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Trump is wasting his congressional majority — like Jimmy Carter did

Trump McConnell Ryan
The boys.
Mandel Ngan / Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Typically, presidents don’t get very long to push Congress to pass their agendas. And for President Trump, who has yet to pass any major legislation, time is quickly running out.

Barack Obama had only two years of unified Democratic control of Congress, from 2009 to 2011. George W. Bush enjoyed four years of GOP dominance from 2003 to 2007, as well as the spring of 2001. Bill Clinton had two years — 1993 to 1995. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush never had a Republican House.

And yet each of those presidents used his legislative majority to significant effect. Obama passed a stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, and the Dodd-Frank financial reform act. Bush passed Medicare Part D and several waves of tax cuts. Clinton narrowly got his 1993 budget package, including big tax hikes on the rich and a huge expansion of the earned income tax credit, as well as a crime bill. Even George H.W. Bush and Reagan were able to get major tax changes, cuts to social services, and hikes for defense through a Democratic House.

We’re now about 25 percent of the way through the 115th Congress, which could very well be the only two years in which Donald Trump has a Republican majority in Congress. And Trump has no major legislative achievements to show for himself.

Congress hasn’t done nothing. The Senate has approved a Trump appointee for the Supreme Court and is poised to wave through his nominees for lower courts. The House and Senate have worked with Trump to roll back Obama-era regulations using the Congressional Review Act.

But its first major legislative initiative, health care reform, has stalled, potentially for good. Barely any progress has been made on tax reform. An infrastructure plan is nowhere to be seen. Even funding for Trump’s beloved border wall hasn’t passed yet.

This kind of legislative fecklessness is not unprecedented. The presidency that the failures of Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell recalls most closely is that of Jimmy Carter.

How Jimmy Carter failed legislatively

The Board of Directors of the Canadian American Business Council Presents A Converation With Jimmy Carter and Joe Clark
Jimmy Carter speaks at an event in Atlanta in June.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Canadian American Business Council

Carter is, by all accounts, an admirable, moral, decent man; he’s devoted much of his life to philanthropic pursuits, including the eradication of an entire parasitic illness. And he managed a significant number of foreign policy achievements, including the Camp David Accords making peace between Israel and Egypt, and the Panama Canal treaties.

But legislatively, his presidency was a mess.

Unlike his 1976 Democratic primary rivals — prime among them Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona, Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, and Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington — Carter had never served in Congress. He was a no-name former governor from the South, with limited connections to the national party.

He also entered the presidency after liberal Democrats gained dozens of seats in the 1974 post-Watergate midterms and were poised and ready to pass major, transformative legislation. There was wide support in the party — including from Carter — for single-payer health care, and while ultimate passage was unlikely, the odds of some kind of universal coverage passing were significant; Nixon, after all, had put out a plan not unlike the one that would become the Affordable Care Act three decades later.

Momentum was growing for the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, a proposal to guarantee a government job to anyone who wanted one so long as unemployment was above 3 percent. Carter endorsed the proposal in the campaign and it had strong backing from the civil rights movement and the labor movement. "For a brief period in 1976, Humphrey-Hawkins looked like a sure thing," historian Jefferson Cowie writes in his magisterial book Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.

But Carter did not seize the opportunity. Instead, he severely damaged his relationship with congressional Democrats and turned his back on the legislative priorities the rest of his party held dear.

The original sin of his presidency was his handling of a water bill — boring, run-of-the-mill legislation that turned into an utter catastrophe. A month after taking office, Carter decided to eliminate 19 water projects in 17 states from the budget.

The water projects were pure pork. But the thing about pork is that it's intensely valued by members of Congress, and in cutting the 19 water projects, Carter alienated some very powerful committee chairs, including the Senate Finance Committee’s Russell Long and the Budget Committee’s Edmund Muskie.

"The way in which many members of Congress found out about their endangered projects was as harmful to the White House as the proposed deletion of the projects themselves," Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly write in Jimmy Carter and the Water Wars: Presidential Influence and the Politics of Pork. "Some members of Congress learned of the status of their projects in the newspaper rather than hearing from the president or the Office of Congressional Liaison."

Eventually, Congress presented Carter with a choice: either accept an appropriations bill that includes both the water projects and economic stimulus measures Carter favored, or get neither. Carter chose to sign the bill, water projects and all. His brave stand against pork had accomplished exactly nothing, except alienating key legislative allies whose support he needed to get just about anything else done. Carter's first budget director, Bert Lance, called the decision to fight the water projects "the worst political mistake he made … its effects lasted the rest of his term and doomed any hopes we ever had of developing a good effective working relationship with Congress." Carter himself later conceded, "The issue of water projects was one that caused the deepest breach between me and the Democratic leadership."

