Has Congress given up on Trump?

It’s hard for those of us (a fairly durable 50-something percent of the country, according to approval rating polls) who disapprove of the way job Donald Trump is handling his job as president to keep our heads straight about which of the things he does and says that drive us crazy have serious consequences, and which are just the latest evidence of a personality style that offends us (but, apparently, charms and earns him approval from a fairly durable 30-something percent of us).

For example, personally, I more than disapprove of the constant lying. It drives me crazy — not only that he lies so bare-facedly, but that he sort of gets away with it. My life’s work is rooted in the belief that facts matter; and facts aren’t facts unless they are both accurate and presented in a reasonable context not designed to mislead.

The current incumbent demonstrates, almost daily, that he is either a compulsive liar or lives in a fantasy world of “alternative facts,” as his spokester Kellyanne Conway dubbed his and his administration’s predilection for falsehoods, or maybe the alternative facts are only facts-that-he-likes, ripped out of context to create a larger falsehood.

But how many of these lies actually matter, versus how many are just painful to facticity nerds like me? One could ask a similar question about the many things he says that are deemed racist, sexist or otherwise offensive to a large portion of Americans. You can argue that it emboldens racists and sexists within our culture, and I won’t disagree. But, at some level, the harm done is more inchoate than concrete.

Other things about the Trump era surely matter more than the lying or the boorishness. Changes in law and policy can influence the lives of millions in large and small ways. It is fairly unusual in recent history for a president’s party to hold majorities in both houses of Congress, and even on the Supreme Court (if we take the party of the president who appointed each justice as a basis for assigning a partisan lean to the appointee, which is not always a simple matter).

For one year, we have had the all-Republican lineup with Trump “presiding,” in some unfamiliar sense of the word. So it’s with some surprise that we must note that said president has signed very few big bills into law. And the biggest one, the tax bill, scarcely resembled any of the tax promises Trump made as a candidate. It was a bill straight out of Republican orthodoxy (if we except that portion of the orthodoxy that used to complain about deficits and debt).

Trump proudly signed it, and claimed credit for the tax bill, and lied about whom it helped and whom it hurt. But it seemed much more a McConnell-Ryan product than a fulfillment of anything Trumpian.

A lot of other issues have been addressed by executive orders, signed by Trump, generally much more Trumpian in tone. Even some of those have been blocked by the courts. But the actual impact of some Trump orders has been overstated. In many cases, he seems to be reversing things that his predecessor did by executive order. This is, among other things, a reminder that things done by executive order are subject to rather easy reversal when there is a change in the executive. This is not how our system is supposed to work, but do you doubt that the next Democratic president will do to some of the Trump orders what Trump did to Obama’s?

I didn’t mean to go on this long before recommending the piece that set me off on this. Written by Brookings political scientist Elaine Kamarck, it is titled “Is President Trump Irrelevant?”

Kamarck’s headline is a much more efficient version of all my throat-clearing above and her argument is much better, although “irrelevant” seems a pretty aggressive word choice.

While Trump was publicly suggesting that another shutdown would be fine with him, leaders of both parties in both houses worked out a short-term deal to avoid that unnecessary inconvenience/embarrassment. According to Kamarck, the president was nowhere to be found in the process.

The leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress, Kamarck noted, have agreed to regular order in an effort to break the impasse over immigration. Trump, she suggests, apparently played no role in that. The Trumpian preference for a backroom deal, with himself as chief dealmaker, was replaced by something closer to the Framers’ vision.

“Why the shift?” Kamarck asked rhetorically. And answered: “My guess is that Congress has given up on Donald Trump. It took a year, but Washington is now realizing that it has an infotainment president, not a real one.

After the last short-lived government shutdown, I wondered in these pages: ‘Are we entering a period in history, not unlike the period between the Civil War and the Great Depression, when presidents were relatively weak and Congress ran the show?’ Two weeks later, the answer seems to be yes. Donald Trump is becoming irrelevant.

Is she right? How “irrelevant” can a president be, when he possesses the power to veto bills?

Kamarck is very sharp and expert in matters of Congress-watching. She acknowledged it’s a “guess,” although I would rate her guesses as educated ones.

But I note that the president and the press corps have spent the past week on who-should-have-fired-Rob-Porter-when? Yesterday’s biggest Trump story, however ridiculous this might be, was that Trump felt he had to specify that he was opposed to domestic violence.

Mitch McConnel, Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have not played big roles in that discussion. Have they been working on something that might turn into a reminder of, as the old Schoolhouse Rock video put it, how a bill becomes law? We’ll see.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/15/2018 - 10:52 am.

