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Trump is mired in mission creep

Rick Newman
Columnist

Any idea how many executive actions President Trump has signed since taking office in January? Hint: A reasonable guess will probably be low.

Trump has signed at least 37 significant actions on matters such as immigration, deregulation and trade policy. If you count wishy-washy stuff such as declaring April “National Financial Capability Month,” the number approaches 70.

There’s nothing wrong with Trump giving his pen a workout, but there is something wrong with sending an understaffed federal bureaucracy in a million different directions when there’s actually important work to get done. And that important work mainly involves legislation on a few key matters that’s able to pass Congress, become law and make the US economy more productive.

Trump made a lot of campaign promises while running for president, but his big-picture economic priorities were relatively few: Repeal and replace Obamacare, fix a sclerotic tax code that harms productivity, cut regulations to make businesses more competitive, and get some new roads and bridges built. That’s it, really.

Trump whiffed on repealing Obamacare, and that’s for the better, because there is no Republican plan that would improve the current system without forcing millions off insurance. That leaves three other economic priorities, and of those, it’s easy to see which is most important: tax reform that would, among other things, lower the corporate rate so it’s more comparable to the rates in other countries, and close hundreds of loopholes businesses have lobbied for over the years. There are genuine problems with the US tax code that curtail job creation and depress living standards for millions of Americans.

Fixing that should be Trump’s singular goal for the rest of 2017, and 2018, if that’s how long it takes. Yeah, it will take a long time. Yes, it’s tedious and probably infuriating to deal with all the competing fiefdoms on Capitol Hill. Sure, the government can do more than one thing at once. But no president is remembered for executive orders—just ask Barack Obama. Presidents succeed or fail based on their ability to accomplish hard things, and these days that means getting a do-nothing Congress to do something.

As Trump’s 100th day in office approaches, the president is busy working through a long list of campaign promises, including some, like tariffs on imports, that were unwise. All those executive actions, among other things, require agencies such as the Commerce and Treasury departments to conduct a bunch of reports advising on ways to better protect American industries such as steel, use federal contracts to purchase more American products, and identify every abuse by American trading partners. Okay, fine, but some of the bureaucrats doing that work are the same people needed to draft and shepherd tax-reform legislation. Most of the top positions in those departments are still unfilled, which means Trump is working right now with far fewer resources than predecessors who accomplished a lot less than he wants to.

Distracted from his central mission

“Mission creep” is a military term referring to operations that start out with one clear goal, such as winning a war, and morph into something different, such as an open-ended peace-keeping or terrorist-hunting effort. Trump suffers from the political version of mission creep. His central mission is to make the US economy more productive. But he gets distracted by battles over immigration, media coverage and other matters not core to his mission. Trump still hopes, for instance, that the House will soon pass a bill to repeal Obamacare, which indicates a previously undisclosed appetite for self-torment. Instead of a producing a hasty legislative victory, that effort seems bound to go down in flames–again–leading to more of the blame-placing that is already undermining Trump’s effectiveness.

Trump says he’ll release his tax plan sometime before his 100th day, which will be April 29. That will allow him to claim he got a tax plan out during the crucial early time frame. But that plan needs to be a reasonable blueprint for legislation able to garner some bipartisan support, and pass. If it’s more like his mid-March budget blueprint, and features mostly symbolic measures with little hope of passing Congress, it will end up wasting time and dimming the odds of real reform. There’s another tax plan, backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, but it includes a fatal “border-adjustment tax” that Trump himself doesn’t like and markets would find troubling, since it would punish some big companies that rely on imports, such as Walmart (WMT) and Target (TGT).

Markets leapt for joy recently when Mnuchin said he thought a tax bill might pass by the end of this year. That was less optimistic than an earlier Mnuchin projection, which set August as the deadline. Still, it was better than 2018, or never. Yet every executive action requiring another report, and every political battle Trump loses, essentially pushes a credible tax reform plan back by days or weeks. Markets care little about executive orders anyway, and it’s hard to imagine many of Trump’s core voters are keeping track of every executive order, since they’re the ones who frequently said it’s more important to trust Trump’s vision than take literally everything he says.

Trump’s 100th day will come and go with a lot of predictable criticism of his meek achievements so far, and equally predictable pushback by Trump. But 100 days isn’t the right benchmark. Instead, let’s take Mnuchin at his word and use Dec. 31, 2017, as the sell-by date for tax reform legislation. In political time, that’s a lot sooner than Trump may realize. The next thing Trump signs should be a tax-reform blueprint.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.