Trump and Congress: Plan B

Caricature by DonkeyHotey flic.kr/p/Ct4G4K
Caricature by DonkeyHotey flic.kr/p/Ct4G4K
Caricature by DonkeyHotey flic.kr/p/Ct4G4K

With two simple actions – the decision to rescind President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the the deal with the Democrats to defer financial deadlines and fund hurricane recovery – President Trump has demonstrated that he will change the game if it is not working. With 85% of the public – Democrats and Republicans alike – thinking that Congress isn’t doing its job, businessman Trump has declared that Plan A is not working, and he will not be constrained by the inability of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to manage their Republican majorities.

First, we should not be surprised that Trump isn’t wedded to the going-in premise that the president has to work all legislation through the Republican Congressional leaders. Melania is his third wife. He had three presidential campaign managers, two chiefs of staff, two national security advisers, and several press faces.  He has fired James Comey, Steve Bannon, Anthony Scaramucci, Preet Bharara (the lead federal attorney overseeing Wall Street), Walter Shaub (Office of Government Ethics), Sebastian Ghorka, and several other prominent administration leaders. He has come close with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and economic adviser Gary Cohn. Faced with prominent resignations, he has disbanded his business advisory councils. Some of the personnel were odd hires in the first place, in part because Trump did not have access to the “best and brightest” of the political establishment. Some were not adequately enthusiastic in protecting him from the hostile press and potential legal exposure. In any case, Trump does not let problems fester.

It became clear in the Repeal and Replace Obamacare fiasco that the strategy of dealing with difficult subjects with only Republican votes would not work. The Freedom Caucus in the House denied Ryan the possibility of any legislation which could pass the Senate. Even under rules which allowed Senate Republicans to pass a bill with only 50 votes, there are enough Republican mavericks to deny McConnell and Trump a majority, and he has had little success in prying away Democratic votes. Subsequent discussion on taxes indicates that the Congressional dynamic persists.

Enter Plan B, an “across the aisles” strategy.

The DACA decision reflects a call on Congress to do its job, rather than enduring a year or more of legal battles with 10 states who threatened to sue the federal government to stop a program which President Obama had called unconstitutional before implementing it in 2012. In 2014, Obama tried to expand the program to parents of the children, but was stopped by a 4-4 Supreme Court decision. Many experts believe that the current Court would agree that the role of defining immigration rules belongs to Congress, not the Executive. Given the task of drafting legislation, Paul Ryan has told the “Dreamers” that they need not worry – but there is little reason to believe that he can deliver a Republicans-only solution. Trump has said that he may reverse the rescinding if the Congress cannot act – putting the kids back in legal limbo. Legislation is needed to address other Obama rules favoring international entrepreneurs, spouses of guest workers, and extensions for STEM students. Trump would like to change the base legal immigration system to favor applicants who have needed skills rather than those with family members in the country. He wants a wall and stronger border security. Trump understands that there is no Republicans-only solution. Plan B – put it all on the table, and work across the aisle.

Congressional dysfunction came into full view with jockeying about raising the debt ceiling (necessary by September 29), authorizing the government to spend until a budget is passed (necessary by October 1), and providing a “first installment” for hurricane assistance (necessary immediately.)  Another month was to be consumed with efforts by Congress members of both parties to leverage a created crisis to stoke their base constituencies and angle for the next election.  To the public and to Trump, this has nothing to do with helping the American people. Plan B – cut a deal with the Democrats for a 3 month delay, and spend the Fall working on a bipartisan plan for tax reform and a budget.

Pundits on the Right are screaming. Pelosi and Shumer were supposed to be buried along with Hillary Clinton. The fiscal conservatives used the debt ceiling and the expiration of annual spending authority to extort some financial discipline from President Obama, and thought that deficits would stop growing with a Republican president. Perhaps they will in time, but the political price for shutting down the government when Republicans control Congress and the Presidency is huge. Perhaps (?) Trump will find that Pelosi and Shumer are worse to work with than Ryan and McConnell. But just maybe, Pelosi and Shumer have demonstrated that #Resist is over and it is OK to work with Trump and – when that reaches its limit – Trump will be able to pry away enough moderate Democrats to offset the conservative Republicans who do not understand that politics is the art of the possible.

In the meantime, Trump is trying to reverse the decades long flow of power from the Congress to the Executive, and to break through the hyper-partisan culture of 2017 Washington. To the casual eye of the untrained observer that doesn’t seem so bad.