Last week we saw a common phenomenon in the Age of Trump. President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Milley warns of 'Sputnik moment' for China WSJ publishes letter from Trump continuing to allege voter fraud in PA Oath Keeper who was at Capitol on Jan. 6 runs for New Jersey State Assembly MORE announced three Executive Orders demonstrating his desire to revamp the civil service system. The media hyperventilation started almost immediately. On the one side, a Washington Post columnist called it “an unwavering attack on federal employees.” On the other side a Forbes writer labelled it, “a common sense reform of the civil service system.”
A reader of either of these stories (or the myriad others that appeared last week) would be inclined to think that something very important had happened. The truth is far murkier. Take for example the Executive Order that would make it easier to fire federal employees. The key provision is Section 7 which states:
“To the extent necessary or appropriate, the OPM Director shall, as soon as practicable, propose for notice and public comment appropriate regulations to effectuate the principles set forth in section 2 of this order and the requirements of sections 3, 4, 5, and 6 of this order.”
In other words, nothing changes merely because this executive order was issued. The federal agency, the Office of Personnel Management, must now issue regulations in order to make the Executive Order effective. Such regulations will need go through a yearlong (at least) notice and comment process before taking effect. And such regulations will need to be consistent with the laws that protect civil servants or they will be overturned by courts. In other words, we may never see the types of changes that the media breathlessly debated last week.
Then quietly, little actually happens. In fact, in the case of many regulations, the efforts to roll them back are frequently overturned in the courts. This leaves the status quo in place. The failure to successfully follow through on the initial announcements gets much less attention than the announcements themselves. It also gets much less attention than false claims that the administration is rolling back tons of regulations.
Presidential announcements should get some attention. It is important to know what direction the chief executive and his cabinet secretaries want to take the country in. If you value protecting the environment, it is important to know that the administration wants to roll back such protections. If you believe the federal bureaucracy is bloated, it is important to know that the administration wants to cut its size.
But coverage of such intentions should be qualified with the recognition, that the president saying something does not make it so. Failing to tell readers this only fosters the view of the presidency as all powerful. It leads people to believe that if President Trump announced something it must be happening. Our constitutional democracy (for domestic policy at least) is designed to specifically avoid this mode of making policy. The media coverage of Trump’s announcements both obscures the roll of the rule of law in setting policy and eventually increases frustration among the public when nothing changes.
President Trump may actually be fine with this. He seems to revel in taking credit for making announcements and to care less about the implementation of his policies. In this case, the Fake News may be playing right into his hands.
Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.