For the ongoing soap opera that is the White House, the impression coming off from most media outlets is that the President has accomplished nothing since he has not succeeded in passing any major legislation. The federal government’s reach and scope is much larger, however, than just crafting new laws, and the President has seen success when it comes to regulatory reform and his agenda items being implemented by various government agencies. Much of these changes fly under the radar because the media is focused on the big items, like health care, tax reform, or the the President’s latest tweet.
The Atlantic chronicles some of the ways that the Trump administration is having an effect despite congressional gridlock:
Things are going considerably better for the shadow government. With the Trump administration’s chaos sucking up all the attention, it’s been able to move forward on a range of its priorities, which tend to be more focused on regulatory matters anyway. It is remaking the justice system, rewriting environmental rules, overhauling public-lands administration, and greenlighting major infrastructure projects. It is appointing figures who will guarantee the triumph of its ideological vision for decades to come.
The trick here is that the administration and this shadow government are one and the same. Even as the public government sputters, other elements of the Trump administration are quietly remaking the nation’s regulatory landscape, especially on the environment and criminal justice.
On border security and immigration:
One of the two biggest victories has come on border security, which was one of Trump’s top campaign priorities. Border crossings have already plummeted, suggesting that rhetoric making it clear to immigrants that they are not welcome is effective in its own right. Customs and Border Protections report that apprehensions of unauthorized people are down nearly 20 percent from the same time in 2016.
On the federal judiciary, where a large vacancy of judges leaves many opportunities for the President to shape the bench for decades to come:
Trump may get to appoint several more justices to the high court. And in the meantime, he’s filling up lower courts with lifetime appointees. As the veteran Democratic official Ron Klain wrote recently, “A massive transformation is underway in how our fundamental rights are defined by the federal judiciary. For while President Trump is incompetent at countless aspects of his job, he is proving wildly successful in one respect: naming youthful conservative nominees to the federal bench in record-setting numbers.”
On environmental regulations and changes at the EPA:
There are the quiet, far-reaching changes. Getting back to Pruitt, the environment is one of the places where the Trump administration has had its largest impact. The most prominent move was Trump’s June 1 announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate accord. But the EPA is moving on other fronts as well. It’s working to dismantle Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a signature policy aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. In June, following a February executive order from Trump, the EPA began the process of rescinding the 2015 Waters of the United States rule, which aimed at protecting smaller bodies of water and streams in the same way that larger ones had been. In December, in the closing weeks of his administration, Obama banned drilling in the Arctic and parts of the Atlantic Ocean; the Trump administration promptly set about undoing that ban.
The New York Times found in June that Pruitt’s EPA “has moved to undo, delay or otherwise block more than 30 environmental rules, a regulatory rollback larger in scope than any other over so short a time in the agency’s 47-year history.” And it might have done more if not for constraints imposed by judges. EPA tried to abandon an Obama-era rule on methane emissions, but a court on Monday forced it to continue enforcing the rule.
On oil pipelines and natural gas exploration:
The State Department reversed an Obama-era decision, clearing the way for the Keystone XL pipeline to begin construction. The Interior Department is considering reversing a rule on fracking on public lands, and might also reverse some equipment regulations on offshore drilling equipment implemented after the 2010 Gulf oil spill. The department has rolled back a ban on coal mining on public lands.
On criminal justice, voting rights, and Justice Department policy:
Despite Trump’s recent, very public dissatisfaction with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has been particularly effective in changing the policy landscape. Sessions, a long-time conservative crusader for tough-on-crime policies, has moved to enforce them. Over the objections of libertarians and civil libertarians, and contrary to a bipartisan move toward criminal-justice reform over the last decade, he strengthened the federal government’s power of civil-asset forfeiture, a practice that allows police to seize cash and goods from people suspected (but not convicted) of crimes, and one that is often abused. Also contrary to recent trends, he has reversed Obama-era policy by encouraging prosecutors to pursue the harshest sentences for low-level drug offenses. Even if Sessions doesn’t last long in his job, those handed long prison terms will still be behind bars.
Although the Justice Department had staunchly opposed a Texas voting law that has repeatedly been smacked down by courts as discriminatory, Sessions switched the department’s position, and it has now told courts the law ought to be allowed to remain. The attorney general has also sought to cut off funding to so-called sanctuary cities, though his legal authority to do so is disputed.
On social issues:
Curiously, since he campaigned as an atypically LGBT-friendly Republican, Trump has also made a range of changes on gay issues. Last week alone, the Justice Department announced that sexual orientation was not covered by Section VII, and the president said that transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the military. The administration has also rejected Obama-era protections for transgender students.
In fact, Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, went on the record to say he sort of appreciates the President running block and offering up daily distractions because it helps him work quietly and uninhibited, according to the Washington Examiner:
One of President Trump’s highest-profile Cabinet nominees, Carson has maintained one of the lowest profiles of any Cabinet secretary.
And that’s the way he likes it, Carson says.
“Let me put it this way,” Carson told the Washington Examiner in an interview on Wednesday, “I’m glad that Trump is drawing all the fire so I can get stuff done.”
Meanwhile, the retired neurosurgeon has remained one of the Cabinet members most unscathed by the administration’s raucous first six months. Carson has instead remained out of the spotlight, focusing on initiatives such as Housing First, his push to end homelessness and help move individuals into the “engine” of America.
“The goal is really to get these people off the streets where they’re in danger, and where they actually cost society more than if you go ahead and take care of them,” Carson said. “We also have to think about the fact that every single human being has potential, and I look at them as human capital, and if we develop that, we’re talking about them becoming part of the engine, and if we don’t develop it, part of the load.”
As the Atlantic notes above, changes made by government agencies are not as difficult to undo the way legislation is. The next administration in 2020 or 2024 could could simply rollback some of the changes that the Trump administration makes, just like some Obama administration regulations are being rolled back now.
On the other hand, the federal bureaucracy has become large enough that filling out the cabinet and letting them go to work at the various levels of government can lead to permanent change in some instances, such as approval of the Keystone XL pipeline which, once built, is not something that a future administration would be able to simply undo with a policy change.
The President is still searching for a big legislative victory, but until then, he’ll have to rely on watching his cabinet picks work his agenda at the agency level.