If it were up to President Donald Trump — and a lot of Americans — Congress might not exist. After all, the legislative branch is the kind of inert obstacle that a disruptor business executive doesn’t have to contend with as he innovates and improvises in the private sector.
Alas, for Trump, the Founding Fathers believed that wild swings in direction could tear a fragile nation asunder. They made it difficult for a president — any president — to rewrite public policy, push the nation to war or enter into treaties.
Over time, the president has gained more power in those areas, but Trump doesn’t like the remaining limitations. He wanted to pass a new version of the American Health Care Act before his 100th day in office — mainly to prove he could do something of magnitude in that period. That won’t happen — just like his vow to repeal Obamacare on the first day of his presidency never had any chance of being fulfilled.
He neither understands how Congress works nor shows much interest in finding out. But if he wants to be a successful president, he’ll have to figure it out.
He’ll also need an army of people who know how to manipulate the legislative process — how to work both sides of the aisle and both chambers of Congress — to make laws. Neither the people he brought from Congress to his administration nor the leaders of the House GOP have much experience in doing that.
Most of them have spent their careers throwing grenades at lawmakers who actually try to make laws.
What have House Republicans accomplished legislatively in their six-plus years in the majority or even in the final years of the Bush administration?
It’s been more than a dozen years or so since Bush’s big, bipartisan laws — No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D and his original tax cuts — were signed.
The members of Congress who did the heavy lifting on those laws are long gone. Some of them are on K Street or elsewhere in the D.C. private sector. Though Trump promised to “drain the swamp,” he should hire some of them or the top Hill aides who made those things happen.
He needs a team of folks who have spent their lives thinking about clever ways to bring disparate forces together, not scheming to prevent Congress from working.
It should be easy for a guy who’s been in development and loves the art of the deal to figure that out. He should know it’s harder to make deals and build things than to get in the way of progress.
It can’t just be the people who actually work for the White House but a network of insiders and outsiders who try to move his agenda; without that, he’ll remain stalled.
He should announce that he’s going to form such a team and then recruit people — Republicans, Democrats and maybe a few nonpartisans — to join the effort. If the Freedom Caucus has taught him anything, it’s that about 10 percent of his own party can’t be counted on to vote with him on anything.
Trump has vacillated between saying he’ll work with Democrats and calling them names on Twitter. They’re already pretty alienated, so he must decide soon whether he wants to be a hardcore anti-establishment president with no legislative achievements or a deal-maker who will look in all corners of Congress to pick off the votes he needs for his priorities.
There’s no time to waste. But first, he’ll have to accept that Congress isn’t built to just do what the president says — even when it’s controlled by the president’s party.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.