Thursday, 2 March 2017

Taking the temperature of Trump’s Beltway

After 41 days in office, US President Donald Trump’s official actions as the 45th President of the US has only surprised those who didn’t pay attention during his election campaign.

In the first week, Mr Trump signed six executive orders. They were directives to scale back the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), a ban on international groups using federal funds for abortion and an order imposing a hiring freeze on federal employees.

He also withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), made a decision to halt EPA contracts, ordered the immediate construction of a border wall with Mexico and suspended a refugee programme from seven countries.

Every major world publication boiled irate over at least one of these decisions, often every single order, finding nothing redeeming in any of Mr Trump’s actions. As a response, he has steadily scolded the “lying press,” going so far as to block or ignore questions from particular journalists or media organisations.

The key factor is US government departments are broadly ignoring the White House order for a hiring freeze, with the Defence Department issuing a 16-point exemption list saying it would continue to fill “critical” new roles. House and Senate intelligence committees also want to hire more cyber-security staff this year while Mr Trump himself chose to exempt the US Forest Service from the freeze.

Most departments will continue ignore or circumvent the orders. The president is not Washington’s manager. The department’s actions add proof to the White House as essentially a vestigial organ. The civil service runs itself and is insulated by design from “politics.” But even the civil service depends on consent. Apart from the judicial branch, its invulnerability is not even in the Constitution – it is just an act of Congress – so it walks a fine line.

"One by one, we're checking off the promises we made to the people of the United States. One by one. A lot of promises. And we will not stop until the job is done." Mr Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. But try as he might, he will struggle to secure his promises as the civil service looks the other way.

When Democrat presidents are at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they have the good sense not to interfere with the civil service, and Washington continues in its natural form as a bureaucratic state. But because Mr Trump is a Republican, he is causing a certain amount of trouble, but this is more provocation than administration.

The EPA is also fighting back both against Mr Trump’s executive orders for cancelling grants and contracts. Its folded-arms is exemplary of the 20th-century American civil-service system design to respond with perfect fidelity to the US university system, which ignores all elected officials.

Despite the complaints from the media, observers are seeing that Americans could probably elect Donald Trump for four straight terms, and there still wouldn’t be a thing he could to do to get EPA to hand out grants to climate sceptics. The EPA is expected to fight a proposed budget slash which would eliminate one in five staff and drop its funding from $US8.1 billion to $US6.1 billion.

The only exception to this stubbornness appears to be on the military side of the fence. At the Pentagon, there is still some executive function in the role of “commander in chief.” Mr Trump has asked the Defence Department to construct a new anti-Islamic State war plan, and early details suggest former President Barack Obama’s existing plan will be updated rather than rejected.

Further to this support at the Pentagon, pending the full release of Mr Trump’s 2018 $US3 trillion budget later in mid-March, he also chose to announce an increase in military spending by 3% ($US54 billion), with a $US30 billion supplementary spending for the remainder of 2017. To rub salt into the State Department, the $US54 billion will be cut from its agencies to give to the Pentagon.

Another of Mr Trump’s earliest decisions was to fill the vacant Supreme Court Justice seat with conservative judge Neil Gorsuch. But the White House does not appoint Supreme Court justices. It only nominates them. A significant difference. This power is certainly nontrivial, but it’s also easy for the media to overstate. The Supreme Court had its day in the 1950-1970s – the golden age of judicial legislation – but the branch is locked in place today.

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