A barrage of presidential actions

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We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action -
constantly complaining but never doing anything about it. The time for
empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action. Inaugural Address

Most of the president’s cabinet nominees have yet to be confirmed by the US Senate, so the new administration is operating with a skeleton crew. It may take weeks for Congress to pass any major legislation. But there has been no lack of activity in DC, as President Trump issued more than a dozen executive orders and memoranda during his first ten days on the job.

Most of the actions seem familiar, having been repeatedly foreshadowed on the campaign trail. Supporters of the president (actual and potential) seem generally pleased that he is hitting the ground running, while critics have a very different reaction. Surprise! Trump doing what he said he would, Jordan Fabian & Jonathan Easley, thehill.com,

During the campaign, Trump’s critics dismissed his ambitious agenda as rhetoric that he’d back away from once in office. If candidate Trump beat the odds and made it to the White House, they said, the Trump Show will surely grind to a halt once he’s confronted with the realities of governing. It hasn’t turned out like that at all.

So the new administration is off to a good start? Not necessarily! Conservatives often found fault with the previous president for relying on executive actions to achieve (at least temporarily) his ends, while disdaining to heed criticism and work with Congress to craft policies that would endure. Could it be that the new president is revealing a similar tendency, or otherwise getting ahead of himself? Don’t forget: We are the checks and balances on Trump’s executive actions, Logan Albright, conservativereview.com,

So far, the response from the Right has largely been to cheer for the new president. Many on the Right have applauded his zeal to get things done, especially things that conservatives have been asking for so long. *** But before we engage in too public jubilation, I would advise conservatives and libertarians to be a bit more circumspect in their praise. The danger of hypocrisy, and of turning into the mirror image of our ideological opponents, is a real one.

With these thoughts in mind, this entry will take a closer look at the president’s actions. Here’s a list, with links to the underlying text (links to #14-15 were't available when then entry was posted, but were subsequently added.)

#1 – Order: Pending repeal of ACA, 1/20/17.

#2 - Memo: Regulatory freeze (signed by Chief of Staff),

#3 - Memo: Mexico City policy,

#4 – Memo: TPP withdrawal,

#5 – Memo: Hiring freeze,

#6 - Memo: Construction of American pipelines,

#7 - Order: Expediting review of high priority infrastructure projects,

#8 - Memo: Keystone XL pipeline,

#9 - Memo: Dakota access pipeline,

#10 - Memo: Streamlining permitting, domestic manufacturing projects,

#11 - Order: Interior security (sanctuary cities),

#12 - Order: Border security & immigration law enforcement,

#13 - Proclamation of School Choice Week,

#14 – Memo: Rebuild the military,

#15 – Order: Restrictions on refugees (extreme vetting),

#16 – Order: Five-year lobbying ban,

#17 – Memo: Plan to defeat Islamic State,

#18 – Memo: Restructure National Security Administration & Homeland Security Council,

Do any of these actions seem exceed the powers of the presidency? Will these actions have real impact, or are some of them merely symbolic? And are the actions based on sound policies?

I. Authority – A review of the various actions does not suggest any constitutional issues. Effective implementation would require congressional support in many cases, but the necessary caveats seem to be noted.

Consider, for example,
#I (order: pending appeal of ACA). The order states that the policy of the administration is to repeal the ACA; in the meantime, all concerned should minimize unnecessary regulatory burden and expense while clearing the way for the states to play a more significant rule. There is no suggestion that the ACA will or could be repealed based on the president’s authority.

Instructions given to the secretary of Health and Human Services and other officials apply only “to the maximum extent permitted by law.” And if revision of existing regulations is required, then the revision process must comply with the provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act and other applicable statutes.

Finally, there is no effort to circumvent the congressional “power of the purse.” Not only will implementation of this order be “consistent with applicable law,” but it is “subject to the availability of appropriations.”

II. Impact – While the various actions taken by the president seem legally proper, several are more symbolic than substantive.

#13. Besides proclaiming a week that was already half over to be “School Choice Week,” the president (a) commended students, parents, teachers and school leaders for their commitment to good education, (b) called on states and communities to support effective education and school choice for every child, (c) encouraged parents to evaluate the educational opportunities available for their children, and (d) encouraged state and federal lawmakers to expand school choice “for millions of additional students.”