Having alienated his supposed allies in Congress, Carter proceeded to turn against them on both health care and guaranteed jobs, two of their biggest priorities.

Ted Kennedy on the left looking bemused, Carter smiling on the right
Ted Kennedy on the left looking bemused, Carter smiling on the right.

Mikki Ansin/Getty Images

He faced heavy pressure from the United Auto Workers and other unions, as well as congressional liberals like Ted Kennedy, to introduce a national health insurance plan, but he kept delaying before ultimately deciding he had totally different priorities on health care than the rest of his party did.

"Given his fiscal conservatism," historian Martin Halpern writes, "Carter's health care focus in 1977 was on legislation to control hospital costs. Only if fiscal prudence were established first would it be sensible to move forward and spend money on a new program, Carter thought." Kennedy and the unions, trying to be pragmatic and compromising on their calls for single-payer, offered a new universal proposal in which private insurers would compete. But Carter refused to endorse even that much. He didn't even want a single major bill. He wanted a series of smaller bills, with cost controls coming first and coverage expansion coming later, if at all. Kennedy and the unions refused to settle for something not offering universal coverage, and the effort died.

Full employment was a similar story. While the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the National Council of Churches, the Urban League, the Congressional Black Caucus, and major Hispanic and Mexican-American groups all supported the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill, and House speaker Tip O'Neill had called it the “centerpiece” of the 1976 Democratic platform, Carter turned against it.

"In March 1977, just a few months after taking office, the Carter administration privately reached the conclusion 'that the Humphrey-Hawkins bill is both unnecessary and undesirable," Cowie writes. "Administration officials at least wanted to remove numeric employment goals, focus the bill on inflation, drop the idea of the federal government as employer of last resort, and emphasize flexibility over requirements and timetables. In sum, the administration wanted Humphrey-Hawkins in name only."

Carter demanded that Humphrey and Hawkins water down the bill until it was functionally meaningless. The sponsors held off for a while before ultimately caving, figuring that Carter would never sign a real full employment bill into law, and that passing an anemic and symbolic bill was better than nothing.

And so it was that the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 was signed into law. Today, it's mainly remembered for its requirement that the Federal Reserve submit a biannual report on monetary policy to Congress, with the chair of the Fed testifying before the House and Senate on its contents. It does not guarantee Americans a job.

Trump’s legislative failures are different, but no less serious

President Trump Holds Rally In Huntington, West Virginia Justin Merriman/Getty Images

This is a very low bar to set, but at least Trump has not actively alienated his own party’s most powerful members in Congress the same way Carter did. While Carter’s failures were sins of commission — actively sabotaging his party’s efforts in Congress — Trump’s failures are sins of omission. When Republicans faced an incredibly difficult challenge in passing health care legislation, he was either nowhere to be seen or subtly undermining it in comments to the press.

As his allies in Congress were crafting legislation they knew would not offer universal health coverage — which was not designed to offer universal health coverage — Trump told reporters he wanted a plan that offers “insurance for everybody.” As Republicans pushed a bill in the Senate in June, Trump condemned it as "mean."

But mostly he’s left Congress to its own devices. That’s better management than shutting them down — but it’s worse than doing what most presidents do. Usually, presidents actively guide the legislative process, nudging swing representatives and senators toward a deal. Barack Obama did this extensively, inviting Dennis Kucinich (who threatened to vote against the health care bill from the left) on an Air Force One ride and brokering a deal with anti-abortion Democrat Bart Stupak. The efforts to pass Medicare Part D and the Clinton budget involved similar levels of hardball.

Instead, Trump has mostly been distant, uninvolved. And so now, more than six months into his presidency, he has nothing in the way of legislative accomplishments.

There’s still time for that to change. He could step up his game and take tax reform more seriously than he did health reform. He could aggressively lobby for the bill his economic team is negotiating with Congress, to win over reticent Republicans to unpopular provisions included to raise revenue. And he could also show real willingness to team up with Democrats.

Carter did, eventually, get some significant legislation passed later in his presidency — but it tended to be legislation with broad cross-party support, like the Bayh-Dole Act reforming government-funded research, or the Airline Deregulation Act. Trump has at least made a verbal commitment to working toward an infrastructure bill, something that Democrats could very much collaborate on.

But so far, Trump’s do-nothing strategy has been a failure, and like Carter, he’s emerged as a figure who at best doesn’t help, and at worst hurts, his party’s legislative efforts.