During an unusual Cabinet meeting Monday morning, President Trump returned to a theme that he has embraced from the outset of his tenure: People don’t understand just how much he has done.
“I will say that never has there been a president — with few exceptions; in the case of [Franklin D. Roosevelt], he had a major depression to handle — who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than what we’ve done,” Trump said, “between the executive orders and the job-killing regulations that have been terminated. Many bills; I guess over 34 bills that Congress signed.”
Sort of. The claim leans heavily on two things: treating all passed legislation as equal and counting executive orders as significant accomplishments.
Roosevelt did indeed sign more legislation into law than Trump, by a wide margin. Even within the first 100 days, Roosevelt easily outpaced Trump. But, then, so did the man who took over for him, Harry Truman. One reason for that, as FiveThirtyEight explained earlier this year, is the increased use of subcommittees to vet legislation, slowing down the legislative process.
Notice, though, that outside of the 100-day window, Trump also signed fewer pieces of legislation than Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter did by June 12.
A large chunk of Trump’s legislation includes bills passed under the Congressional Review Act, a measure that allows Congress to overturn regulations enacted by a president. The window for passing such legislation is narrow, requiring that resolutions to overturn regulations be filed by the end of March. According to data from Govtrack, Trump signed 14 measures of disapproval under the CRA. Three more of his bills were largely ceremonial, including naming a post office and a courthouse and establishing a memorial.
Update: GovTrack’s Josh Tauberer notes another metric. When comparing pages of legislation signed into law — a proxy for the complexity of the legislation — Trump trails Barack Obama by a wide margin. So far, Trump’s signed into law 858 pages of legislation. By this time in 2009, Obama had signed 1,766.
The core of Trump’s argument lies in his having signed a number of executive orders. He has signed 36 — more than during the first 150 days of any other recent president.
If you add those two metrics together, Trump has gotten the most done.
Of course, if a president wanted to, he could sign any number of executive orders that had little to no effect or that were thrown out by the courts. (On Monday, for example, an appeals court upheld a block on Trump’s immigration ban.) Executive orders can affect the implementation of legislation and the organization of government, but are necessarily limited in the effect they can have. But they can also be largely rhetorical, political demonstrations meant to rally a base.
Put another way, if you simply want a number that you can use to argue how much you’ve gotten done, executive orders would be an effective way to do that. It’s a bit like a baseball player arguing that the real metric isn’t hits, it’s hits plus swings.
And so, on Trump’s unusual combined metric — bills passed plus executive orders — he has been the most productive president since Roosevelt, edging out Jimmy Carter.
Lots of swings.