The extraordinary character of the period that has just ended – from November 8, 2016 to yesterday, January 20, 2017 – is undisputed. It was a time for gloom and misery among many and for celebration and jubilance among many others. And yes, there were some for whom it was a “wait and see” time, a time to read the chicken’s entrails and attempt to prepare for what would come next. But it’s over.
Now comes the time of “prove you meant it.”
A certain glamor has been laid upon each new president’s first 100 days. It appears to stem from that first period in the presidential term of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was marked by so great a flurry of decrees and developments that even the most retentive memory probably won’t recall all of them without at least a glance at Schlesinger. FDR, it should be remembered, had been accorded essentially dictatorial powers; Congress acted as a rubber stamp for his utterances, not one of which drew more than token opposition from the shrunken, badly demoralized Republican remnant on Capitol Hill.
But 100 days is an arbitrary time interval. It won’t tell us what we most need to know about the new administration:
- “Did he mean it?”
- “Can he do it?”
Those questions won’t be fully answered until January 20, 2021.
It’s a relatively recent thing, historically, for a president to arrive in office with an agenda. I could go into the reasons for this, and someday I probably will, but for the moment it’s more important that we grasp the state of the federal government and the intentions of those who dominate it.
Yesterday’s pomp and ceremony notwithstanding, Donald Trump and his lieutenants don’t dominate Washington...yet. That might change – I hope it will; Trump will have little chance of following through on his campaign pledges otherwise – but for the moment the much-maligned Washington Establishment retains its grip on the mechanisms of federal power.
Constitutionally, all legislative power resides in Congress. Congress is composed of 535 elected officials, few of whom are even sympathetic to the Trump agenda. Moreover, the president has no power over them whatsoever. He cannot dictate even the smallest change to their modus operandi. And each and every one of those Representatives and Senators has some sort of stake in “the way things are.”
The president’s “pen and phone” have little Constitutional power. Executive orders cannot guarantee enduring changes in federal operations. They have only two areas of effect: the approach to the enforcement of existing laws, and the mandated behavior of executive branch employees. Both can be overridden by successive presidents. Barack Obama is about to have that demonstrated to him.
Given those conditions, and given the monstrously swollen federal bureaucracy, its inherent bias against dramatic changes, and its several means of resistance, the imposition upon it of the changes Trump intends will be difficult. He’ll have to be very persistent, and very tough.
The 45th president faces a steep uphill climb. I don’t envy him.
We discern “whether he meant it” from whether “he” persists in the face of opposition and obstacles. Given the opposition and obstacles already mentioned, the verdict will take a while to arrive. But given the two least tractable elements in any man’s existence – 1) time, and 2) other men – there’s no guarantee that circumstances might force changes upon the Trump agenda.
Consider as a test case Trump’s declared intention to scale back our international security guarantees in favor of an “America first” policy. This would be welcome; we’ve poured out the blood of our sons and the treasure of our nation for the defense of others who’ve proved largely unwilling to expend their own resources on their own defense. That’s the sort of behavior that collapses empires. Ours is not immune to its enervation.
But international developments, as our British cousins say, could throw a spanner into the works. For example, we have existing treaty obligations to unwind. They might not be sufficiently rolled back before new conflicts arise in which they would oblige us to participate. In this connection, it would be wise to keep an eye trained on the Baltic states and the previous non-Russian elements of the Warsaw Pact. For all his seeming desire to “make friends” with the new administration, Vladimir Putin is inherently an expansionist who seeks to recreate the pre-Yeltsin Soviet Union and its sphere of politico-economic influence. Some of the small nations Putin’s intentions embrace are NATO members.
There’s room for a lot of trouble there.
We determine “whether he can do it” from whether “he” does. In most of the topics upon which Trump campaigned, there’s considerable latitude for interpretation. Moreover, there’s the importance of time once again.
Much of what Trump has sworn to do will take time. How much? After what interval would it be reasonable to say “Yes, he did it,” or “No, he failed” -- ? Unraveling our regulatory nightmare is a formidable challenge. It’s made worse by this ugly fact: Virtually everyone believes that “some regulation” is necessary and good, but there’s no agreement beyond that.
There are two uses of the word “regulate” in the Constitution:
- Article I, Section 8, clause 3: “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;”
- Article I, Section 8, clause 5: “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;”
Note that those are explicit powers of Congress: legislative powers. The executive branch was given no “regulatory” authority whatsoever. Yet the overwhelmingly greater part of our regulatory burden was imposed upon us by pure executive fiat, with little if any legislative foundation for it.
You’d think, given that particular tidbit of fact, that Congress, jealous of its position and prerogatives, would collaborate happily with the administration in the dismantling of this edifice. But things aren’t quite that straightforward. The regulatory bureaucracy does Congress several important “services:”
- It relieves Congress of the need to write properly explicit bills;
- It assists in the effectuation of “earmarks;”
- It supports the de facto creation of “laws” that target particular portions of the nation;
- It provides legislators with a “whipping boy” at whom they can point during election campaigns;
- It allows legislators to endear themselves to their constituents through “constituent services.”
Items 1, 2, and 3 are shameful, extra-Constitutional obscenities. They should never have been allowed, but the demotic and demagogic trends of the “broadcast media” era brought them to us anyway. Items 4 and 5 are equally artifacts of our demagogic deterioration. Yet all of them are dear to legislators who’d rather not be heard saying what they really mean or seen doing what they really intend.
We cannot rationally expect that Congress will be sincerely supportive of Trump’s anti-regulatory intentions.
The above might seem pessimistic. In a sense, it is; history teaches us to be pessimists about the uses of power and the men who seek it. What we want is for this time, and this nation, to be exceptions, as was the Revolutionary Era and the nation it created.
There are no guarantees.
As I wrote yesterday, private persons who desire success for the Trump Administration and its agenda must help it along. Without sustained pressure from the electorate upon those elements of Leviathan that are sure to resist him, the president, no matter how sincerely determined, is unlikely to succeed.
Yes, Donald Trump won the election against formidable opposition and in defiance of all the oddsmakers’ predictions. But the outcomes of elections are determined by the voters – by us. The machinations in the corridors of power are a different story entirely.
If we’re to have the future for which we’ve voted, we must keep the pressure on.