If President Donald Trump’s emphatic disregard for the facts continues, it will soon threaten the viability of the legislative process and imperil the minimal credibility now afforded Congress.
During his initial week in office, Trump has stood fast by three whoppers of substantial import — given that they now bear the imprimatur of the Oval Office, not the campaign trail or the board room or the set of a reality TV show. But so far, his spreading of falsehoods has not managed to muddy, or sully, the process of advancing the policy changes the country elected him to make.
That probably explains why no one on the Hill made a big deal out of Trump’s untrue claims about the size of his inaugural audience. Or why only a couple of members called out the president for accusing the media of fabricating his war of words with the spymasters, which he undeniably initiated and intensified. Or why the eight most powerful leaders in Congress decided — in the moment — against challenging Trump when he repeated his false claim that ballots cast by several million unauthorized immigrants robbed him of a popular-vote majority.
Maybe they were left collectively dumbfounded by the ridiculousness of the lie. Maybe all their political instincts were simultaneously the same: There was no percentage in starting an argument in the State Dining Room on Monday night over something so provably outrageous, especially during their very first meeting for mutual sizing-up and explorations of legislative priorities.
The most House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could muster, on Wednesday, was to label Trump’s unfounded allegations about massive voter fraud “strange” and “startling.” But by then, the congressional leadership had effectively taken a bipartisan pass at a crucial juncture.
And they risk a rapid deflating of their own influence, and more erosion of the standing of Congress as an institution, if they perpetuate the precedent by remaining conflict-averse the next time Trump goes untruthful on them.
It’s one thing for professional politicians to roll their eyes but remain silent when a newcomer to their business starts grasping at made-up straws to explain an entirely irrelevant statistic he finds distasteful.
But it would be another thing altogether if the guardians of the legislative branch’s powers and prerogatives start permitting the chief executive to bring his own set of fabricated statistics and doctored information to the policy negotiating table — or else refuse to acknowledge the reliability and credibility of the work done by the Hill’s own data masters.
Raising the stakes
Even the most neophyte political operative knows how to compare the size of two crowds by looking at aerial photographs and subway ridership numbers. Probably every junior Hill staffer understands how offensive it is to liken the work of a federal employee to that of Nazis. And anyone who ever won a close contest for Congress understands the evidence would be unavoidable if three out of every 100 ballots in their race had been cast fraudulently for the other guy. (That would translate into 4 million out of the 136.6 million votes cast for president last year, the midpoint of Trump’s false assertion about the number of illegal votes for Hillary Clinton.)
In other words, the congressional community hasn’t been fooled or swayed by Trump’s initial round of presidential prevaricating.
But the stakes are about to get much higher, with the facts at issue getting much more complicated and much more credibly open to interpretation.
The real work of lawmaking is about to begin — once Trump finishes signing the initial wave of presidential directives and executive orders to advance many of his campaign promises, and once this week’s bicameral Republican congressional retreat in Philadelphia is followed by next week’s parallel strategy and planning session for Democratic senators and House members in Baltimore. After that, there will be a sustained slog through the end of July, a welter of activity in the fall and then another spurt a year from now, after which political maneuvering for the 2018 midterm election will start to take hold.
Consideration of virtually every bill will be fueled with competing studies, surveys and sorting of historical data. But there are two categories of evidence that all parties in the deliberations, and both political parties, have customarily agreed will be the unsullied baselines for the debate: the empirical data, as gathered by executive branch agencies, and the projections of the fiscal consequences for every policy change, as calculated by the legislative branch.
The nascent days of the Trump era have been marked by a crisp clampdown on the free flow of public information from the government, with officials at the EPA and the departments of Agriculture, Interior, Transportation and Health and Human Services told to stop issuing news releases or using their government social media accounts for even routine business until the messaging strategies from the new political bosses have been developed.
The Trump White House has already cast doubt on the reliability, or at least the utility, of one bedrock statistic: the national unemployment rate, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics most recently pegged at 4.7 percent for December. Trump, as a candidate, labeled the jobless number “one of the biggest hoaxes in American modern politics” and signaled his belief that the “real” figure is above 40 percent.
His choices to run the Treasury and Labor departments have demeaned the BLS number since their nominations, and this week, presidential spokesman Sean Spicer refused to use the official figure while on camera at the daily press briefing, arguing that “too often in Washington we get our heads wrapped around a number and a statistic,” instead of “the faces and the families and the businesses that are behind those numbers.”
It’s easy to see Trump extending a dismissive disdain to any figures emanating from Capitol Hill’s nonpartisan information factories that nonetheless sound “horrible” or just plain “wrong” to him — and then insisting that Congress make decisions instead based only on the “amazing” or at least “great” statistics at his exclusive disposal.
These could be “tremendously unfair” calculations of executive branch waste from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress charged with overseeing the proper collection and payment of public funds.
They could be the “terrible” work of the Congressional Research Service, the lawmakers’ in-house think tank and policy-development consultancy on the full range of domestic and international affairs.
More problematically still, the president could dismiss as a “total disaster” the conclusions of the Congressional Budget Office, which is charged by law with estimating (for purposes of long-term deficit and debt projections) the spending and revenue changes from enacting every bill with consequences for the federal balance sheet, from an increase in the minimum wage to a replacement for the 2010 health care law.
Or he could refuse to abide by the conclusions of the Joint Committee on Taxation, which takes the lead from the CBO for estimating the line-by-line consequences of every proposed change to the IRS rule book. While presidents promoting tax reductions routinely forecast beatific consequences — leaving more money in Americans’ pockets will boost the economy and thereby fatten the Treasury’s coffers — the congressional scorekeepers have not usually bought into these “trickle-down” expectations. And the coming battle over Trump’s long-shot, and potentially not offset, tax cut is likely to be no different.
Much of the work done by these congressional staffers is predictive, so it doesn’t fall cleanly into the universe of “fact.” And, to be sure, every one of the Hill’s number-crunching offices has been accused at some point in the last two decades of partisanship, suspected of shading the statistics to the left when Democrats have run the Capitol and then pushing them to the right when the GOP has become the boss.
But, in the end, Congress, for several decades now, has jealously guarded its prerogative to say what numbers will be judged reliable for representing the cost to the taxpayers of their work.
Whether in periods of divided government or unified one-party control, presidents have not been permitted to substitute their “alternative facts” for those adopted by the legislators, to cite the first infamous phrase added to the lexicon by Kellyanne Conway since moving into the West Wing.
Nor has any president been able to change the grounds for the discussion without offering any credible evidence, but only by tautologically insisting (as Spicer said of Trump the other day) that “he believes what he believes.”
The presidency comes with many awesome powers. For their political sake in the next few years, and for the sake of their integrity in the eyes of history, the Republican majorities in Congress have as much interest as the minority Democrats in preventing Trump from accruing even more influence — by allowing him to take charge of what information shall be deemed as having objective reality during the making of legislation.