US: Political and institutional effectiveness

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Country Data and Maps
Economist Intelligence Unit
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Politics, Background, Forecast, Political and institutional effectiveness
Political Geography
United States

Congress has been deeply divided since the Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives in the November 2018 mid-terms. The Republicans held on to their slim majority in the Senate, and since then both parties have struggled to agree on any major legislative objectives. This is partially a tactical concern, as neither party is willing to hand a major legislative victory to the other in the lead-up to the November 2020 elections. However, partisan tensions run much deeper than this, and Mr Trump's governing style is also a limiting factor on Congress. The president has sparred with Congress, including with senior members of his own party, over several core policy matters, including immigration, foreign policy and government spending. For example, the federal government was shut down for a record 30 days in December 2018 and January 2019 after Mr Trump refused to sign a bipartisan spending bill that did not include his requested funding for the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico. The president also cut off talks with senior congressional Democrats over a major proposed infrastructure bill in mid-2019-one of the few areas issues with firm bipartisan support-demanding that Congress first ratify the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), a trade deal that would be critical to Mr Trump's legacy, but which Democrats do not support. Relations between the White House and Congress will remain fraught for the remainder of Mr Trump's term in office, giving his divisive governing style. As a result, we expect the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act-a landmark tax reform passed in 2017, which handed major cuts to corporations and wealthy individuals-to be the only major legislative achievement under the Trump administration.

Republicans and Democrats are moving further apart ideologically

Partisan fights will therefore continue, especially as deadlines approach for agreeing annual spending plans and raising the federal borrowing limit, or debt ceiling. The mutual distrust extends beyond fiscal matters, making it impossible for law-makers to tackle complex but necessary legislation. Seemingly bipartisan issues such as declining productivity and infrastructure decay have been left largely unaddressed for years and are unlikely to be resolved in the medium term. Complicating matters further, both the Republican and Democratic parties face serious internal divisions. The reorganisation of electoral districts in recent years has tended to give one party a built-in advantage. This has given candidates, particularly Republicans, a strong incentive to adopt more radical partisan positions. This is part of the reason for the rise of the ultraconservative, anti-government Tea Party movement, and the extremist Freedom Caucus, an invitation-only group of about 40 ultra-conservatives. Both have pushed the Republican Party further to the right, valuing ideological purity over co-operation. As a result, the Freedom Caucus has so far come into greater conflict with other Republicans than with Democrats. More left-wing, progressive elements of the Democratic Party are also coming to the fore, represented by two serious contenders for the presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as a number of progressive House members. Democrats will also struggle to reconcile some of the efforts proposed by the progressive wing-including efforts to move away from private healthcare insurance altogether-with more centrist elements of the party.

Policy messaging will remain erratic, owing to Mr Trump's impulsive style

Under the Trump administration, the institutional effectiveness of the executive branch has weakened. The new pres-ident's first 100 days-when his political capital is supposedly at its highest-was largely squandered by in-fighting among his closest advisers. The president has become increasingly frustrated with dissenting views within the administration, as well as with numerous reports that describe a White House in disarray. As a result, Mr Trump has taken an increasingly direct role in policymaking over the course of his first term. This has been accelerated by a particularly high turnover rate among senior staff. A study compiled by a US-based think-tank, the Brookings Institution, shows that the turnover rate among the president's senior advisers (excluding cabinet secretaries) reached 34% of staff in the first year of his presidency and 23% thus far in the second year (compared with an average of 12% in Barack Obama's first two years in office and 16.5% under George W Bush). Furthermore, many of the senior appointed positions within the government remain unfilled, or occupied by "acting" officials, giving the president more leeway to control policy. Policy messaging from the White House may therefore become less contradictory than it was at the start of Mr Trump's first term. Nonetheless, Mr Trump governs with an impulsive streak, which means that policy uncertainty will remain high for the remainder of his time in office.

Relations between the executive and the judiciary have become strained

Mr Trump has shown a disregard for judicial and law enforcement institutions that is uncharacteristic of US presidents. He has particularly taken issue with the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which have led investigations into Mr Trump's political campaign and his business affairs. The investigation led by the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, concluded in early 2019 that there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 elections; however, Mr Mueller's report highlighted several areas where the president's behaviour could be interpreted as an obstruction of justice. Ongoing investigations led by House committees as well as the southern district court of New York will continue to be a major distraction for Mr Trump and for policymakers. However, it remains unlikely that House Democrats will launch impeachment procedures. Republicans are unlikely to abandon support for Mr Trump in the absence of truly damning evidence of misconduct, meaning that impeachment hearings would be protracted and politically damaging for both sides.

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