Was the goal to provide moral support for school choice advocate Betsy DeVos, whose nomination as secretary of Education has been fiercely resisted by Senate Democrats? Chuck Schumer goes wild, Wall Street Journal,

“The president’s decision to ask Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education should offend every single American man, woman, and child who has benefitted from the public education system in this country. Public education has lifted millions out of poverty, has put millions in good paying jobs,” Mr. Schumer declared in a statement. “Betsy DeVos would single-handedly decimate our public education system if she were confirmed. Her plan to privatize education would deprive students from a good public education, while helping students from wealthy families get another leg up.”

#10 (streamlining permitting for domestic manufacturing projects) provides another example of symbolism. Directing officials “to support the expansion of manufacturing in the United States through expedited reviews of and approvals for proposals to construct or expand manufacturing facilities and through reductions in regulatory burdens affecting domestic manufacturing” is a meaningless abstraction. For the real ground rules, see a report of the secretary of Commerce that the nominee (Wilbur Ross) will be expected to issue within about 4 months of being confirmed.

#3 reinstates a Bush 43 era ban on the use of foreign aid money to fund or encourage abortions. While the principle involved seems reasonable, it’s doubtful that a great many taxpayer supported abortions will be avoided.

III. Merit – Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done, and in our view the first barrage of presidential actions run the gamut from well justified to questionable or worse.

We applaud
#8 (Keystone XL pipeline)and #9 (Dakota access pipeline). These private sector infrastructure projects would boost the economy and add to government revenues. The details have been studied endlessly, and no significant negatives are involved. See, e.g., An update on the Keystone Pipeline, 2/25/13.

#7 (expediting review of high priority infrastructure projects) also seems appealing, particularly if the administration secures funding from Congress and proceeds with a major catch-up infrastructure program. The pace of approvals for infrastructure projects has been agonizingly slow in many cases, with no notable benefits (other than keeping bureaucrats and attorneys employed). The national infrastructure dilemma, John Sitilides, Washington Times, 12/8/16.

Federal Highway Administration data from 2013 show that the median time to complete a highway project statement was more than seven years. Raising the Bayonne Bridge roadway, a project with virtually no environmental impact, required a 10,000-page environmental assessment and another 10,000 pages of permitting and regulatory materials. The dredging project at the Port of Savannah, Georgia stalled for almost 30 years, with an environmental review that consumed 14 years. A San Diego desalination plant required 12 years to battle back 14 legal challenges before delivering a drop of fresh water to residents.

#6 would strongly encourage the use of US-made steel for all domestic pipelines without regard to price, a deplorable result. Such decisions should be left to free markets, thereby promoting competition and economic efficiency.

A big question mark is
#4 (US renunciation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership), which would supposedly be followed by a wave of bilateral trade agreements with other countries, and associated plans to renegotiate NAFTA. The underlying premise seems to be that a trade deficit with other countries means the US is getting “ripped off,” so our country (which has a large overall trade deficit) needs to negotiate “smarter” deals.

As the president stated in a recent interview, it’s easier to cancel a bilateral trade agreement if it isn’t working out (i.e., we’re running a trade deficit) than to exit a regional agreement like the TPP with many parties involved. And he has repeatedly suggested that stiff taxes could be imposed on imports, seemingly overlooking the point that such taxes would be paid by US businesses and consumers rather than by China, Mexico, et al. Retaliation would be a near certainty, moreover, and considerable harm could result to the global economy. Trump’s antitrade warriors, Wall Street Journal,

Mr. Trump has a pro-growth agenda on taxes, regulation, energy and much else. But the potential Achilles’ heel is trade policy. Too many Republican administrations with otherwise sensible policies have been undermined by one or two bad economic blunders: Bush 43 (monetary and housing policy), Bush 41 (taxes), Nixon (monetary policy and regulation), and Hoover (trade, etc.). Republicans in Congress need to be alert lest bad trade policy destroy their entire reform agenda.

Perhaps the most controversial presidential actions to date are
#12 (border security & immigration law enforcement) , #11 (interior security & sanctuary cities), and #15 (restrictions on the entry of refugees from the middle east, etc.).

It seems reasonable that the executive branch should seek to enforce the immigration laws passed by Congress, as is arguably what is being proposed.

