While much of America wasn’t looking, President Trump and Congress actually have been getting some work done together.
Congress passed three significant bills before the Memorial Day recess that Mr. Trump has signed or will sign into law in coming weeks, including a partial rollback of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial industry regulations, a move that supporters — including many Democrats — say will spur lending by small banks in small towns nationwide.
As he signed the regulation-cutting measure late last week, the president said lawmakers are bucking the tradition of legislative loafing in a midterm election year.
“For a Congress that they say, you know, won’t be doing much because we have an election coming up, I think we’re doing an awful lot,” Mr. Trump said. “I think we’re doing more than any Congress in a long time.”
Andrew Busch, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California, agreed there has been “a flurry of legislative activity recently,” including the Dodd-Frank overhaul, legislation to reform Veterans Affairs services and a “right to try” measure allowing terminal patients access to drugs that haven’t received final approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
“As a general rule, it is often more difficult to pass bills in election years, midterm or presidential, because both sides are afraid of letting the other side gain good publicity,” Mr. Busch said. “However, it really depends on the balance of power in Congress, how each party perceives its electoral interests and the nature of the issue.”
The numbers back up the president. Mr. Trump has signed 57 laws so far this year, compared with 34 by President Obama at the same point in the midterm year of 2014, when Mr. Obama was contending with a House Republican majority. In April of that year, Mr. Obama complained it was “the least productive Congress in modern history.”
In the midterm year of 2010, when Mr. Obama was working with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, he had signed 46 bills into law by Memorial Day.
Mr. Busch said very little happened in 2014 because control of Congress was divided “and there was general gridlock.”
“On the other hand, 2010 saw the passage of Obamacare because Democrats had sufficient numbers in both houses to push it through, and politically they were afraid — probably wrongly — of the electoral consequences of coming up empty,” he said.
Although Congress hasn’t passed any legislation this year as important as the tax cuts that were approved in December, the recent bills aren’t all about renaming post offices. The Dodd-Frank rollback, the VA measure and the “right to try” legislation each address campaign promises made by Mr. Trump.
And none received much media coverage in a week dominated by the president’s on-again, off-again summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the revelation of an FBI informant in the Trump presidential campaign in 2016 — a story promoted relentlessly by the president himself as he continues to fight back against special counsel Robert Mueller’s long-running investigation.
“Often with all that’s going on internationally, and some of the coverage of continuing investigations, perhaps palace intrigue, there’s a lack of focus on all that’s actually getting accomplished legislatively,” said Marc Short, director of legislative affairs at the White House. “I think we’ll look back on this Congress as being incredibly productive.”
It’s not clear whether these legislative victories for Mr. Trump and the GOP will have any impact on the midterm elections, in which Democrats need to flip 23 seats to reclaim the House and Republicans are defending a two-seat majority in the Senate.
“The Dodd-Frank reform is really important for the banking community, particularly small banks, but it’s not the kind of thing that normally penetrates the public consciousness,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, founder of North Star Opinion Research.
Success after success
He said voters tend to notice “major bills that affect many people in the country, like the tax cut.”
Still, the GOP has been performing much better in generic congressional polling in recent weeks, closing a double-digit gap with Democrats to move essentially into a tie. Mr. Ayres said that’s largely due to a rise of Mr. Trump’s job-approval rating from 37 percent in an average of all public polls around the time of the tax cuts, to about 44 percent today in the average of all polls.
“That’s still nothing to write home about, but those seven points are really important for Republicans’ chances of holding onto control of Congress,” Mr. Ayres said. “It’s largely driven by Republicans and Republican-leaning independents moving back into approval of Donald Trump’s job performance.”
He credited the president’s rising job approval to “a combination of the major tax package, which really was a big deal, a strong economy, and [unresolved] hopes of progress in North Korea.”
Republican pollster Frank Luntz took it a step further, predicting that the GOP would hold onto its House majority if lawmakers move this year to choose a new speaker to replace the retiring Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin. Mr. Luntz said on Fox News that the decision would give voters a clear choice over liberal House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, a bogeyman for conservatives who is viewed as a prime motivator of Republican turnout.
In addition to legislative wins, Republicans are pointing to other actions likely to appeal to their base:
⦁ A record-breaking string of confirmations of conservative judges to federal appeals courts.
⦁ Executive action by Mr. Trump to reverse decades of federal funding for family-planning clinics that offer abortions.
⦁ The opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
⦁ The withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
⦁ The issuance of new orders Friday to reform civil service rules to speed termination of poor-performing government workers.
⦁ Mr. Trump’s win on NFL policy last week that will bar players from protesting the national anthem on the sidelines.
There are other victories, such as the successful confirmation battles of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and CIA Director Gina Haspel.
But there’s also the special counsel’s investigation, which has no clear end in sight and which is being countered more aggressively by new Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.
And with the deadline for fiscal 2019 appropriations four months away, Mr. Trump has warned Congress that he’ll veto any more spending bills that reach the level of the $1.3 trillion package he signed in March.
In his Memorial Day message, the president emphasized the economy, which is humming along with a historically low unemployment rate of 3.9 percent.
“Best economy in decades, lowest unemployment numbers for Blacks and Hispanics EVER (& women in 18years), rebuilding our Military and so much more,” Mr. Trump tweeted.
The White House is still entertaining hope of getting more accomplished legislatively this year, including passage of a farm bill and confirmation of more judges. The administration also is working with House and Senate Republicans on another tax-reform package that would make permanent the individual tax cuts.
While the prospects for an immigration fix are uncertain at best, Mr. Short said there’s even less chance this year of a long-awaited package to repair the nation’s infrastructure.
“Democrats are not interested in giving the president a legislative victory in this midterm year,” he said. “The politics this year are intervening in that.”