For millions of Americans, last week's collapse of the House Republican leadership’s bill to defund Obamacare, take $880 billion out of Medicaid and give the wealthiest hundreds of millions in tax cuts they don’t need, was a spot of good news. As Saturday dawned, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began airing TV ads attacking House members for wanting to deny health care to tens of thousands of voters in their districts. The odor of corruption around Trump's Russia troubles was growing stronger, even as Republicans were doing their best to change the topic. Trump's second round of executive orders banning travelers from Muslim countries was tied up in court. To opponents of Trump and the GOP Congress, it was time to exhale and exult.
But as a new week begins in Washington, it’s time to take a deep breath and realize that Trump and Republicans in Congress, as dysfunctional as they appear, still have great power to wield. If anything, they are facing even more pressure to demonstrate their abilities to deliver on Trump’s array of campaign promises and the ideological goals championed by right-wingers who came into office with the Tea Party in 2010.
There are four major areas where Trump’s team can wreak great destruction of public policies in the near future and lay the foundation for harm lasting for generations. It may be that the House Republicans are so internally split that they cannot pass major legislation like the Obamacare repeal. But they can still pass a budget that eviscerates safety nets, human services and science unlike anything in recent memory. The White House can use its reach to revoke and rewrite federal regulations in any area it wants, especially those that threaten corporate profits. The Supreme Court’s ideological majority hangs in a balance, but even if Senate Democrats block Trump’s first pick, he still is poised to appoint more federal judges than any president in decades. And if Trump’s team gets frustrated with domestic issues, they can rev up the war machine overseas.
Let’s go through each of these areas.
1. Power of the federal purse
Pause for a second and consider the scope of what House Republicans wanted to do with their failed attempt to gut Obamacare, undercut Medicaid and grant tax repeal for the wealthy. This would have taken more than a trillion dollars out of the federal funding pipeline, and yet, for ideological right-wingers, it wasn’t enough. What was obscured by last week’s failed negotiations between Trump’s team, House Speaker Paul Ryan and the House Freedom Caucus was the White House’s proposed federal budget for its fiscal year starting next Oct. 1. The world’s most attention-seeking national leader proposed shifting $50-plus billion from public health, social service, environment, science and arts programs to the Pentagon, which he said wasn’t strong enough.
In one sense, it doesn’t really matter that Democrats and other members of Congress said this budget was dead on arrival. The fine print of these cuts, as evidenced by slashing the Environmental Protection Agency by almost a third — and most agencies by 20 percent — is such an extreme opening position that opponents and critics will have to work very hard to end up with flat funding, a zero spending increase. Remember the clunky named federal sequester and all the complaints it brought from federal civil servants, people dedicated to an array of programs that the private sector wasn’t interested in?
The devil is always in the details. That’s especially true with the federal budget, which, as the Los Angeles Times astutely noted last week, was going to redistribute billions from lower-income people and programs serving those communities to already wealthy defense contractors. “Southern California's defense industry, long the epicenter for high-flying aerospace technology and advanced weapons for the military, could get a major windfall under President Trump’s proposed new budget,” its report began. “But the expected spending boom would come at the cost of billions of dollars in federal support for California’s farmers, earthquake preparation, environmental protection, affordable housing, job training, and other critical institutions and services.”
Meanwhile, if you think the Republican war on Obamacare is over, think again. On his first day in office, Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to ease the “regulatory burden” posed by the Affordable Care Act. So far, The Washington Post reports, that means the IRS won’t be penalizing anyone who doesn’t buy health insurance. What else federal agencies might do to undermine the ACA remains to be seen (remember, Trump said it's now the Democrats' problem).
That takes us to the next major avenue Trump can take to do great harm, via the federal regulatory state.
2. Starving and strangling the regulatory state
Democrats and progressives don’t need to be reminded of the power of the presidential pen. Soon after taking office, Trump signed an ill-informed and racist executive order barring Muslims from seven nations, including war refugees from Syria and military translators who helped U.S. forces in the Middle East. Never mind that none of these nations had sent terrorists to the United States (whereas some nations that had were home to Trump’s investments and therefore off the table). Trump has since signed numerous orders to upend federal agency priorities, as well as appoint cabinet officials whose resumes include doing everything they can to undermine the historic mission of the federal bureaus they are now heading.
The wheels of government turn slowly, but we're already seeing the impact of Trump’s shotgun approach to federal governance. This is not just Trump freezing all new federal regulations, and requiring that two regulations are cut for every new one passed. Trump quickly approved finishing construction on the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, ignoring protests from climate change activists and Native Americans and their allies. He’s expected to sign another executive order soon, to dismantle President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and open federal lands to new coal mining, which all but ensures the United States does not meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement.
