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Has Congress given up on Trump?

A new article by Brookings political scientist Elaine Kamarck is entitled “Is President Trump Irrelevant?”

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.

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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.

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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.