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Trump’s Distractions Threaten Legislative Agenda

Winston Churchill once said, “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”  The advice to remain focused on the ultimate goal and avoid becoming distracted is certainly one many Republicans in Washington wish President Donald Trump would follow, since time and energy that should be spent on advancing their legislative agenda is instead being devoted to responding to the president’s self-inflicted political wounds. At stake are ambitious public policy goals with an oversized impact on the commercial real estate industry. Among these are comprehensive tax reform, establishment of a robust infrastructure program to address the nation’s needs, and reforming financial regulations that hinder the availability of credit to the CRE industry, all NAIOP priorities.

Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey last week, quickly followed by the president’s statements contradicting his communications staff as to the reasons for the firing, only to then be followed by reports that the president divulged classified information in his meeting with Russian diplomats, has made it practically impossible to focus attention on the mundane details of legislation. It has been only two weeks since the passage by the House of a healthcare bill, albeit an unpopular one, was being touted as a major victory and a turning point for the White House, and one that the GOP hoped would build momentum for further success in other areas. But instead of focusing on getting a healthcare bill through the Senate, the president, the White House staff, and members of the House and Senate were all busy scrambling to deal with the latest news reports on the president’s actions. No wonder Maine Senator Susan Collins rhetorically asked, “Can we have a crisis-free day?” at a press conference following the latest disclosures.

While admitting the Comey firing is a distraction, many GOP officials gamely respond that they can still move on their agenda. An oft-heard refrain is that they can “walk and chew gum at the same time.” But this is not idle gum chewing.  This is more like walking while someone is swinging a baseball bat at your head. You are forced to pay attention, which is why many in Washington are saying that Trump’s problems are stalling the GOP’s efforts.

The problems for the White House and the GOP are twofold:

  • The Legislative Calendar: Congress is scheduled to be in session less than 40 days before it leaves for its long August recess. Now, much of that time must be devoted to the selection of a new FBI Director and the subsequent confirmation battle in the Senate. Moreover, when Congress returns after Labor Day in September, the House and Senate will immediately engage in debates on controversial issues requiring must-pass legislation this year, including an increase in the debt ceiling and spending bills for 2018. In the interim, the White House is not providing clear direction on policy. Take tax reform, for example, where the White House provided a one-page, broadly worded outline of the Trump administration’s goals, but little detail. Issues left unaddressed include a controversial border-adjustment proposal that would raise the costs of imported goods by 20 percent, and whether the interest on business debt would remain tax deductible.
  • The Democratic Political Calculus: The party out of power always maneuvers for maximum negotiating leverage to protect the interests of its constituents, but the willingness to work with the other side obviously depends on the perception of strength or weakness of the political opponent. Democrat leadership was already constrained in working with Trump because of the antipathy felt by much of the Democratic base toward the president. Even before the latest disclosures, Trump’s approval ratings during his first 100 days were the lowest of any recorded for any other president in history. The feeling among the Democratic leadership is that they now have a real chance of possibly winning back the majority in the House in the 2018 mid-term elections. They also understand that the president gains lost ground with every legislative achievement. In purely political terms, every time the president appears to dig himself into a deeper hole, it is less likely that Democrats will want to help him out of it, particularly if they feel there is little commonality in their policy goals. Moreover, every delay brings them closer to the 2018 elections, which ensures that legislative activity grinds to a halt.

Republicans control all three branches of government, so agreement and coordination among the White House and House and Senate Republicans could overcome any Democratic opposition. But as the Steve Miller song says, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future.” Congressional Republicans understand that they cannot afford many more distractions if they are to achieve major legislative successes this year.

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