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The Real Scandal of the Trump Administration Is How Little It's Accomplished

Underneath all the controversies, the Republican-dominated government has failed so far to live up to many of its promises.

In the lead-up to Donald Trump's inauguration, political observers braced for a flurry of substantive executive and legislative activity. Trump had promised to make radical changes to everything from foreign policy to healthcare to immigration, and had the backing of a Congress controlled by a particularly right-wing version of the GOP. And Trump has been a busy boy these past four weeks, as he has been eager to point out—most recently in his bizarre press conference on Thursday. Yet while Trump has kept America preoccupied with a never-ending stream of executive actions, bold proclamations, and scandals, as I've previously written, most of his actions have been more showmanship than substance.

Sure, some of his moves have had real and dire consequences. For instance, Trump's broadening the definition of who Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents should target has led to hundreds of undocumented immigrants being detained who would not typically have been scooped up in raids. The ham-handed rollout of the travel and refugee ban resulted in widespread confusion and fear. And Trump's nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court will likely have far-reaching consequences. Congress has made some notable moves too, using an obscure procedure to rescind three late Obama-era federal agency rules and indefinitely block the introduction of similar new rules—a tactic experts say we're likely to see more of in the near future—and passing a few minor bills.

But Trump has not actually done as much as quickly as many of his supporters had hoped and the Republican Congress, despite continued promises it will be making moves, has come under fire from conservative pundits for its apparent lethargy. The Affordable Care Act is still in place, the Iran nuclear deal is intact, not even a brick of the wall has been laid. So what exactly is holding up the promised great Trumpian deluge of governmental action, and when might we start to see more motion?

According to Molly Reynolds, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, Trump is outwardly ready and willing to roll ahead with his agenda. However, she says, "He will need Congress's cooperation to take things further" than just making statements of intent via executive actions. And Congress is blocked up by a host of internal and external factors.

Ever since Trump's inauguration, a contentious confirmation process for Trump's cabinet picks and other appointees has eaten up a significant amount of the Senate's time and energy. You can blame some of this, David Lewis, an expert on presidential nominations at Vanderbilt, tells me, on the fact that the confirmation process has gotten longer over time as nominations have become more politicized and polarizing. But they're moving slower than one might have expected under recent Senate rules changes and GOP control of Congress.

Some of this comes down to Democratic obstructionism, which seems to have hit harder and faster than Tea Party obstructionism hit the Democrats in 2009 (the Democrats had a larger Senate majority back then than the GOP does now). But Lewis notes that this goes further than just Democrats eating up time and making noise. Trump's people, he would argue, are partially to blame for snafus like Andy Puzder's doomed appointment as labor secretary.

"Naming a nominee is not the same as carefully vetting that nominee and doing the groundwork on the Hill to make sure that nomination is acceptable," he says. "The administration has done a poor job… They didn't do their work in advance and we're seeing the results of that now."

Watch White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer try to defend some Trump tweets:

Congress's remaining bandwidth at the moment is likely also being squandered by the flurry of scandals swirling around the White House, coupled with confusing directives from Trump. "So much is getting dumped on Congress at once," says Lewis, "that there is sand in the gears. [The White House] is effectively saying, 'Here's a thousand things to deal with—now do something with them.' And Congress is just not set up to do that well."

There's real reason to suspect that the Senate will confirm most of the cabinet (aside from that pesky labor secretary spot) by the end of February. The Senate will still have to approve dozens of other appointees, whom Trump has been slow to name, says Reynolds; Lewis has his doubts that the Trump team will fill its full roster before people start leaving and needing to be replaced by new appointees. Still, both Lewis and Reynolds suspect once the cabinet is done, confirmations will stop consuming huge gobs of time. 

"Democrats could choose to continue to obstruct some or all of the [lower-rank] appointees," says Reynolds, "but they might not get the same rewards from their base for doing so… [and Republicans] might just let many of the positions languish" unfilled rather than get bogged down over posts few people will notice or care about.

But whether post-confirmation hearing energies can be effectively utilized largely depends on Trump himself. The campaign showed just how suited he is to conflict and chaos, but that's not a recipe for DC, a town that moves slowly and cautiously. If he tamps down on his impulses, quiets the din coming from the White House, and learns how to better prioritize issues in Congress, he could make some real headway. That feels pretty unlikely for now, though.

Republicans have clear priorities with or without Trump: repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and passing tax cuts. But they have to overcome Democratic opposition and intra-party disagreements on how to construct and advance those policies.

"If Republicans are unable to overcome their internal divisions on major issues, there's not much they can do," says Reynolds. "The White House could be a powerful force in working to mediate some of the internal divisions within the GOP, but the president would have to decide on which approach among the several advocated by various Hill factions."

Another issue is that there's a lot of stuff Congress needs to do, which will rob time from the things House and Senate leaders want to do. "Legislative activity in Congress has a bit of a predetermined life cycle in terms of when you have to start working on appropriations bills and those things," says Lewis.

None of this means this Congress will get nothing done. Republicans have already managed to pass a handful of laws even amid the cabinet confirmation furor, and will likely continue to roll back some regulations and push forward a right-wing agenda. On Thursday, Republican leaders gave the House rank and file more details on an Affordable Care Act replacement, and that long-awaited project will continue even as protests against the repeal mount.

But a combination of Democratic obstructionism, strife within the GOP on how to move on their core priorities, a slate of predetermined and energy-sapping issues, and a lack of leadership from the Trump administration is currently making life tough for Republicans on Capitol Hill. It's never easy to deliver on big campaign promises, much less promises to deliver on them with speed, but incompetence and infighting make it infinitely tougher.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.