Jonathan Bernstein: What to make of Trump’s mad power grab plan

19 July 2023

Donald Trump and his allies are pledging to remake the presidency if he is elected again, giving him and the office more authority than it has ever had and certainly far more than the framers of the US Constitution envisioned.

The biggest problem with Trump’s plan for an all-powerful, unconstrained presidency, using in part proposals from his conservative allies at the Heritage Foundation, is that it’s a formula for authoritarian government.

One-person rule — even elected one-person rule — is simply not compatible with republican ideals.

It’s also contrary to the words and spirit of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes what political scientist Richard Neustadt called a system of “separated institutions sharing powers.” That’s even more true when that person has consistently shown contempt for the rule of law.

But perhaps less obvious is that this version of the presidency, in which the entire sprawling executive branch of the government loses its independence and acts as an extension of the White House staff, is a recipe for bad policy and comic blunders. That’s true no matter who the president might be.

Among the steps outlined in a New York Times story detailing what Trump is pledging are gutting the top layer of the executive branch bureaucracy and replacing it with political appointees. The president could refuse to spend money appropriated by Congress for programs he doesn’t like (a practice, “impoundment,” that was probably always unconstitutional and was specifically banned by law after Richard Nixon repeatedly attempted it). The president would also claim full control of independent agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission and, perhaps, the Federal Reserve.

To be sure, it’s not clear how much of this would actually happen, but it’s what Trump is campaigning on so it’s worth taking seriously. (Trump would need Congress and the courts to go along on much of it, and in his first term there’s a very long list of examples of Trump getting rolled by Congress, executive branch agencies, and even his own White House staff. And while it’s certainly true that Trump’s conception of the presidency allows no room for sharing authority with others, this particular set of institutional changes is mainly driven by a handful of ideologues who have Trump’s ear at the moment but may or may not have any influence over him by the time a second term began. There’s a long history of people who thought they could manipulate Trump to fulfill their own agenda only to be cast aside.)

If Trump or some other president were able to carry out all of what he’s promising and truly implement a “unitary executive,” the entire executive branch, every single department and agency would be directly responsible only to the president. For the thousands of people who set and implement policy, loyalty to the president would be the main criteria for having and keeping their jobs.

It’s not just that agency independence would end. Congress’s influence would be hollowed out. Congress’s tools for influencing policy — passing spending bills, setting the basic mission and specific tasks for agencies in authorizing legislation, and Senate confirmation of presidential nominees — would all be rendered weaker or useless. For example, if top staffers who currently have civil service protections were instead personally loyal to the president, Senate confirmation of their bosses would be largely irrelevant because the agency would respond to the president regardless of whether he bothered to nominate anyone.

We know how that turns out because we know what happens when the White House attempts to implement policy itself instead of delegating to experts. It results in a fiasco.

My favorite example has always been what White House counsel John Dean told President Nixon in the middle of the Watergate cover-up, when Nixon was directing Dean to pay hush money to the Watergate burglars. Dean explained: “It’ll cost money. It’s dangerous. Nobody, nothing — people around here are not pros at this sort of thing. This is the sort of thing Mafia people can do: washing money, getting clean money, and things like that uh, — we’re — we just don’t know about those things, because we’re not use to, you know — we are not criminals.”

The thing is though that there are people in government — not criminals — who actually are experts in “things like that.” But Nixon couldn’t use FBI agents (or others in the intelligence community) to do what he wanted. In part that’s because he and Dean in this instance were in fact criminals. But more importantly because when Nixon tried to use the FBI to spy on his political enemies he was rebuffed, and he responded by doing it anyway, in-house (where the house in question was the White House staff), and that produced the comedy of errors that was Watergate.

A more recent example of this was Trump’s attempt to deal with the coronavirus pandemic largely by ignoring the experts in the federal bureaucracy, which resulted in fiascoes including the president’s infamous “inject bleach” press conference. (No, Trump did not quite literally recommend injecting bleach. But he did speculate irresponsibly about miracle cures and overall he pushed a variety of phony cures to the virus. As with Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, which didn’t actually use the word malaise, sometimes the media shorthand correctly gets to the gist of a presidential misfire.) But there’s a long list of other examples, from disasters such as Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War and Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra affair to the struggles that Barack Obama had in attempting to run policy through the National Security Council.

The point is that trying to run the nation directly from the Oval Office just doesn’t work. Presidents themselves simply don’t — can’t — know enough to be able to make and implement policy personally, and even the large White House staff can’t possibly have enough operational expertise to do it themselves.

The same entrenched standard operating procedures that make it so hard for presidents to change agency practices also mean that the permanent bureaucracy generally at least knows what it’s doing. (Of course, civil servants are hardly perfect, or even always minimally competent. But the faults of the permanent bureaucracy are generally not those of inexperience or incompetence. As it is, the U.S. bureaucracy is already far weaker than that of most other large democracies, with far more room for political influence — from the president and from Congress — and far less independence for their expertise. It’s one of the things that, in my view, makes the U.S. a more robust democracy. But it’s one thing to restrict the independence of civil servants; it’s another to destroy it entirely.) That’s just not possible to replicate in a White House staff, which after all is short-term by nature. Turning the entire executive branch into a mega-White House would remove an important source of expertise from the system, and it would not be replaced.

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But there’s more than that. The fact that agencies have multiple bosses — not just the president, but also Congress and the policy networks relevant to their mission — means that they usually have a good sense of how relevant groups of citizens will react to any change in policy: What they will welcome, what they will resist, what they will find unworkable. That doesn’t mean that presidents should always follow their advice, but it does mean that the permanent bureaucracy is an important resource for information, something that all presidents desperately need. The White House staff’s very loyalty to the president limits their ability to see what the president doesn’t see, and those whose only constituency is in the Oval Office have strong incentives to avoid confronting or questioning their boss.

Governing is always frustrating and the presidency is likely the most frustrating office in world history. Being elected by millions of voters after a long, hard campaign and then finding that the office itself is shockingly weak and subject to all sorts of institutional constraints — on top of the limitations imposed by events — must be a very rude awakening. But there are no shortcuts. Being an effective president means finding ways to work successfully within the constraints that come with the job. Flipping over the tables and trying to govern by edict is simply a prescription for policy, and political, disaster.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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