We’re not three weeks into the Trump presidency. It remains difficult to piece together the trends above the chaos and tergiversations of each successive day. But one trend should be in the process of becoming clear. Going into the Trump presidency the President and congressional Republicans promised an ambitious legislative agenda. And fast. At one point Paul Ryan suggested that Obamacare repeal and Medicare phaseout might start on inauguration day. In any case, few needed to be convinced. Republicans had unified control of the federal government and almost a decade of pent-up appetite for dramatic change – Obamacare repeal, corporate tax reform, a major income tax cut, repeal of Dodd-Frank, possibly privatization of major social insurance programs like Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and more. And yet less than a month in, progress on Capitol Hill has slowed dramatically. President Trump meanwhile seems almost entirely focused on a steady stream of executive orders. These two developments are not unrelated. It looks very much like President Trump has found his presidential comfort-zone: rule by decree.
Of course, there are some important qualifiers. The American system doesn’t work by presidential decrees. Congress and the courts can cleave back these actions. With Congress suppliant, the courts are showing that most clearly with his immigration executive order, to Trump’s great displeasure. But in other cases the executive orders are more like Potemkin decrees, vague though legalistic proclamations which have limited impact or meaning or expressing changes that other administrations would simply do rather than grandly announce through what sometimes amount to proclamatory press releases.
As usual with Trump, the upshot is a mix of authoritarian tendencies on the one hand and flimflam and impatience on the other. But it hasn’t been limited to the White House. It’s operative on Capitol Hill too. It’s time to notice that these two developments are linked, indeed inextricably so.
Senate Democrats’ slow-rolling Trump nominees is jamming up the Senate, and clearly by design. The more time is chewed up in nomination fights, the less time is left for legislating and the more gets pushed into the 2018 election cycle. But were Senate Democrats to agree to unanimous consent today to approve every Trump nominee with a single vote, it’s still not clear that the Senate would have anything ready to vote on tomorrow or any time soon. In other words, Democrats are having some success creating a legislative bottleneck. But there’s no legislation jammed up behind it that could pass anyway.
The biggest reason for all this is Obamacare repeal. For all the political gamesmanship and preening, Republicans have been entirely unable to come up with any way forward on repealing Obamacare or more precisely, anything to replace it with. Even the President, who never brooks low-energy delay, now says we may not see a clear way forward until 2018!
In a notable development, the administration appears to be considering steps that would help stabilize Obamacare marketplaces, albeit in a less consumer friendly way. Whatever the policy implications of these administrative changes, from a political standpoint what is significant is that the Trump administration seems to be making the judgment that it actually doesn’t want to force the Obamacare system into collapse. That makes perfect sense if it has nothing available to replace it with or any clear plans to do so. Meanwhile, the rules tied to repealing Obamacare and particularly the taxes underlying it have the effect of jamming up any work on tax cuts and tax reform more generally. As even Politico’s Playbook put it this morning, “the prospects for quick action on Obamacare, tax reform and infrastructure look bleak.”
Of course, President Trump isn’t the only President to use executive orders. Faced with an implacable Republican Congress after 2015 and a House logjam since 2011, President Obama made aggressive use of them as well. But Trump has used wildly more in his first weeks in office and most importantly, he has two very compliant houses of Congress under his control. This is something to sit with and contemplate for a moment. President Trump is in his first weeks as President with both houses of Congress under his party’s control and he’s focused on executive orders rather than legislation.
One might also argue, with some cause, that Trump would be temperamentally inclined to issue lots of executive orders even if bill after bill were landing on his desk for signatures. That may be so. There are also complex reasons for the legislative slowdown, many tied to the rules governing tax changes and the Republicans’ narrow Senate majority, not to mention the perhaps impossible political dynamics of Obamacare repeal. But Trump himself is the unmistakable connection between the two – a characterological penchant for the bald assertion of executive orders and impatience and inexperience with how presidents provide the motive force to press Congress to action.
I should add that the Republican appetite for tax cuts is so great that I have no doubt they will find a way to get them. It just may not happen as quickly as they and everyone else likely thought. And it remains the case that President Trump seems intent on using the tax code to institute de facto tariffs – something that is anathema to most Republicans. So tax reform may prove more complicated and bumpy than supposed.
Taken together the two developments are clearly linked. Indeed, I suspect they will intensify and catalyze each other over time. Presidential power operates by Presidents mobilizing popular support to push legislation through Congress. This requires both popularity and even for a popular president both patience and an acumen for deal-making. For all his claims to the contrary, Trump not only lacks the first two. He lacks the third as well.
With a headline like “rule by decree” it would be easy enough to whip up a breathless report that the US has somehow already been converted to presidential, authoritarian rule. But that is clearly not the case – the courts are making that clear enough for all Trump’s huffing and puffing and threats to blow their courthouses down. But this is his comfort zone and this looks like the direction of his presidency. Even when legislation is there for the passing, he lacks the focus, interest or skills to get it passed. He is low attention and low energy. Hastily drawn up executive orders, some inconsequential and some unconstitutional, are likely to be the order of the day, only with the Oval Office photo ops with toadies and CEO supplicants thrown in. In other words, it is not a poor man’s but a lazy man’s authoritarianism. He is by nature a strongman but lacks the focus or energy to get what he wants in a system which, at least for now, does not allow it. We will have to see what it amounts to and what comes next.