One of the biggest questions following the election of Donald Trump has been which end of Pennsylvania Avenue would exert more power under Republican control of Washington. Would Trump’s ideological shape-shifting and love of deal-making moderate the hard edges of conservatism on Capitol Hill, or would GOP congressional leaders convert the president-elect from a critic to a champion of their causes?
In Trump’s early Cabinet picks, Republicans in Congress have scored a big win.
Three of the seven selections Trump has made for senior posts that require Senate confirmation are sitting members of the House or Senate. There’s Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the nominee for attorney general; Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas, Trump’s pick for CIA director; and Representative Tom Price of Georgia, tapped to be secretary of health and human services.
Trump’s choice for transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, does not serve in Congress. But she is married to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
Congress has long served as a farm team for presidential administrations, and Barack Obama also leaned heavily on Capitol Hill when he filled his Cabinet eight years ago. Four department heads—in addition to Vice President Joe Biden—arrived directly from the House or Senate, and two more senators, Tom Daschle and Judd Gregg, could have joined the Cabinet if they hadn’t withdrawn their nominations before the Senate could vote on their confirmations.
Trump’s initial picks, however, are all the more notable for the fact that he ran against the Republican establishment in Washington during much of his campaign for the presidency. He memorably torched House Speaker Paul Ryan on Twitter, alleging his disloyalty, and he pledged repeatedly to “drain the swamp” of lobbyist influence. With the exception of tax cuts and repealing Obamacare, Trump’s limited policy agenda bore little resemblance to the platform Ryan and House Republican candidates advocated.
Yet Ryan and McConnell should now have all the influence they could ask for in the new administration. Trump’s chief of staff is Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman who is a longtime ally of the House speaker—going back to Priebus’s days working in Wisconsin politics—and is closely aligned with the party leadership in Congress. Price, the nominee for health secretary, is one of Ryan’s best friends in Congress; Price succeeded him as chairman of the Budget Committee, and Ryan supported him in his losing bids for House leadership posts. His selection should augur well for close collaboration between the Trump administration and congressional Republicans in what will be one of their most difficult battles to come: repealing and replacing Obamacare. Price has also supported Ryan’s efforts to overhaul Medicare and Social Security, which Trump had opposed during the campaign.
Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are also fans of two Trump nominees who don’t serve in Congress. Would-be Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a longtime Republican donor who headed the state party in Michigan and backs charter schools and vouchers, while Trump’s pick for U.N. ambassador is Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, another favorite of conservatives in Congress who had endorsed Marco Rubio for president.
Trump’s team isn’t entirely composed of Republican insiders. Steve Bannon, the president-elect’s chief strategist, is no fan of Paul Ryan, and the incoming national security adviser, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, is a Trump loyalist more than a GOP stalwart. Trump is said to be leaning toward Dr. Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would be an unconventional choice given his lack of experience in housing policy.
But by and large, Trump has made the kind of appointments that would be expected of a far more traditional Republican candidate. And that is likely due to the influence of Vice President-elect Mike Pence, whom Trump named to replace Governor Chris Christie as his transition-team leader just days after the election. Pence is now the governor of Indiana, but before that he was a conservative leader alongside Ryan and Price in the House.
Trump may not be done tapping members of Congress for his Cabinet. Republican lawmakers have paraded through Trump Tower just about every day for job interviews and meetings, including Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, a candidate to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of the GOP House leadership who could be chosen as interior secretary.
“How many people are you going to take from all of us?” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he jokingly asked a transition official when he got word of Price’s selection. He quoted himself at a Tuesday panel event hosted by The Washington Post: “You’ve got to leave some people left.”
The potential policy impact of the Congress-to-Cabinet pathway is self-evident. But populating the administration with buddies—and a spouse—of top congressional leaders has clear implications for the other chief responsibility of the legislative branch: oversight. And in that respect, Trump’s early personnel decisions appear shrewd. Democrats are already raising concerns that Representative Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is uninterested in investigating the many potential conflicts of interests posed by Trump’s businesses around the world. And how likely is it that Chaffetz, or any other committee chairman, will conduct aggressive oversight of departments run by their former colleagues? That question also applies to Chao, although she did serve as secretary of labor during the George W. Bush administration when her husband held a lower-ranking post in the Republican Senate leadership. (Trump, too, could have more success winning approval for an expensive infrastructure bill with McConnell’s wife in charge of the department spending the money.)
Concerns about appropriate congressional oversight abound whenever one party controls both Congress and the White House. Democrats didn’t go after ex-Senators Hillary Clinton or Ken Salazar when they served in Obama’s Cabinet in 2009 and 2010 nearly as hard as they scrutinized Bush’s secretaries the two years prior. But Republican leaders in Congress have made a point of trying to wrest back power for the legislature that they believe President Obama assumed unconstitutionally for the executive branch, such as his executive actions on immigration or his unilateral moves to delay implementing some provisions of Obamacare. They repeatedly sued in court to get the administration to respect the authority of Congress, and they have already begun the work of undoing rules that Obama put in place over their objections.
With a Cabinet soon to be full of friends and former colleagues, that priority just became a whole lot less important. Returning to the Capitol after the election earlier this month, Ryan said Republicans in Congress were working “hand in glove” with the incoming Trump administration. After such a turbulent campaign, that claim seemed dubious. Yet with each congressional Cabinet pick, the alliance between the president-elect and the party leaders he once pilloried is coming clearer into view.
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