But will a wall along the US/Mexican border necessarily stem the influx of illegal immigrants, or simply change the ways in which they enter this country? Trump’s immigration crackdown will backfire, Steve Chapman, townhall.com,

And in any case, the president’s insistence that Mexico will pay for the southern border wall – assuming one is built (the money still needs to be appropriated) – could set back US/Mexican relations by decades. Humiliating Mexico over border wall would be a big mistake, Jonah Goldberg, townhall.com,

On Thursday morning, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto abruptly cancelled his planned meeting with Donald Trump because the American president gave him no choice. Nieto was willing to go ahead with the meeting, despite the fact Trump had signed an executive order commencing work on a wall. But then in an interview Trump said that if Nieto wasn't willing to commit Mexico to paying for the wall, he shouldn't bother coming. What else could Nieto do?

Based on the premise that local governments should cooperate with federal authorities in the enforcement of US immigration laws, it seems reasonable that jurisdictions refusing to cooperate, e.g., “sanctuary cities,” should face consequences. The president’s plan to deprive them of federal grants for law enforcement and related programs is arguably defensible, but there will clearly be a big battle over it. Mayor’s defy Trump’s push to end sanctuary cities, Kelly Cohen, Washington Examiner,
1/29/17. (Update: One of the sanctuary cities mentioned in the story, Miami, has reportedly agreed to fall in line at this point.)

#15 [link not available when this entry was initially posted, has now been added] generated a firestorm of controversy. Not only was a hold placed on the entry of refugees and immigrants from designated countries (all predominantly Muslim) until “extreme vetting” procedures could be developed and put in place, but the hold was made immediately effective and two travelers arriving at JFK International Airport discovered that their visas had been invalidated while they were in the air.

Demonstrations at JFK International Airport and elsewhere around the country broke out, and the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit. Rights groups slap Trump with lawsuit after refugees detained, Daniel Chaitin, Washington Examiner,

Within hours, the judge in the lawsuit imposed a stay (by its terms applicable nationwide) on the enforcement of the travel ban against travelers with approved visas. Court orders emergency stay on Trump’s immigration order, Joel Gehrke, Washington Examiner,

"It is appropriate and just that, pending completion of a hearing before the Court on the merits of the Petition, that the Respondents be enjoined and restrained from the commission of further acts and misconduct in violation of the Constitution as described in the Emergency Motion for Stay of Removal," Judge Ann Donnelly wrote in her order.

The president signaled that he didn’t intend to accept this setback, so further legal proceedings can be expected. Trump defends executive order, Alex Pappas, Washington Examiner,

"Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world - a horrible mess!" Trump tweeted.

Important as it may be to rebuild the US military and defeat ISIS, all
#14 and #17 do is to task the Pentagon with developing action plans. A phone call to Defense Secretary James Mattis might have been equally effective.

Far be it for us to oppose measures to cut spending, and perhaps a hiring freeze (
#5) will help. But the likely savings pale in comparison to the fiscal effect of other measures the president has in mind: $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, beefed up defense spending, and a big tax cut. Without massive spending cuts in some areas, the fiscal problem can only get worse. Runaway deficits forever, Steve Chapman, townhall.com, 1/12/17.

Congressional enthusiasm for nondefense spending cuts is far from a sure thing, and we’ll believe reports that the president plans to push for such cuts when it happens. Trump budget cuts may be tough call in Congress, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner,

The Trump budget will be influenced by a plan authored last year by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which proposes a 1.7 percent reduction in spending. While it doesn't sound like a big cut, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is otherwise projecting nearly 5 percent annual growth in federal spending. According to reports, Trump's proposal would cut federal spending by $10.5 trillion over a decade.

* * * * *

Although the results for the week were decidedly mixed, the president deserves credit for his energy and enthusiasm. Here’s his summary of what happened. Weekly address, video (2:39), 1/28/17.


#I’m not sure there has ever been a free market in steel products; the preference for using US-made and fabricated steel in US pipelines may well be justified. – SAFE director

# I agree that steel used in US pipelines should be determined by supply and demand without involving government in the process. As for constitutional issues, the “travel ban” order is now being challenged by a second federal judge in Seattle; time will tell how this turns out. – Retired finance manager

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