Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Trump’s Opportunities and Priorities”
January 15, 2017
“It matters enormously to a successful democratic society like ours that we have three branches of government,
each with some independence and some control over the other two. That’s set out in the Constitution.”
Sandra Day O’Connor
Former Associate Justice, Supreme Court
“The modern administrative state…blurs the separation of powers and the system
of checks and balances, and has become an unaccountable fourth branch of government.”
Legal Fellow, Heritage Foundation
As President, Donald Trump will have many chances to help the nation. His ego and his mercurial disposition may interfere, but opportunities abound. He can help the economy get back on track and, in doing so, help lessen income and wealth inequality that have risen the past eight years. He can help re-build the Middle East and, with a show of strength, help repair relations with Russia and China, which are necessary for long-term global growth. He can help reverse the polarization that has divided our nation, so that we will be able to judge people “… for the content of their character” (as Martin Luther King once said), not for their race, sex or religion. Such tasks should be doable, assuming Mr. Trump’s temperament doesn’t intervene, or the Left does not erect roadblocks.
His most important priority, however, should be to restore democracy – the inherent freedom a liberal, democratic-capitalist republic requires. It is the fount from which all opportunities rise. For eight decades, an expanding administrative state has eroded principles of government laid out by our Founders. In times of war, national security interests allowed Presidents to assume powers alien to our precepts of liberty: Lincoln and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus; Wilson and the Espionage Act of 1917: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the internment of 80,000 Japanese-Americans. But war-time powers lapse when hostilities end. More insidious has been the trend, since the Progressive movement of the late 19th Century, toward increasing the power and reach of the federal government at the expense of Congress, individuals and states; and, within the federal government, the expansion of the Executive over the Congress.
Can Mr. Trump reverse this trend, or at least slow it? I don’t know, but I hope so. Expectations are low. He will enter office despised by those who oppose him – a group that includes opinion makers: mainstream media, educators, Hollywood harlequins and political and business establishment-types from both Parties. Their candidate, Mrs. Clinton, was defeated by a man they scorned. Mr. Trump has none of the goodwill extended President-elect Obama in early 2009. Today, Mr. Obama scores high on personal approval ratings, but, keep in mind, his policies helped defeat Democrats. Even the generally sober David Brooks depicts Mr. Trump as a man who is “inattentive, unpredictable and basically uninterested in anything but his own status at the moment.” But, if Mr. Brooks and his ilk are right, how do they explain his business success? How did he win a Presidential primary that took out 16 other Republican candidates and beat a woman who has been around politics her entire life? And how did he do so while spending less than half the amount of money she spent? Mr. Trump will not get the “honeymoon” usually accorded new Presidents. But conservatives understand that Mr. Trump has provided them the best opportunities for change in a century.
Examples of government overreach abound. There are over 300 administrative agencies that control myriad aspects of our lives, from the environment, retirement accounts and healthcare to daycare, public radio and the internet. They range from regulating the toilet seats we sit on to the size of soft drinks we consume. Laws, which were once grounded in principle, have become laws based on policies. As well, agencies have become substantial sources of government revenues. According to a Wall Street Journal report last March, big banks, since the 2008 mortgage crisis, have paid out $110 billion in fines to the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Ironically, these fines were paid by roughly 100 million innocent shareholders, which include owners of mutual funds and retirement accounts. In 2015, the DOJ collected $24 billion and the EPA collected $205 million in fines.
As the branch of government designated to write laws and levy taxes, Congress has abrogated its Constitutional responsibilities to agencies like the SEC, CFTC, EPA and CFBP (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) – agencies run by unaccountable political appointees, but with limited autonomy. For example, the head of the VA cannot fire its employees. The attraction of such agencies to Congress is that they allow them to take credit when it serves their purpose and to avoid blame when it does not.
(Restoration of the filibuster, as well, should be on the agenda. The Senate was designed to be a deliberative body, to slow things down. In an illuminative exchange, George Washington allegedly once asked Thomas Jefferson why he poured his tea into a saucer. “To cool it,” was the response. Washington then explained: “We pour legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it.” A filibuster encourages bi-partisanship; avoiding a filibuster requires cooperation. If opposing Parties do not work together, nothing gets done. Senator Mitch McConnell would be wise to restore the filibuster.)
It would be impossible, as well as a mistake, to shut down all agencies that have been created over the past century and more. But it would be wrong to do nothing. Repealing the most outlandish, reducing the regulatory burden and slowing the expansion of government should be a priority of the Trump Administration. Doing so will help drive economic growth. In his farewell speech, President Obama spoke of the threats to our Constitution. He was right, but I wish he had taken his own advice. I wish he had lessened, not tightened, regulations. I wish he had sought bi-partisan compromise, not arrogantly shunned the opposition, like when he shut off Eric Cantor: “I won.” When government enfolds us in cocoons, such as Julia’s World or The Pajama Boy, the trade-off is a loss of personal responsibility and, ergo, freedom. We ask government to protect us from evil perpetrated by others, but when government protects us from our own mistakes we don’t learn. It is not that government is bad. It is that a free society must recognize the difference between government that is necessary and government that is abusive in its pervasiveness. It is as though President Kennedy asked: “What would you want your country to do for you?” The road we are on is fraught with risk – we could turn into a nation of Eloi, with government bureaucrats playing the role of Morlocks. It is a path toward authoritarianism, which could emerge from either the Right or the Left.
Nevertheless, politics can surprise. Most were surprised in November. Mr. Trump may be different than the cartoon character portrayed. It took the strongly anti-Communist Richard Nixon to open the door to China in 1972. Will the the pre-judged “authoritarian” Donald Trump be the President who reduces the reach of the Executive and who returns power to the people and the states? I don’t know, but it’s possible. Legions of establishment-types are determined to see him fail. But, anybody with an understanding of history knows that a political system is at risk when power accedes, as it has over several decades in the U.S., to an ever-increasing number of unaccountable administrative agencies and to an ever-stronger Executive. Trump’s opportunity is to reverse this trend. I hope he does.