The Presidency is shrinking. It’s unmistakable. While the current occupant of the Oval Office, Donald J. Trump, dominates the news, it is often for reasons other than the great policy questions of the day. Congress stripped the President of his ability to lift Russia sanctions unilaterally and forced his acquiescence through a veto proof majority. In Obamacare repeal, the President was reduced to a tweeting sideline cheerleader and Republicans are now openly talking with Democrats about shoring up President Barack Obama’s signature health law, in defiance of President Trump’s tweets insisting that they dismantle it.
In Congress, Republicans are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
The net effect of the Trump Presidency may be a reversal of the long-term trend of gravitating power towards the Presidency. Congress has long punted difficult policy questions to the executive branch, leaving federal agencies and the President’s team to work out important details of exactly how legislation will work and dramatically increasing the President’s power to shape and reshape policy in the process.
Yet, the erratic, stumbling Trump Presidency is forcing a rethink of that approach. Congress is beginning to show a reluctance to leave power in the hands of a President prone to misuse it. Republicans complained loudly, and rightly, about President Obama’s many abuses of executive power. But, a president of their own party may prove the catalyst for finally doing something about it.
Voices on the left have despaired that Republican elected officials have not joined them in shrieking denunciation of the President. That is a politically difficult proposition for lawmakers of a party whose base continues to strongly support their President. Rather than condemn Trump, Republicans in Congress and the courts are erecting guardrails to constrain his excesses.
The fiasco of the President’s initial travel ban executive order was an early red flag. Setting aside the wisdom of the policy itself, the order was chaotically executed and so incompetently drafted that courts were sure to block it — which they did. Even after the most glaring problems with the order were addressed in subsequent iterations, courts continued to stand in the way. It was an assertion of judicial authority arguably beyond that to which past Presidents would have been subjected.
President Trump’s sudden decision to fire FBI Director James Comey unnerved even many of his Republican supporters in Congress. It served only to intensify focus on the Russia probe, prompting the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel. When President Trump began to openly ponder firing Mueller, lawmakers were quick to warn that such a move would result in a furious reaction from Congress. “All hell would break loose,” Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, told the Washington Examiner.
“Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency unless Mueller did something wrong,” Senator Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, warned. Graham said he plans to introduce bipartisan legislation that would block the President from firing the special counsel.
In the aftermath of the failure of the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare, lawmakers largely ignored the President’s tweeted demands to revive it. “We’ve got other things to do,” Senator John Thune responded. “It’s time to move on,” Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, said.
Over the weekend, the President tweeted that Obamacare was sure to implode and threatened steps that would hasten its demise. Yet, key Republicans have already begun working with Democrats on legislation that would shore up the law and curtail the President’s ability to make a self-fulfilling prophecy of his prediction that Obamacare will “implode.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, chair of the Senate Health Committee, announced bipartisan hearings in early September aimed at charting a course with Democrats towards fixing Obamacare. In the House, a bipartisan group of lawmakers calling themselves the Problem Solving Caucus is doing the same.
Checks and Balances
Early in his presidency, alarmists warned that Trump’s presidency could morph into an autocracy. Six months in, things seem to be going in the exact opposite direction. Congress is beginning to reassert its role as a check on the executive branch. “I think we should,” Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, told the New York Times. “We have three branches of government.”
Despite all the dysfunction of Washington, the checks and balances so carefully constructed by the founders are beginning to do their work. The long expansion of power invested in the Presidency may finally be set to ebb, and the genius of the founders is revealing itself anew.