Why President Trump’s Deflections to Congress are Politically Smart, and Constitutionally Vital
According to the mainstream media, President Trump and the Republican Party are utterly failing to deliver their agenda. And while this may seem true in the aftermath of the failure to repeal Obamacare, and with tax reform now hanging on by a thread, it is actually only half true. While the Congressional GOP — particularly in the Senate — have indeed crumbled under pressure and a razor-thin minority and have failed to deliver any key legislation, the President could not be doing better.
And this is because the President has developed a nearly flawless strategy for escaping blame for the legislative failures, while still delivering on his promises whenever he can. Taking full advantage of the dysfunction in Congress, between the two main parties and their respective factions, President Trump has done what he can alone via executive order, and whenever a legislative fix is required, he kicks it back down to Congress in order to wipe his hands clean.
The first clear occurrence of this strategy is DACA. Following shortly after the monumental failure to repeal Obamacare, the President set his sights on another key policy of his predecessor that could be dismantled more easily. Having been implemented strictly as an executive order after its legislative counterpart — the DREAM Act — failed to pass Congress, it was all too easy to repeal it through the same method of executive action. The President then declared that he was giving six months for Congress to come up with a legislative solution, or else all that had been put in place by DACA would be completely rolled back effective immediately.
The second example is on yet another key foreign policy issue that was implemented solely by the executive: The Iran deal. The widely unpopular deal that Obama struck with Iran and several other countries, lifting sanctions while also allowing Iran to potentially develop nuclear capabilities, was enacted solely by executive action even when a clear majority in Congress — both Republicans and Democrats — voiced their opposition to the deal. But rather than have it ratified as a treaty, Obama muscled the deal through anyway, circumventing Congress through the international authorities. Now, President Trump has decertified the deal and has decided, once again, to kick the issue back down to Congress with a 60-day deadline to come up with a better deal.
Lastly, President Trump has also resorted to this same tactic on Obama’s signature policy achievement, Obamacare: With two executive orders — one allowing individuals and businesses to buy insurance across state lines, and the other cutting off all of the Obamacare-provided subsidies to health insurers — the President has effectively gutted this colossal failure of a law, and has tasked Congress to come up with a solution to fix it, lest they risk putting millions of even more Americans in danger of losing their health insurance. Already, this appears to have produced some results — within a week, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander (Tennessee) and Democratic Senator Patty Murray (Washington) have claimed to reach a bipartisan agreement to temporarily stabilize the health markets. Of course, only time will tell if this is actually a meaningful fix — or one that can even make it through Congress — but it indicates swift action being taken by some in Congress as a direct response to the President’s challenge.
This tactic is crucial for three major reasons. First and foremost, the President has found a way to shift blame for any possible failures back to Congress in the event that they cannot follow up on certain issues. If they succeed, then everyone shares in the credit since the President still must sign it back into law if it passes through Congress.
Second, doing so allows him to distance himself just enough from “the swamp” that he vowed to “drain” so vigorously in the campaign. When necessary, he can distinguish himself from the dysfunctional Republican Party in order to keep the Republican base hopeful for progress in at least some regard, as the President himself takes direct action where Congress cannot (DACA and Obamacare).
He can also use this as a way to further encourage the party to fix its own internal divides so that it can address key policy issues with greater efficiency. If they fail to do so, it only provides the President with more evidence, in his case to the voters, that moderates who do not cooperate with his agenda need to be forced out of office through primary challengers — a course of action already supported by former White House Counselor Steve Bannon, and even Vice President Pence’s Chief of Staff Nick Ayers.
But third, and most importantly in the long run: Not only is the President separating himself from potential blame in the political fallout, but he is also reaffirming the sovereignty and responsibilities of each individual branch of government. By revoking Obama’s unconstitutional executive order on DACA, and returning the Iran Deal to Congress as a possible treaty, President Trump is returning to the separation of powers that was, only until Obama’s tenure, largely unchallenged in American politics.
President Trump is indeed using the power of the executive quite frequently - but for the purpose of undoing Obama’s overreaching executive actions, taking away the recent imbalance of power in the presidency, and restoring the system of checks and balances that is enshrined in our Constitution. Being able to shed most political blame for failure while still sharing the credit for success is just the icing on the cake.