Donald Trump’s influence with Congress is weak.
When political scientists assess a president’s legislative influence, they focus on his ability to set the lawmaking agenda and to secure policy outcomes that align with his preferences. During the 115th Congress, the president has failed at both.
Observers of Congress have long recognized that legislative power lies not only in the ability to influence vote outcomes, but also in the ability to decide what issues even make it to a vote. Such agenda-setting lies at the heart of what political scientists Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz famously called the “second face of power.”
Powerful political actors — most notably the majority party leadership and president, but also committee chairmen — not only can sway how rank-and-file members vote, but they can also influence what subjects are brought up for consideration and, perhaps more importantly, ensure undesired legislation never makes it to the floor. This latter practice — negative agenda control — is particularly powerful because when something doesn’t happen, no evidence of it is left behind for observers, electoral challengers, or voters to attract scrutiny.
Agenda-setting also provides positive power, allowing leaders to set the party’s legislative priorities. When party leaders clash over these priorities, the resulting agenda is a window into where power actually lies. By this measure, GOP legislative power mostly lies in Congress right now. Republican leaders have almost completely ignored the policy priorities of President Trump.
To date, not one major piece of legislation has been taken up that ideologically reflects Trumpism rather than Republican orthodoxy. Congress has not considered immigration restrictions. It hasn’t taken up any protectionist trade legislation. No infrastructure package has moved in either chamber. The one major trade bill Congress did consider was the Russia sanctions bill that reduced the president’s discretion, which Trump opposed. It passed the House 419–3.
In the realm of appropriations, Congress has not only ignored Trump’s agenda, but has repeatedly rejected it wholesale. The president’s FY2017 and FY2018 budget requests, both of which called for deep cuts in non-defense discretionary spending, were declared dead on arrival by GOP members. The FY2018 omnibus contained massive increases in non-defense discretionary spending. What wasn’t funded in one of the largest discretionary spending bills in history? Trump’s oft-demanded border wall.
The president’s failure to set a positive agenda doesn’t mean he isn’t influencing the legislative process. Even weak presidents exercise negative agenda-control through veto threats and the resulting bargaining. Once an issue is taken up by Congress, that leverage provides presidents influence over the substance of legislation, regardless of who set the agenda. Just as congressional votes can’t tell you what was kept off the agenda, the lack of vetoes by President Trump so far masks the influence veto threats may provide to the president.
But here again, Trump is weak. In areas where Trump broadly supports orthodox Republican policy, such as repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax reform, congressional leaders have moved bills that show little substantive administration influence. During both the health-care and tax push, Trump announced constantly changing positions, tussled in public with various important lawmakers, and generally tended to support whatever version of each bill was currently being considered, while occasionally repudiating previous iterations. In essence, the president ceded legislative agenda-setting to Congress and simply became a cheerleader for whatever congressional Republicans came up with.
This is one reason that you shouldn’t put much stock in all those vote studies that show congressional Republicans voting with Trump at very high rates. Such studies assume the president is setting the agenda, and that congressional Republicans are choosing whether or not to support the president’s position. But with the agenda being set by congressional leaders and the administration having unusually little influence over the substance of legislation, it makes more sense to view such correlations as Trump’s adopting the Republican position.
One area where the president appears more successful is judicial confirmations. But there’s little evidence Trump is installing anything but standard conservatives bearing the Federalist Society seal of approval such as any Republican president might nominate. Just last week, Justice Gorsuch provided an illuminating example, writing a very un-Trumpy concurrence to an opinion striking down an immigration provision, making it harder to deport criminal immigrants.
Members have relatively little to fear, from Trump or his base, by not taking a vote on something.
Trump’s executive-branch appointments tell a similar story; most of them reflect GOP priorities rather than Trump campaign promises. His appointed Treasury secretary and Federal Reserve chairman are standard-issue Republicans, not anti–Wall Street Trumpists. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Congress has not been a rubber-stamp for his nominees; he’s had to withdraw more than 20, an unusually large number. And many of his most trusted populist advisers — such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller — were given White House jobs rather than appointments, because everyone knew there was no chance the Senate would confirm them.
The president has managed to tame at least two of the three congressional investigations into potential wrongdoing by the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. The inability of Trump to prevent the launching of the investigations in early 2017 was, in retrospect, an obvious signal of his limited control over the congressional agenda. But while it was historically unprecedented for a new president to be under serious investigation in Congress by his own party, Trump has subsequently successfully defused the bipartisanship and eliminated any threat of congressional Republicans removing him from office. Likewise, he has thus far succeeded in keeping all bills to insulate the Mueller investigation from presidential interference off of the congressional agenda.
Why has Trump been more successful at influencing the legislative agenda regarding investigations into his administration than he has been in the realm of policymaking? One possibility is Trump has little interest in policy, few strong policy beliefs, and cares only about “winning.” Consequently, he lacks the skill and desire to expend political energy on anything beyond his own self-preservation, and that’s perfectly fine with congressional Republicans, who will happily prop him up in exchange for agenda control.
A second, related possibility is that Trump’s core supporters don’t really care about his policies, but do care deeply about Trump himself. In this case, Republican members of Congress know they won’t be significantly punished electorally for breaking with Trump on policy, but are quite afraid that they will be punished for any concrete efforts to undermine Trump’s presidency.
Notice how the mechanics of legislative agenda-setting intersect with both of these possibilities. Disregarding the Trump policy agenda is an act of omission on the part of legislators. It is not a visible action individual members of Congress take, and therefore it doesn’t leave a shining paper trail that can be attacked. Members have relatively little to fear, from Trump or his base, by not taking a vote on something. There’s no smoking gun of disloyalty.
On the other hand, congressional action to investigate the Trump administration, protect the Mueller investigation, or begin the process of removing the president from office would require purposeful positive agenda-setting by congressional Republicans. Which in turn would mean a clear paper trail of votes that put each member on record about what amounts to his or her basic loyalty to the president and his core supporters. Given how attuned members are to their re-election incentives, it’s not surprising many Republicans are content to criticize the president without actually taking formal steps to destabilize his presidency.