On Monday, Trump announced the formation of a new White House “Office of American Innovation,” to be headed by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who will soon be questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee about meeting with Russian political officials, spies and mobsters during the post-election transition. The Washington Post previewed the new office, saying it would have “sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and, potentially, privatize some government functions.”
Trump has already used the Congressional Review Act, only invoked once before, to kill an Interior Department waterway protection rule, a Security and Exchange Commission rule requiring energy and mining companies to report payments to foreign governments, and blocked the Social Security Administration from sharing data with law enforcement that could be used to block mentally ill people from buying guns.
When Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, spoke last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, he said that Trump’s cabinet was “selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction” of the agencies they head. Trump himself later complained to Fox News that he’s not getting the credit he deserves for intentionally leaving federal jobs empty, as that will undermine those programs' effectiveness.
But Trump’s most important moves in dismantling federal government, apart from law enforcement agencies and the military, is the one with the longest-term impact — his appointment of an unprecedented number of federal judges, starting with conservative anti-regulatory crusader Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.
3. Reshaping the Supreme Court and federal judiciary
Progressives and Democrats have historically tended to underestimate the importance and power of federal judges, especially bad ones, though it’s been federal judges who have stood in the way of many public-minded ideas in recent years, such as better labeling on food, tobacco and other products. While recent decisions freezing Trump’s immigration orders have raised the judiciary’s role as a check on other federal power, the right, more than the left, has unapologetically pushed for remaking the judiciary in recent years.
Bannon and other right-wing ideologues know that installing Gorsuch on the Supreme Court is crucial to this strategy, especially after he criticized the judiciary for deferring to the expertise of federal agencies in rulings. That “atypical” stance is what put him on far-right short lists for the court. Nobody needs reminding that Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stole the seat that was to be filled by Obama’s final nominee, Merrick Garland. What progressives are less aware of is McConnell’s prior two-year long obstruction of Obama’s nomination of 54 federal district and appellate court judges.
There are more than 110 vacancies across the federal bench, the most since the 1950s. This means that a president who has been openly hostile to the courts — criticizing the judge overseeing the Trump University lawsuit during the campaign as well as those ruling on his immigration orders — is poised to appoint more judges than any president in a half-century, including the dozens of seats the GOP stole from his predecessor. This is an extremely troubling development, one where Trump has the power to pull the courts toward the libertarian right for decades.
4. Police and military power as commander in chief
There are already more than enough signs that Trump seeks to be an authoritarian ruler who expands domestic policing and may seek military intervention abroad. His orders on immigration envision hiring 15,000 federal Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, as well as opening new privatized prisons as part of a newly expanded deportation machinery. While this expansion of domestic policing has mostly yet to unfold, Trump’s intentions are clear. Unlike Obama, he has not said that certain categories of visa-less migrants will not be targeted, namely the so-called dreamers — youths who came here as infants and toddlers and have grown up as Americans — and their parents. Instead, he’s deliberately fostered an atmosphere of fear in immigrant communities that anyone can be grabbed by ICE and swiftly deported.
When it comes to the military, Trump has not just sought a $54 billion spending increase for the Pentagon in the 2018 budget, but also has loosened the rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq in the fight against ISIS, and has threatened Iran and North Korea. While Trump’s initial focus has been more on domestic policy, it is an open question just what his foreign and military policy will be. On the one hand, he has alienated and offended many close U.S. military allies, from NATO member countries to Australia. On the other hand, one can only wonder how he will use the expansion of federal policing and military hardware when he grows frustrated with his domestic agenda.
As Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian who has studied Europe’s dictatorial regimes in the 20th century, told AlterNet, opponents of Trump need to look for the warning signs of pending regime change. It could be a hyped domestic emergency, or a foreign threat that allows the White House to grab new powers and suspend the constitutional system. Until that moment, or even if that never happens, Trump and the GOP Congress still have vast powers to significantly alter the structure and reach of the federal government.
Last week’s collapse of the House’s attack on Obamacare and Medicaid may have saved health care coverage for 20 million-plus Americans and given Trump opponents a big boost and reason to cheer. But Trump and the Republican right wing still have tremendous power at their disposal. If there’s one thing that has always been true of any aggrieved or losing political leader or party, they usually resurface with renewed determination — and that includes not just Democrats and progressives, but congressional Republicans and the Trump White House.