So…Where’s the pony?

The search for good news from the Trump White House inevitably recalls the Reagan story about the boy endlessly mucking out the stable, justifying his messy work by repeating, “There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere.”

So, where’s the pony?

One possibility is the creation of a functional Congress that takes back some of the power that’s shifted toward the White House during the past few decades. This isn’t to argue that Congress is doing a good job now, but merely that, by the modest standards of our day, it’s a whole lot more rational than the White House.

Forget about the impeachment fantasies. Barring an exponential increase in Presidential misbehavior, it simply isn’t going to happen. The logic of impeachment is brutally simple and has little to do with the musings of Constitutional law professors. Basically, the president is out when a majority of the Congress decides that the pain of his continued service is greater than the pain of removing him.

Impeachment is basically regicide. You only play to win. If the President survives the process, as Clinton did, his powers are enhanced at your expense. It is important to recall in our institutionally conservative system the Congress has never removed a President from office. That’s a strong precedent.

Many remember that Nixon read the writing on the wall and quit after the House voted for impeachment, but Clinton — and Andrew Johnson more than a century earlier — resisted and prevailed. Decades later, the Supreme Court affirmed Johnson’s position on the issue that had provoked his impeachment trial.

At the moment, few would argue that Trump’s response to this situation would be as rational as Nixon’s. The situation would be painful and messy. Both the process and outcome would be unpredictable.

And it would raise interesting political questions for the Democrats about the wisdom of removing a President and replacing him with someone more familiar with the legislative process and a greater possibility of actually enacting policies they oppose. From a partisan perspective, a Pence presidency is not a step toward progressive– or even bipartisan — legislative process.

But the Congress does have other tools. It can control the White House by limiting its powers, either by overtly taking back responsibilities it has delegated to the executive branch or by making spending decisions that limit options.  We already know there will be no wall built on the border with Mexico unless Congress authorizes funding to pay for it. The President doesn’t always get what he wants. Recall the cliché– the President proposes, but the Congress disposes.

Imposing such discipline is asking a lot of the Republicans in Congress, who come from a hierarchical environment and are predisposed to defer to the guy at the top. But that discipline evaporated during last year’s primary season after being in decline since Cheney’s 2000 decision to avoid anointing a President-in-Waiting as Vice President.  And a growing number of GOP incumbents are coming to realize that re-election may be easier if they’re construed as restrainers rather than enablers of the Trump presidency.

It is a major challenge to find the pony hidden within the Trump Presidency. But if Congress has the gumption to saddle up, it would become a real possibility.


For 16 years, Jim Jaffe worked for House Democrats who served on the Ways and Means Committee, apprenticing with Representatives Green, Gibbons and Gephardt before working for Chairman Dan Rostenkowski.

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