    Excellent question

    An excellent rhetorical question, and, having read Kararck’s piece, my own amateur’s answer is, “I certainly hope so.” This is one of those instances where my liberal old man self gives way to my more conservative old man self. Much as I loathe current Republican Congressional leadership, I much prefer that federal government policy be made by the governmental body designated by the Constitution to do so, and that body is Congress.

    Having national policy made by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell is a combination of frightening and frustrating, but even with those drawbacks, it’s better than having national policy be made by executive order, and – for me – that’s true no matter who the executive might be. I didn’t like Obama initiating policy via this strategy, even though I understood he was dealing with a Republican Congress determined to do nothing that he favored. It still smacked too much of the authoritarian. I like it even less with a badly-educated, budding neofascist with delusions of grandeur in the Oval Office. My personal dislike of the Current Occupant aside, however, the Constitutional procedure is for Congress to make the laws, not the President.

    As Eric points out with regularity, it’s a slow, cumbersome process, but it’s the process we have, and unless and until we’re prepared to go back to the drawing board and devise an entirely new process (i.e., write a new Constitution), I’d like to see the government (and the political parties) follow the process we have. That puts the responsibility of devising national policy squarely on the shoulders of your local Congressional Representative and her/his Senatorial colleague, which is where it should be. If you don’t like what they come up with, send them packing and elect someone else.

  2. Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 02/15/2018 - 11:11 am.

    President Trump’s tweets and other

    behavior serve as a useful distraction and help to keep the media and others from focusing on actions being taken that will have long lasting impact upon the United States. Personally, I am tired of the reporting that keeps harping on how stupid Trump is and how embarrassing he is, although I agree with both of those positions. And blathering on about his supporters accomplishes nothing. Progressives need to stop wringing their hands, start taking action, and begin to formulate a plan to fight back by offering ideas and policies that connect with people.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/15/2018 - 01:42 pm.

      You can offer all the plans you want

      but when the other party controls the executive and legislative branches of government, there is little you can do. As Eric points out, the only thing of consequence that Trump has done so far is to appoint a far right Supreme Court judge, as well as a number of federal court justices. This is something that we’ll have to live with for the foreseeable future.
      That’s why the most important thing for the Left to do is to take back the House in 2018, and as many State houses as possible. New laws can limit the damage the the executive and the judiciary can do.

      • Submitted by David LaPorte on 02/15/2018 - 02:14 pm.


        I’d certainly agree that any plans that progressives make today at the Federal level are unlikely to become law without Republican support. However, if they have no plans, they have no alternatives to offer.

        Being anti-Trump isn’t enough. Democrats have to offer positive alternatives that people find attractive. That gives voters a reason to work to get them into office.

        Having plans shows the Democrats haven’t consigned themselves to being ineffective. They can also form the basis for compromises. The Republicans are increasing fragmented, which means that they need Democratic support. That gives the Democrats leverage, which we’ve already seen play out in the budget negotiations.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/16/2018 - 09:21 am.


          It may be difficult for those younger than me to imagine, but in the early 80’s the GOP had no shot at the majority in the House, and they’d been in the minority for many years. Newt Gingrich took advantage of a new thing called C-Span. In the evenings he would go to the House floor and make speeches (to an off-camera empty chamber) about what the GOP would do if only they had the majority. Even people in the GOP thought he was a little nuts for thinking he was doing something that would lead to a GOP majority. But he was getting conservative policies out.

          In 1994 he ginned up the Contract With (On?) America, that said, “Vote for us, and here’s what we’ll do.”

          And that is how a man who has had more wives than Osama Bin Laden lead the party of family values into a Congressional majority.

          If you want to be elected, tell people what you’ll do, especially if you can’t do it now. In 2016 the DFL didn’t tell rural voters what they could do for them. How’d that work out?

  3. Submitted by John Edwards on 02/15/2018 - 07:22 pm.

    Selective Poll Watching

    Not sure what polls Eric is referring to (the 50-something vs-30 something). The current Real Clear Politics Average for Feb. 2 through Feb. 14 2018 had Trump at 42.3 percent approval and 53.3% disapproval.

    At a comparable period (second month, second year) in Barack Obama’s first term, the left-leaning Gallup Poll for Feb 15-21, 2010 had Obama at 49% approval; 43% disapproval; 8% no opinion. (Actually, both presidents in that 40-something range.)

    Once the public realized the consequences of Obama’s programs, his approval rating was a bit lower than Trump’s current rating. Gallup Poll: 2013 Oct 7-13 Approval 42%; 52% disapproval; 6% no opinion.

    Let’s see … exactly how many times have Eric and other leftists written off Trump?

Leave a Reply