Builder-turned-president Donald Trump has in many ways made good on his promise to be a political wrecking ball.
Last week, he withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord. He has worked to roll back dozens of health, environment, labor and financial rules put in place by former president Barack Obama, and he scrapped a far-reaching trade deal with Asia as one of his first acts in office.
But he and his fellow Republicans have made little progress in building an affirmative agenda of their own, a dynamic that will be on display when Congress returns this week with few major policies ready to advance.
Voters are still waiting for progress on the $1 trillion package of infrastructure projects Trump promised, the wall along the Southern border he insisted could be quickly constructed and the massive tax cuts he touted during the campaign. Even debate over health-care reform is largely focused on eliminating key parts of the Affordable Care Act and allowing states to craft policies in their place.
After being the “party of no” during the Obama years, Republicans are trying to figure out what they want to achieve in this unexpected Trump era — beyond just rolling back what Obama did.
“We are in an ugly era of people who do not understand what the legislative branch is even for,” said Andy Karsner, who served as assistant secretary of energy for efficiency and renewable energy in the George W. Bush administration and is now based in California, working with entrepreneurs as managing partner of the Emerson Collective.
The Trump administration and Republican leadership in Congress, Karsner said, “have no skill set, they have no craftsmanship. They have no connection to the time when people passed legislation.”
Trump’s aides fervently push back at the idea that the president is not already in building mode. Marc Short, Trump’s director of legislative affairs, rattled off a list of things the president has built so far: A better job environment with fewer regulations, relationships with fellow foreign leaders and U.S. lawmakers, a budget and a plan for overhauling health care, along with nominating Neil M. Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. The administration plans to roll out a number of infrastructure projects this week and tackle tax reform this fall, along with getting started on building a border wall, he said.
“The American people elected him president, in part, to undo much of the damage that President Obama did to our economy,” Short said.
But even some Republicans have raised questions about what the party now stands for, as opposed to what it is against.
Asked during a recent interview for a Politico podcast what the Republican Party stands for now, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) responded: “I don’t know.”
Sasse said that both parties are “intellectually exhausted” and too focused on winning the next election, prompting them to get caught up in day-to-day fights instead of looking to the future. Later, Sasse was asked to give one word to describe the Republican Party, and he said: “Question mark.”
Short said the Republican Party stands for keeping the country secure and freeing businesses so the economy can boom and taxpayers can keep more of their money. He added that the president has been slowed by congressional Democrats who dragged their feet in approving Cabinet nominees and continue to obstruct Trump’s agenda.
Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said the appearance that Trump and Republicans are only focused on reversing Obama-era executive actions stems from the fact that “there’s a lot to do there.”
“The one thing that I think is underappreciated is the extent to which the entire Obama agenda in the last term was executed through executive order. Much of what President Trump was elected to do was roll that back,” Holmes said. “To the extent that a lot of this is focused on that, that’s the way you handle it. Most administrations, there are legacies left by signature legislative accomplishments — and [Obama] had health care and Dodd-Frank, but he basically spent six and a half years doing nothing from a legislative perspective.”
Holmes, like many other Republicans, stressed that it’s early in Trump’s term, and he was encouraged to see the president focus on American taxpayers and improving the economy in announcing his decision to leave the Paris climate agreement on Thursday. That sort of focus will help rally support for tax reform, he said.
“I would be concerned if the trajectory didn’t improve. In the next couple of months, you don’t need signature accomplishments, but you need progress towards it,” Holmes said. “I think tax reform is critically important for this administration — critically important. They’ve got to get it right.”
For many Democrats, all they see in Trump and his fellow Republicans is a bulldozer. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that the past six months have shown that “the hard right, which has enveloped the Trump administration, is seasoned at being negative but can’t do anything positive.”
Republicans have used the Congressional Review Act to nullify 14 rules enacted by the Obama administration. Before this year, it had only been used successfully once in 20 years. If Trump and Republicans had not reversed these rules, then companies applying for federal contracts would have had to disclose their labor violations; coal mines would have had to reduce the amount of debris dumped into streams; telecommunications companies would have had to take “reasonable measures” to protect their customers’ personal information; individuals receiving Social Security payments for disabling mental illnesses would have been added to a list of those not allowed to buy guns; states would have been limited in the drug-testing they could perform on those receiving unemployment insurance benefits; certain hunting practices would not have been allowed on national wildlife refuges in Alaska; and states could have set up retirement savings plans for those who don’t have the option at work.
Short said the fact that Trump was able to use the Congressional Review Act more than a dozen times when it had only been used once before is “a pretty significant accomplishment” and one that he says will benefit the economy by billions of dollars each year.
“We look at that as one of the biggest accomplishments,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) recently touted this rollback of Obama-era regulations while visiting a nuclear power plant in Tonopah, Ariz., bragging that Republicans were able to “reach back into the old administration and pull some of the regulations and start fresh.”
Within agencies, the Trump administration has also worked to scrap regulations that it says hindered businesses.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, the administration has revoked several Obama-era policies aimed at reducing pollution and confronting climate change. Trump has signed an executive order to open up oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, while Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has signed a secretarial order to revisit drilling plans in two reserves in Alaska.
Trump has directed the Labor Department to reverse Obama-era rules imposing restrictions on major banks and investment advisers, and the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has also rolled back multiple regulations aimed at fostering worker protections. These include the delay of a rule requiring employers report worker injury and illness records electronically so they can be posted online, and the cancellation of a directive allowing a union official to accompany an OSHA inspector as an employee representative into a nonunion shop.
Multiple agencies have jettisoned or played down policies aimed at fostering LGBT rights. The Department of Housing and Urban Development revoked guidance for a rule requiring that transgender people stay at the sex-segregated shelter of their choice, while the Department of Health and Human Services has removed questions about sexual orientation from two of the surveys it conducts. The Justice and Education departments, moreover, withdrew guidance issued last year that instructed school districts to provide transgender students with access to facilities that accord with their chosen gender identity.
And while Republicans continue to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Trump administration has begun to unwind aspects of the legislation through executive action, including no longer enforcing a fine for those who do not have health insurance, broadening exemptions for the contraception mandate and encouraging states to file waivers with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Trump has also proposed significant budget cuts, including reducing the State Department budget by 33 percent, the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, the departments of Agriculture and Labor by 21 percent each, the Department of Health and Human Services by 18 percent, the Commerce Department by 16 percent and the Education Department by 14 percent.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that career employees at the EPA and departments of Labor and State have told him that Trump’s “destroy not build” approach is causing harm that could last for decades.
“They see their life’s work crumbling, because they see a president taking a sledgehammer to really complex aspects of policy,” he said. “They realize there’s pros and cons and conflicting interests, and they’ve tried to reach compromises that he just impulsively destroys because it was a good campaign slogan.”
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.