict how many workers may see their status change as a result of the new definitions because of "uncertainties regarding magnitude and other factors."
But it is nonetheless pushing to have the rule finished before the end of Trump's term, limiting the period of public comment to 30 days, half the amount of time that agencies are supposed to offer.
That has generated letters of protest from Senate Democrats and 22 state attorneys general.
The Environmental Protection Agency is rushing to complete a series of regulations that will almost certainly make it harder for future administrations to tighten air pollution and other environmental standards, including a limit on how science is used in rulemaking and a change to the way costs and benefits are evaluated to justify new rules.
GAS TRAINS, TRUCKERS' HOURS
A provision finished this summer would allow railroads to move highly flammable loads of liquefied natural gas on freight trains. Trump signed an executive order last year directing the Transportation Department to enact the rule within 13 months -- even before it had been formally proposed.
The proposal was backed by the railroad and natural gas industry, but it provoked an intense backlash from a diverse array of prominent public safety officials, including groups representing thousands of mayors, fire chiefs and fire marshals nationwide and even the federal government's National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates fatal transportation accidents.
The gas is stored in 30,000-gallon rail tanks at minus 260 degrees to keep it compressed. But if accidentally released in an accident, it rapidly expands by nearly 600 times as the temperature rises and causes what is known as a "boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion" that if ignited cannot be quickly extinguished, potentially resulting in widespread injury or death if it occurs in a populated area, the fire chiefs warned.
Even while the challenge is underway, the Transportation Department has moved to enact another rule easing safety standards -- in this case, removing a requirement intended to limit the number of hours that truck drivers are allowed behind the wheel and to mandate rest periods.
Certain drivers who carry agricultural products would now be exempt from this federal mandate in a standard that would again be adopted as an "interim final rule," meaning it would be put in place before any public comment is accepted, under the plan announced by the agency.