From the Director: From executive orders to legislation

From the Director: From executive orders to legislation

President Trump’s first month was dominated by his executive orders—both those that have moved forward and those that have not. As they shift from executive orders to legislation, the Trump administration will now find it is even harder to work with Congress to pass a law.

During the campaign, Trump promised to introduce ten legislative acts by day 100, covering tax reform, energy, infrastructure, immigration, child care, and health care—among other areas.

Legislation has a longer shelf life than an executive order, but it’s harder to accomplish. If legislation is the priority, the Trump team needs to get started now. 

Johnson kept his eyes on the prize: legislation.

The president might learn a thing or two from Lyndon Johnson. President Johnson, a master politician, believed in the importance not of the first month or first 100 days, but instead of the first year.

You’ve got to give it all you can that first year… Doesn’t matter what kind of majority you come in with.  You’ve got just one year when they treat you right, and before they start worrying about themselves. 

Johnson kept his eyes on the prize: legislation.

Art of the Congressional deal—popularity and mid-terms 

To get this done, the 36th president might tell the 45th president to be clear-eyed regarding what he can achieve. For Johnson, a mandate was a function of two things: presidential popularity (Trump’s remains unusually low) and the size of his party’s majority in Congress (Trump is in relatively strong shape there). 

Popularity and legislative advantage are often at their peak on inauguration day. After that, things generally start to go downhill. For all presidents, looming mid-terms mean that Congressional action in the second year is always shadowed by clouds of fear.

So the first year is of the essence. 

Johnson had advantages Trump does not. For example, the Texan began 1965 at 70% public approval with substantial Democratic representation in the House and Senate—295 seats in the House, and 68 seats in the Senate. As a result, LBJ had a monumental year in 1965, passing major laws on voting rights, Medicare and Medicaid, immigration, and education. But by 1966, Democrats lost seven Governorships, seven Senate seats, and over forty House seats. A leakage of political capital can happen quickly.

Trump is in a far less dominant position than Johnson was, but Republicans do control Congress.

Three other presidents—Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—also provide lessons to Trump, albeit somewhat different ones. Like LBJ, all three enjoyed majorities in both houses of Congress and achieved lasting success in their first year. 

President Obama started 2009 at 62% approval, and used big Democratic majorities alone to pass an agenda featuring economic recovery, auto company bailouts, banking reform, and (just after the first year mark) the Affordable Care Act. He spent political capital, and paid a price: by November of 2010, Democrats lost six Senate seats and 63 House seats—including the House majority, which the party has not yet reclaimed. 

Alternatively, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush found a way to work with the opposition. Each president divided the first year into two seasons—a spring sport and a fall sport.

Both Clinton and Bush worked with their own party’s congressional majorities to accomplish major partisan successes in the spring of their first year, with the former partnering with Democrats to raise taxes and the latter teaming with Republicans to cut them.

Yet each used the second half of the year—their fall sport—to reach across party lines. Clinton worked with Republicans to pass NAFTA while Bush worked with Democrats to pass No Child Left Behind education reform

A five step program

Each item on the Trump agenda requires a different coalition—each difficult to assemble.

So what does all this mean for Trump and a Republican-led Congress for the next year?

First, Trump enters office unusually unpopular. There’s no Trump version of a sweeping Great Society agenda. Each item on the Trump agenda requires a different coalition—each difficult to assemble. Trump and his team need to pare down his legislative wish list to two or three items and pursue them with discipline.

Second, early wins can help. They can lead to later ones (so can early defeats). It’s fine to look for low-hanging fruit before tackling the hardest and most contentious issues.

Third, Trump would be wise to follow the Clinton and Bush model and seek a major bipartisan agreement. This approach has political benefits (higher approval ratings) and increases the likelihood that his legislative achievements will last rather than be undone.

House Speaker Paul Ryan had hoped that the spring sport would be to repeal and replace Obamacare. Of course, “replace” is the hard part, and the president himself expressed doubt that it could happen in the first year. The fall sport might be working with Democrats on an ambitious infrastructure bill.  He could pay for the latter with tax reform—including possibly a carbon-tax, as suggested by former Bush 41 economist Bill Gale of the Brookings Institution in a First Year project essay, as well as by Reagan and Bush Secretaries of State George Schultz and Jim Baker.

Fourth, in a polarized America he must balance working with the opposition against starting a civil war amongst Republicans. If he chooses to work with Democrats first, Republicans may wonder whether he can be trusted. Jimmy Carter alienated his party early on in his presidency, and he never fully recovered.

Fifth, crises can throw off the best laid plans. National security crises will crowd out second and third tier priorities. The president’s power to dictate events, while considerable, is still more limited than most presidents imagine. Successful presidents adjust to shifting circumstances, yet stay focused on their priorities. For instance, despite September 11th, George W. Bush persisted and worked with Democrats to pass education reform in his first year.

Sixth, passing legislation is vital, but it’s not enough. Legislative success is useful only if it leads to greater prosperity and flourishing. Bad legislative outcomes can help guarantee a one-term presidency. No deal is better than a bad deal.

No presidency ever fully resembles the ones that came before it. Every president can learn from past presidents. To be sure, Trump is unprecedented. But that is no guarantee of success.  History has lessons to offer. And history has its eyes on the new president and his first year.