WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump’s sweeping plans to remake the presidency ― and give himself more power than ever if he is elected to the White House again ― have met with a chilly reception from members of his own party in Congress.
The former president and his allies are vowing to bring independent federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission under direct presidential control, revive the practice of “impounding” funds appropriated by Congress, and strip employment protections for thousands of civil servants in the executive branch, ostensibly to replace them with Trump’s own chosen political appointees.
The proposals, outlined in a New York Times story earlier this week, stem from years of Trump’s grievances about the so-called “deep state,” the media, and Congress itself standing in the way of his autocratic tendencies. They hinge on a thesis, long popular on the right, called “unitary executive theory,” a model where the president has sole power over the entire executive branch of government, including independent agencies and even federal prosecutors ― like, say, the ones investigating the president himself.
Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who has already endorsed Trump’s bid for a second term, said Trump’s power grab would be necessary to rein in the power of bureaucrats and agency officials. He called Trump’s plan to give the presidency even more power “necessary to have a constitutional republic.”
“To have true separation of powers, the president has to have the prerogative over the administration of laws,” Vance told HuffPost. “If you have all these alphabet soup agencies where the bureaucrats can’t be fired and aren’t under control of the president, you’ve effectively created a fourth branch of government totally unaccountable to the people. That’s a real problem.”
“What we’re trying to do is identify the pockets of independence and seize them,” Russ Vought, Trump’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget and a leading proponent of the power grab, told the Times.
There is some debate on the left about how seriously to treat the scheme, and whether it’s just campaign fodder that likely wouldn’t become law. For now, it is clear Democrats in Congress would unanimously oppose the plans, with at least some Senate Republicans prepared to join them. An expansion of presidential power would ultimately come at a steep cost to members of Congress, who prize their ability to oversee industries and appropriate funds.
Top Republican appropriators also voiced their opposition to the idea of reviving the president’s impoundment authority. Congress in 1974 passed a law banning the tactic after a fight with President Richard Nixon, who withheld $40 billion in funding that Congress had passed during in his first term in office. Reviving the practice would require another act of Congress.
“The Constitution is very clear about the role of Congress and the power of the purse, so I would not do so,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the top Republican on the Senate appropriations committee, told HuffPost.
“I don’t think I agree” with the plans of the Trump team, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who also serves on the committee, said. “I want to have the independence of an appropriator.”
Republicans who serve on the Senate commerce committee were similarly wary of ways Trump could infringe on their power.
“I think those are independent agencies designed to be that way for obvious reasons, so I’m not sure what that accomplishes,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told HuffPost, when asked if he would support bringing the FTC and FCC under presidential control.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) ― chair of the commerce committee, which oversees the two agencies ― didn’t endorse the plan, either. He instead shifted to bashing FTC Chair Lina Khan, a top target of Republicans due to her aggressive strategy in taking on big tech companies.
“I will say Lina Khan’s abuse of power of the FTC is going to add considerable momentum to congressional efforts to rein in out-of-control, supposedly independent agencies,” Cruz said.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who also serves on the commerce committee, said he “would have to look very, very carefully” at any proposal to bring the agencies under executive control. He expressed his desire to see the FTC and FCC act in a nonpartisan manner.
According to the Times, Trump’s allies are drafting an executive order that would require independent agencies to submit actions to the White House for review. The move, if enacted under a second Trump presidency, would likely face a legal challenge.
“I think it’s very important for us to remember that he can’t just wave a wand and invalidate the statutory structure for these expert agencies,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said of the twice-impeached former president. “It doesn’t matter what he thinks. The law is the law. If he wants to change the structure of the agency, then he’s going to have to ask someone to introduce a bill.”
Schatz said that if Trump wants to change the structure of federal agencies, he should do so by appointing commissioners who agree with him.
“It’s exciting to think of the new ways that Mr. Trump would do damage, and it’s always worth worrying about, but the truth is there are statutes in place and he’s going to have to abide by them,” Schatz said.