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TrumpBeat: The Art Of The Less-Ambitious Deal

Welcome to TrumpBeat, FiveThirtyEight’s weekly feature on the latest policy developments in Washington and beyond. Want to get TrumpBeat in your inbox each week? Sign up for our newsletter. Comments, criticism or suggestions for future columns? Email us or drop a note in the comments.

In a story earlier this week, our colleague Perry Bacon Jr. offered a useful rubric for thinking about whether a policy proposal is likely to overcome opposition. What matters is not just the intensity of opposition, Perry argued, but also the breadth of that opposition — how many different groups or constituencies object. Democrats are united in their opposition to Neil Gorsuch’s nomination for the Supreme Court, for example, but they haven’t managed to rally other groups — the public, the media, the legal community — to their side. As a result, Gorsuch is all but certain to win Senate confirmation on Friday.

Those kinds of wins have been few and far between in President Trump’s first months in office. His travel ban met stiff resistance from not just Democrats but also the courts, the bureaucracy and even some Republicans. His attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from both the left and right — it was hard to find anyone in Washington who actually liked the GOP health care bill. And the White House has spent much of the past month ensnared in a still-unfolding Russia scandal that is increasingly drawing attention (and concern) from beyond the entrenched Democratic opposition. (On Thursday, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said he would recuse himself from the Russia investigation following claims that he had disclosed classified information.)

So where can an embattled administration look for a badly needed policy win? One approach is to focus on issues that are likely to draw less — or at least narrower — opposition. One possible candidate: infrastructure spending, an issue that Trump emphasized at two separate events on Tuesday. Infrastructure is a rare issue that draws bipartisan support and is also generally well-received by policy wonks. It will still be tricky to reach an agreement on the details, particularly when it comes to paying for the extra $1 trillion in investment that Trump is proposing. But infrastructure spending enjoys enough support that a compromise ought to be possible.

Another approach is to tailor policy proposals narrowly to avoid broad-based opposition. Take tax reform: Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan initially wanted a fundamental overhaul of the tax system, which would almost certainly have exposed divisions among Republicans (and perhaps even between Ryan and Trump). Now, however, Trump is reportedly looking for a tax plan that could win support from some Democrats. That likely would require ditching the big overhaul in favor of a more modest package of tax cuts.

The trouble with both of these approaches is that they essentially achieve victories by sacrificing ambition. That may be the right approach for an unpopular president and a White House in search of some stability, but it isn’t going to deliver the kind of legacy-defining policies that any president — and certainly this one — desires. Those kinds of victories require the hard work of coalition-building. To pass education reform, George W. Bush teamed up with Ted Kennedy. To pass health care reform, Barack Obama had to win the support of doctors and insurers. Those negotiations took months and required complicated horse-trading. Trump, for all his dealmaking bona fides, hasn’t yet shown much appetite for that kind of painstaking work. But it’s the only way he will achieve the kind of sweeping changes he promised on the campaign trail.

Under Obama, the Justice Department aggressively investigated law-enforcement agencies, leaving a legacy of 19 current police-reform agreements, most of them court-enforced “consent decrees.” Under Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would back off from Obama’s level of police oversight, and last week he sent a memo to DOJ attorneys ordering them to “immediately review” all open reform agreements to make sure they fit with the priorities of the Trump administration.

Undoing the Obama administration’s work may not be simple, however. This week, the DOJ asked a federal court in Maryland to delay a public hearing on a consent decree with the city of Baltimore, which was negotiated under Obama but hasn’t yet been finalized. Judge James K. Bredar, however, swiftly ruled against the DOJ and said the consent-decree process must move forward.

Sessions may have more luck blocking another consent decree that was left unfinished by the Obama administration, this one in Chicago. In that case, the feds haven’t yet reached an agreement with the city, which could give the new administration more leeway. But Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already voiced strong support for the Justice Department’s recommended changes to the police. Even without a consent decree or federal investigation, Emanuel and other mayors can work to implement elements of police reform agreements at the municipal level. While the Justice Department may be able to stop exercising police oversight from here on out, the decision in Baltimore shows that they cannot do much to reverse Obama-era reform agreements or prevent local oversight.

Health care: Indecision or veiled threat?

