Research News

Study: Continuity, not change, marked President Trump’s first year

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Sharece Thrower (Vanderbilt University)

While the various unilateral executive actions taken by President Donald Trump during the first year of his administration received great public scrutiny, a new Vanderbilt analysis shows he didn’t actually use them any more or less than his immediate predecessors did. Where he did differ was the focus of those actions—emphasizing immigration and deregulation more than previous administrations did.

These are some of the findings detailed in Continuity Trumps Change: The First Year of Trump’s Administrative Presidency, by Sharece Thrower, assistant professor of political science, and published recently by PS: Political Science & Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association.

Time will tell whether many of Trump’s proposed shake-ups indeed come to pass, Thrower said, but for now, his exercise of unilateral power falls well within established norms. She said, “Compared to other presidents in their first year, Trump’s use of various executive actions largely represent continuity rather than change.”

No rise in unilateral action

When President Trump was first elected, there was great speculation about how much he would shake up the role of the presidency, particularly when it came to his use of unilateral power. To measure that impact, Thrower and her co-authors undertook an empirical analysis of the presidential directives issued during the first years of the past six presidents.

“We looked at patterns of executive orders and presidential memoranda, both of which presidents used to instruct agencies on how to implement the law. We also looked at patterns in proclamations, signing statements and regulations,” Thrower said. “Again, all of these are policy tools available to the president. And we compared Trump’s use of these actions to other presidents that preceded him.”

Executive orders: These are direct executive actions. They are often used to guide government operations (such as establishing advisory councils), shape foreign policy and national security, or revoke previous presidents’ orders. President Trump issued 55 EOs during his first year, more than any other president since Reagan except Clinton (57 EOs). That said, the proportion of EOs revoking or amending previous presidents’ EOs were relatively modest. Additionally, his EOs focused more on immigration than past presidents, such as his original ban on immigrants from certain countries.

Presidential memoranda: These are powerful but less direct tools that, broadly speaking, provide guidance to agencies on how to implement policy—for example, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Here, Trump fell on the high end of the range, issuing more memoranda than any of his immediate predecessors except Obama. A greater proportion (59 percent) of Trump’s memoranda focused on national security, defense and foreign policy than for any of his predecessors, although George W. Bush came quite close, at 57 percent.

Proclamations: While often ceremonial, proclamations can also be powerful policy statements (most famously, the Emancipation Proclamation). Here, Trump was very much in line with his predecessors, falling right in the middle of the pack at 119. By comparison, Reagan signed 72 and George H.W. Bush signed 149. As an example, this was the instrument through which Trump modified the boundaries of Bear’s Ears National Monument in Utah.

Signing statements: These are statements issued by the president upon signing a bill into law. Though these have been around for a long time, largely to give credit to those who worked on the bill, it wasn’t until Reagan took office that presidents began to use them to influence policy as well. They do this by noting areas of the new law to which they object or which they will not implement, or by raising Constitutional questions. While Trump issued the fewest signing statements of his immediate peers, he used them fairly aggressively, raising Constitutional concerns in five of the seven he issued.

Shaping federal regulation

While most of Trump’s predecessors, including Republicans, tended to use unilateral powers to propose new regulations to advance their agendas, Trump aligned more with Reagan in his push to reduce regulations. Notably, he issued an EO directing agencies to pursue a 2-for-1 policy, requiring them to investigate the feasibility of eliminating two rules for every new one they wanted to implement.

However, the researchers note, rescinding a regulation is not a simple matter, requiring a “notice-and-comment” period, long-term agency commitment and the political will to follow through. They say evidence suggests that agencies have largely avoided the issue by simply choosing not to propose new rules in the first place. In short, the researchers say, President Trump has prevented new regulations but has not been able to unilaterally eliminate old ones.

Where Trump did find more success was in changing guidance and policy documents, which are more easily modified. For example, the researchers note, he changed President Obama’s guidance to the Department of Education on which bathrooms transgender children should be allowed to use at school. However, Thrower noted, these are just as easily reversed by future administrations.