Donald Trump not only won the presidency, but got a Congress that retains its Republican majorities. That has prompted predictions that President Trump will get everything he wants from them, and some of it quickly. Don’t be so sure, says Illinois political science professor Tracy Sulkin, whose specialty is Congress. Sulkin has written about how House members keep their campaign promises, and her upcoming book examines the legislative styles of officeholders in both chambers. Sulkin spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
After years of gridlock under divided government, why shouldn’t we assume that a Republican Congress will easily and quickly move to implement Trump’s agenda?
The jury is still very much out on that, and, in fact, there is good reason to believe that this will not be the case. Political scientists have long been interested in the effects of divided versus unified government, and the general conclusion from research is that there’s just not much evidence that more major legislation gets passed during periods when Congress and the presidency are held by the same party.
While we can certainly point to specific examples of policies that would have been unlikely to pass had the president faced a hostile congressional majority – for example, the Affordable Care Act passed under President Obama – we don’t see systematic evidence, when we average across time, that “bigger” policies are passed into law when Congress and the president come from the same party. More anecdotally, all three of the most recent presidents – Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton – enjoyed at least some period of unified government, and yet all struggled in building congressional coalitions to support their favored policies.
But don’t Republican legislators have a strong incentive to work with Trump?
The hypothesis that the president will have an easy time of policymaking under unified government is based on the assumption that the members of the party in power are in agreement on what to do, and that they face strong incentives to act together. This is not always true, and, as a result, what gets accomplished, or not, is shaped by the rules and incentives that govern Congress, as well as by the relationships between the congressional leadership, rank and file, and the president.
For example, the Senate is structured such that individual members have a lot of power to obstruct via filibusters and other means. As a result, the simple majority of 52-48 the Republicans now have in that chamber is not as valuable as it might seem. To be confident that they can prevent the current Democratic minority from obstructing, the Republicans would need at least 60 votes to invoke cloture and shut down filibusters.
To get his policies passed, the president also has to have a cohort of powerful Republicans in Congress committed to pursuing his agenda. While the early signals from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan indicate a willingness to cooperate, it is clear that the House and Senate Republicans and Trump do not speak with one voice. For example, Ryan has indicated that he and House Republicans have different priorities on immigration reform than Trump may – focusing on border security rather than deportation – and oppose using tariffs to keep jobs in the U.S.
You mentioned the importance of relationships, and so how might those come into play with Trump?
Relationships are very strained between Trump and Republicans in Congress, as an unprecedented number refused to endorse their nominee in the election. These legislators may continue to withhold their support if they feel that aligning with Trump will hurt their own electoral prospects going into the 2018 races. Still others may feel safe vis-à-vis their own constituents in supporting him, but may have policy disagreements, believing that his proposals do not adhere closely enough to their own conservative principles. Thus, Trump is likely to face at least some opposition from both the center and the right of his party.
Also, Trump himself is not particularly beholden to his party and its congressional leadership, in part because of how the primary and general election campaigns transpired. To get what he wants is likely to require deal-making and compromise with the Republican leadership, and it is just not clear that he will be willing to do so. Some of this will depend on who his formal and informal advisers are. The early signs are that he is assembling a somewhat eclectic group, mixing establishment figures with people far outside the Beltway. It will also be a function of how committed Trump is to policymaking – historically, presidents have varied on that dimension. Compared with previous administrations, there's just much more uncertainty around this.