The order, perhaps unprecedented and perhaps unenforceable, went out from the White House to Capitol Hill: “Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration.”
This remarkable order, delivered by tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump, represented a reversal of a week-long White House campaign to persuade Congress to pass legislation on immigration, in part to ease the domestic contention and worldwide condemnation over the forced separation of children from their parents at the country’s southern border. A congressional vote is expected later this week.
But that tweet order was even more remarkable because it also represented an astonishing break from what congressional lawmakers – whose actions on the floor of the House of Representatives and Senate hew to centuries-old traditions – call “regular order,” two ordinary words with extraordinary power in the American capital. Among the many hoary traditions of Washington that are under siege in the Trump era is a fundamental one: Presidents don’t order legislators around.
Mr. Trump has already challenged, and then upended, much of the regular order in Washington. But what is emerging in recent weeks is that the President is increasingly acting more like a prime minister than a president, and the GOP is in danger of becoming the Trump Party.
Thus Mr. Trump, who has sparred with unusual bitterness with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, may actually covet the political birthrights the prime minister possesses.
“It’s ironic that Trump should behave right now as if, in his dealings with the Congress, he was the prime minister of the United Kingdom or Canada,” said Lawrence Goldman, who for nearly three decades taught both U.S. and British history at Oxford University. “Under the British parliamentary system, at least, a prime minister is usually able to bend Parliament to his or her will by virtue of commanding a majority in the House of Commons.”
Even the strongest of presidents defer to the prerogatives of Congress, and often they require at least some support from the rival party; the landmark civil-rights legislation of 1964 and 1965, promoted by president Lyndon Johnson, himself a former titan of Capitol Hill, required both Republican and Democratic support. And even in that case, Mr. Johnson, a former Senate majority leader, did not issue orders to his former congressional colleagues. He romanced and cajoled them, but privately and with traditional presidential deference to Congress. The separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches are the bedrock of the American political system.
Mr. Trump’s inclination to issue directives and to disrupt the regular order – first emerging when he not only called the tune, but also set the key signature for the effort to repeal Obamacare – may be the result of the President’s management style, forged in business. American chief executives expect loyalty and fealty, and particularly in real estate, top firms take on the character of a single deal-maker.
Or it may be a result of the failure, or disinclination, of Republican leaders to veer from Mr. Trump’s wishes, given his huge popularity among party members (87 per cent on the 500th day of his presidency earlier this month, though dropping as a result of the migrant children episode).
U.S. presidents have often regarded the Canadian and British systems with envy, believing prime ministers have more power than presidents and that parliamentary ministries operate with greater efficiency, and with more centralized control, than American departments and agencies.
And so, when presidents seek to assume the roles prime ministers play in Canada and Britain, they often speak of “cabinet government,” efforts evident in the administrations of the Republican Richard Nixon (1969-1974) and the Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-1981).
“Despite what he must have understood about his own nature and manner of decision making, Nixon began his presidency with more than a bow to cabinet government,” recalled John Roy Price, who was a major figure in the Nixon administration’s domestic-policy operation. “Nixon tried to pull decisions into the White House, because he saw the cabinet captured by the usual special interests.”
Indeed, Mr. Nixon sat as chairman in 21 of the first 23 urban affairs cabinet groups in his first 18 months, but soon grew tired of the exercise. Mr. Trump’s effort to assume the role of a prime minister is of a different character, plunging him into the legislative arena in a way that presidents, many of whom have congressional experience or are surrounded by aides with Capitol Hill experience, studiously avoid.
Then again, congressional leaders in the past guarded their prerogatives more jealously than do Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Majority Leader, and Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House. Both are more inclined to march to the presidential tune than their predecessors, who were vigilant in defence of the separation of powers.
”It was the separation of powers upon which the framers placed their hopes for the preservation of the people’s liberties,” said the late Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who as Senate majority leader during the entire Carter administration taunted his fellow Democrats in the White House with his vigilance on the separation of powers.
There are, to be sure, dangers in Mr. Trump’s approach, as British Prime Minister Theresa May, who leads a minority government and who faces rebellions from her own party over Brexit, could ruefully explain to the President.
“Donald Trump may find in like fashion that not only is the Congress unused and unwilling to take orders from a President, but that prime ministers sometimes don’t get their way either,” Mr. Goldman said. “Trump and May will be able to compare notes when the Donald comes to London next month. Legislators, in both systems, have minds of their own.”