It was another frenetic week in the land of health care policy. Depending on when and who you asked, Republicans were either taking a vote in the House by Friday to repeal Obamacare, busy making radical changes to the GOP bill to appease the conservative House Freedom Caucus or leaving reform efforts for dead. As Congress heads into a two-week spring recess, the GOP doesn’t seem ready to let the issue go, although the differences within the party also seem all but irreconcilable.

In the meantime, the Affordable Care Act faces a more immediate threat: a lawsuit that could cripple the insurance marketplaces set up by Obamacare for people without employer-sponsored insurance.

That lawsuit, brought on by House Republicans, is largely over subsidies that were written into the Affordable Care Act. Specifically, it’s about a discount that lower-income people can get on deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses, which tend to be high on marketplace plans. The subsidies were written into the ACA but required Congress to adopt a law to fund them. When it came time for Congress to do so, Republicans, who by that time had control, refused to pony up. Obama paid for them anyway, a lawsuit ensued, and the House won — a decision the Obama administration appealed.

Now that the Republicans are in control of the White House, it’s up to them to decide how to handle the appeal (the lawsuit, House v. Price, even bears the name of Trump’s secretary of health and human services, Tom Price). And, true to form, Republicans haven’t been able to agree on what to do: fight the lawsuit by continuing the Obama administration’s appeal, appropriate the funds for the payments, or let the marketplaces suffer the consequences of doing nothing.

Those consequences would be significant: Fifty-eight percent of people who buy insurance through the marketplaces qualified for these cost-sharing reductions in 2017. The problem for insurers is that they have to provide those reductions on co-pays and deductibles every year whether Congress pays them back or not. If they aren’t reimbursed, some insurers have threatened to leave the market altogether; those that stay will certainly raise premiums for 2018 to compensate for the loss. And those increases could be substantial, ranging from 9 percent in North Dakota to 27 percent in Mississippi, according to estimates by the Kaiser Family Foundation.1 And that’s just to account for the loss of these cost-sharing payments; there will likely be further premium increases as a result of the uncertainty the last few months have brought to the markets.

So far, the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House have refused to say what their plan is. That silence might be strategic: At least one insurer sees the indecision as a “veiled threat” to the industry to keep quiet while Republicans negotiate (as in, “don’t complain about our plans for the ACA or we’ll deprive you of these payments”). But it’s also possible that this is just another case of Republicans not being able to get on the same page on health care. Whatever the motive, if the Trump administration doesn’t make its intentions clear soon, the result will be insurers making like trees.

Immigration: A quiet start to reform

Early in his term, Trump issued a pair of executive orders designed to crack down on illegal immigration. Last week, he took steps toward changing the legal immigration system when his administration announced changes to the H-1B program, which offers visas to high-skilled foreign workers.

The H-1B program is controversial because it is often used by outsourcing companies to replace American workers with cheaper ones from overseas. (The visas are meant to be for highly skilled workers in industries where American workers are scarce. But companies, particularly in the software industry, have found ways to use them to bring in temporary foreign workers who stay in the U.S. only long enough to learn the job.) Trump frequently railed against H-1B abuse on the campaign trail, and last month, he temporarily suspended part of the program. The changes coming the program are more symbolic than substantive, however: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it would step up enforcement of existing rules and specifically target outsourcing firms for scrutiny.

In his speech to a joint session of Congress in February, Trump called for much more sweeping changes to the legal immigration system. The H-1B debate, however, shows how difficult that kind of reform will likely be. Pressure for change comes from tech industry workers angry about losing their jobs to foreign competition. But lining up on the other side are Silicon Valley powerhouses like Google and Facebook, which have lobbied to expand the H-1B program, as well as corporate giants like Disney2 — the same companies that Trump has been wooing through events like his “CEO Town Hall” earlier this week. Minor policy tweaks that affect mostly foreign outsourcing companies are one thing; a full-blown immigration overhaul will be far more challenging.

CORRECTION (April 7, 1:03 p.m.): An earlier version of this story incorrectly described President Trump’s changes to the H-1B visa program. He temporarily suspended premium processing, not the entire program.


  1. Estimates are based on cost-sharing subsidies and 2016 premiums, the most recent complete data available.

  2. Disney owns ESPN, which owns FiveThirtyEight. Disney has been accused of abusing the H-1B system.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Rob Arthur is a former baseball columnist for FiveThirtyEight. He also wrote about crime.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.