Plum Books and Outlooks

Plum Books and Outlooks: Finding Your Feet in a New Government

 President Trump recently passed his 50th day in office. Though legally of no consequence, the first three months of a President’s tenure is often the only chance he has to set the legislative agenda and therefore the tone of Washington in the coming years. This year, the Trump Administration launched a myriad of executive actions and legislative topics. As part of our series tracking the new Administration, we decided the first fifty days was a good time to take a break from ceaseless news briefings and to take a slightly more atmospheric view of the pace of events. 

So much of our democratic system is guided by norm, not by law. In few places is that more true than it is in the issuing of Executive Orders. Since taking office January 20, President Trump has signed 34 Executive Orders. This number is not far off from historic precedent. Between Inauguration Day and Jan. 31, Trump signed seven Executive Orders and 11 memos; in the same timeframe, Obama signed nine orders and 10 memos.

Each new president seeks to alter the course and tone of the government upon taking office. And Executive Orders are one of the chief ways for the president to exert authority over the interpretation of an action, although he has no power to make law, nor to fund it. Executive Orders are most often symbolic attempts to “guide” agencies’ and departments’ policy making. It is this uncertain legal ground upon which Trump’s travel ban against majority-Muslim countries has taken on water.

The revised travel ban, which went into effect Thursday, March 16, has already faced hold-ups in court. At least five states are taking legal action to block parts of Trump’s newest Executive Order. “We’re asserting that the president cannot unilaterally declare himself free of the court’s restraining order and injunction,” Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson told reporters at a news conference on March 9. “This is not a new lawsuit. … It’s our view that that temporary restraining order that we’ve already obtained remains in effect. And the burden is on the federal government to explain why it does not.” The argument in the Washington State court is not so much about the legality of the ruling as they are about the previous injunction against it that was sustained.

However, the argument proffered in the Hawaii court is that the Executive Order is unconstitutional. This argument is not limited to the text of the order but is reinforced by the statements made by President Trump on Twitter during the campaign when he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” That court case also pulls from similar statements made by chief authors of the Executive Order Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller. With the Trump White House as with all executive branch staffs, who you surround yourself with matters.

People are policy. With whom Trump chooses to surround himself greatly affects what his administration will accomplish. He has sent nominations to the Senate at a faster pace than most recent presidents, but has struggled to get those nominees confirmed. He trails President Obama on both measures. President Trump has sent 33 appointees to the Senate for confirmation with 18 already confirmed. But cabinet level nominations are simply the tip of a vast political appointee iceberg.

These top aides are just a slice of the thousands of positions Trump’s transition team may need to find appointees for — people who will oversee day-to-day operations at the agencies that make up the executive branch of government.

When President Obama left office on Jan. 20, so did his appointees, which means President-elect Donald Trump can fill more than 4,000 vacancies by presidential appointment in his new administration.

Positions range from high-profile advisers and Cabinet posts to ambassadors, small agency directors and special assistants. Team Trump has already received more than 65,000 résumés from job seekers.

These are positions listed in the Office of Personnel Management’s newly released Plum Book. Trump has said he will trim the bureaucracy, so some may not be filled. (The book actually lists about 9,000 jobs, but about 5,000 of those are nonpolitical and filled with civil servants who don’t usually leave when the president does.)

Roughly 500 appointees do not require Senate approval. These make up the so called “beachhead” teams deployed to various government agencies and departments. The beachhead team members are temporary employees serving for stints of four to eight months, but many are expected to move into permanent jobs. The Trump Administration’s model is based on plans developed, but never used, by the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Mitt Romney. However, personnel asymmetries do not end with appointees. The Administration will need to hone in on congressional differences and change the tone of a jubilant but disorganized ruling party in order to fulfill campaign promises.

Two thirds of this Congress has never served under a Republican president. Many of the Representatives in the House were elected largely as a result of the backlash over ACA in 2010. They must now transition into a governing party that coordinates messages, and pursues policy in an unequivocal manner lest they become victim to their own intransigence. If you are the opposition party, it is quite easy to hold a press conference and show your “10-Point Plan” to save the world. It is quite a different thing to write passable legislation.

Perhaps nowhere is that more true than in the budget reconciliation measures being taken to revise the Affordable Care Act. Without super-majority control of the Senate, Republicans must use a budget reconciliation to dismantle Obama’s signature law. However, using this method has its limitations. They can only focus on funding matters and not on the full scope of the law. The House Budget Committee began marking up its ACA repeal legislation (The American Healthcare Act, AHCA) last Wednesday.

The GOP bill went to the budget panel after a combined 44 hours of debate in two key committees since Wednesday morning. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said the House will pass the measure, likely over the objections of some conservatives, by the end of March. The House Ways and Means Committee approved the bill, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee completed its 27-hour markup yesterday.

The debate over the AHCA is but the warm-up to the greater budget race about to start. On Thursday, March 16 at 7 am, president Trump released his ‘skinny’ budget. A president’s budget is more of a wish list than anything else, and this blueprint will face tough scrutiny in the congressional appropriations process, which turns the budget request into law.

It is important to remember that the President’s budget is the initial step in the federal budget and appropriation process. Before any spending is finalized, the House and Senate must pass spending bills for the President to sign. Many members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – have expressed skepticism about the budget, even before it was announced and Thursday’s release increased those doubts.

While there is a long road to a final spending bill, this proposal is an important bellwether for how Trump and his administration view the federal budget and government spending.

Campaigning is easy, governing is hard. The sheer magnitude of interest groups pushing for their slice of cake adds a layer of fury to the mess of government. Perhaps our founding fathers designed it to be this way. Too much efficiency can mean there is a great deal of concentrated power. As the old adage goes, you may campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.