White House

The Fourth Branch of Government Is Having a Moment

All presidents must compete for influence over the executive branch, but Trump's having more trouble than most.

The executive branch wasn't always a behemoth.

Photographer: Three Lions/Getty Images

One effect of the Trump administration: We're getting an excellent (albeit unfortunate) education in the dangers and confusions caused by a historically weak president. Today's example: the rapidly multiplying obvious differences between POTUS and the executive branch departments and agencies.

This is not about some malevolent "deep state" scheming against the president. There are numerous examples Trump clashing with his own appointees -- some might call them his most senior cabinet members! -- who are saying and doing things that he strongly disagrees with. 

The left hand of executive branch departments and agencies either don't know or don't care what the right hand of the president is up to. As an NBC News reporter noted, the Treasury Department sanctioned Russians and State blasted Saudi Arabia this week despite recent statements from Trump himself. His tweet about China and North Korea doesn't seem to match up well at all with what State has been doing. Trump deleted the sentence affirming mutual support for U.S. allies from his NATO speech reportedly over the objections of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Earlier, Trump more or less declared himself a supporter of Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, a position not shared by State. Outside of foreign affairs, he's frequently made claims about health care which not only contradict what Republicans in Congress are trying to do but also with what Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has said. Without necessarily disagreeing on policy specifics (so far!), Trump announced that Treasury was about to roll out a tax cut plan without giving them advance warning.

And of course he's been bitterly opposed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions's decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's decision to appoint an independent counsel, and fired the director of the FBI for continuing that investigation. He still only grudgingly and inconsistently accepts the conclusion of intelligence agencies that Russia interfered with the 2016 election. 

Dartmouth's Daniel Benjamin sees the divide as a "bizarre fact" of life right now. "We once had a unified executive branch," he said, "we now have an agencies branch and a Trump branch." But how can we distinguish between what is normal and what is a Trumpian aberration? 

The U.S. has always had a some separation between the "agencies branch" and the presidential branch -- a "branch" that was really just the president for many years but grew, beginning with Harry Truman's presidency, into a large White House staff and a variety of presidential branch agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget. Indeed, one major reason the presidential branch grew is that it became impossible for the president and a handful of aides to wield influence over the sprawling departments and agencies. The presidential branch gives the president an independent source of policy information, so for example the Council of Economic Advisers supplies expertise so the president isn't forced to rely on the bureaucrats in the Treasury or Commerce Departments. The presidential branch also helps coordinate the actions of the whole alphabet soup of agencies. 

That's needed because all presidents must compete for influence over the executive branch against both Congress and the agencies themselves. 1 The civil servants who populate the agencies have expertise they believe politicians lack; they often have a long-term commitment to their agency's purpose (at least as they see it); and they also have an interest in supporting the agency's budget allocation and independence from oversight. 

So what's different now?

Trump's easily the weakest -- that is, the least influential -- president in the modern era -- at least so far. 2 That's a function of his terrible professional reputation in Washington and his weak popularity. It's also a function of who he's hired in the presidential branch -- people lacking a track record of cajoling bureaucrats into buying into the president's program -- and the surprising amount of positions he hasn't yet filled inside the agencies branch.

It also can't help that the president doesn't really seem to have much interest in achieving policy goals. Ronald Reagan wasn't exactly a detail-oriented manager, but many of his political appointees have said that they began each day knowing what policies he wanted them to work on. It's difficult to believe that Tillerson or Mnuchin has any clue what Trump really wants with regard to Russia. So they're left on their own, or left relying on their departments' civil servants. The same is true about domestic policy, from financial regulation to taxes to health care to trade, let alone the things Trump didn't campaign on.

The truth is some conflict between the president and the executive branch isn't unusual. For example, Richard Nixon entirely bypassed the State Department when planning his opening to China, and Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush all had troubles with agencies running New Deal and Great Society programs. What is unusual is how much of it we've already seen, and in fairly high-profile policy areas. And, no, whatever you think of Trump's policy goals (such as they are), this kind of presidential weakness isn't good for the nation at all -- it will produce chaos that impedes any kind of successful governance as well as giving opportunities to the nations rivals and enemies. 

The 1970s educational cartoon series Schoolhouse Rock is outstanding, including most of its items on U.S. politics. I know plenty of political science professors who use "I'm Just a Bill" in their college classes because it's still an excellent basic introduction to legislating.

But the one cartoon that gets it wrong is Three-Ring Government:

Sorry, but the U.S. Constitutional system in practice has (at least) a four-ring system: Congress, the courts, the presidency, and then a fourth branch, the departments and agencies that makes up the "executive branch." And right now Donald Trump is having an unusually hard time of influencing that branch.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. No, that doesn't mean that there's a malevolent "deep state" beyond the influence of elected officials. All agencies tend to resist politicians. And it's not inherently undemocratic for the decisions made by previous administrations to persist (or at least try to) through bureaucratic battles, as long as current elected officials have tools which enable them to potentially change the status quo. 

  2. He's probably stronger than many nineteenth century presidents, just because the presidency has grown so much stronger -- but I'm really only qualified to speak of more recent presidents, especially from Franklin Roosevelt on. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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