How Will Congress and the Separation of Powers Function Under a Trump Administration?

Christopher DeMuth, former head of OIRA in the Reagan OMB and former President of AEI, has a long, thoughtful essay in the weekend Wall Street Journal in which he explores whether the separation of powers might see a revival in the Trump administration.

In his view, President Trump will not have “the reflexive support of party stalwarts on Capitol Hill that his recent predecessors have enjoyed.”  The revival of a more central role for Congress will follow, he suggests, from the newfound tensions within both political parties, and from the fact that Trump is more of a populist than a conventional Republican figure.

In addition to more vigorous competition between the branches, De Muth also sees Trump as perhaps generating a more bargaining-oriented approach to policymaking, in contrast to the “spectacles” produced by our hyperpolarized, intensely ideological and symbolic politics.  I appreciate his recognition of the way many of us have been trying to insist on giving Congress and congressional leaders tools to create more possibilities for a transactional kind of politics:

Spectacles such as these have given rise to a new school of political realism, led by Jonathan Rauch, Richard H. Pildes, Frances E. Lee and other scholars. Their essential argument, in Mr. Rauch’s words, is “that transactional politics—the everyday give-and-take of dickering and compromise—is the essential work of governing and that government, and thus democracy, won’t work if leaders can’t make deals and make them stick.”

The realists vary in their personal politics. They are united in understanding that, in a nation of diverse and conflicting views, civil peace and productive government require more than trumpeting one’s own positions and seeking to defeat one’s opponents at the ballot box. They also require accommodation through dialogue, negotiation and practical compromise.

As the essay puts it: “In combination, candidate Trump’s audacious policy positions, belligerent rhetoric and zest for deal making seem designed to establish his bona fides as the people’s own Washington wheeler-dealer.”

De Muth acknowledges that “transactional politics and interbranch rivalry are no guarantee of happy outcomes, which depend ultimately on the constitution of the participants.”  His claim is that these are necessary elements of successful democratic governance, even if not sufficient.  All speculative at this stage of course, but provocative speculations about large structural issues in our governance system and well worth a read.


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