US Presidential Election 2016: Would Donald Trump be able to make any changes anyway?

James Nickerson
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Donald Trump Holds Campaign Town Hall In Tampa
Trump may find it hard to "make America great again" (Source: Getty)
magining Donald Trump walking into the White House is difficult, even at this stage. Yet, he looks set to win the Republican nomination, has the support of wide cross sections of society and is reaching voters that other candidates simply don’t seem able to.

That seems unexplainable to many, given his tough stance on immigration and antagonistic foreign policy.

In short, Trump wants, among other policies: tighter rules on Chinese imports, with prospects of a trade war; a wall with Mexico, a blanket ban on Muslims entering the US and the deportation of 11m undocumented immigrants; and a tax cut for people and corporations that many say could lead to a revenue shortfall in the trillions.

He also wants to repeal Obamacare and cut the department of education and planned parenthood.

At one end of the spectrum, there are those that equate Trump’s polices to fascism, while others say he’s unfit for office and would diminish the US’ standing in the world. Those who feel more favourably toward Trump say many of his policies simply wouldn’t work.

Take tax cuts. The Donald wants everyone earning $25,000 a year or less to pay no income tax, the top rate to come down from 39.6 per cent to 25 per cent and corporation tax set at 15 per cent. He says that means people “will win”; The Tax Policy Centre reckons it will cut almost $9.5 trillion from federal revenues over the next ten years.

Or on foreign policy, he says a wall with Mexico and deportation will help ease immigration and result in more jobs for US citizens, while Muslims should be banned from entering the country. But economists say immigration benefits the economy and foreign policy experts say he just “inflames unhelpful passions”.

And his protectionist policy suggestions that the US will increase tariffs on Chinese goods to provide more jobs for Americans have also been challenged by experts as policy that doesn’t quite grasp the nature of global trade.

Given, there are legitimate and long-standing reasons for Trump’s meteoric rise. Still, it appears clear that there are reasons to at least doubt some of his policies as damaging.

Read more: Do Donald Trump's economic policies stack up?

But does it matter? Given the American political system is rigged to resist change, it seems unlikely.

“Under the situation existing in the American Congress, there is very little any President can get much done, especially if it is at all as controversial as most of Trump's positions are,” says Professor Jesse Choper, who teaches at Berkeley and is a member of the American Law Institute.

That’s not just because it’s Trump, mind. As Choper continues, “this is true whether he is President or not. President Obama's attempts demonstrate this very clearly, particularly thinking of his immigration executive order and now for the Supreme Court”.

And a vast array of the policies Trump would seek to implement would require congressional approval.

“Building the wall with Mexico would require congressional appropriations. It isn’t going to happen. Also, he can’t repeal Obamacare by himself, though with a Republican Congress it will happen. He cannot eliminate the Department of Education by himself, nor eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood. That will take congressional action,” says Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean and distinguished professor of law at the University of California.

“I think it is so hard to imagine what he’d be like as President. But certainly much of what he promised isn’t going to happen,” he adds.

Of course, as Chemerinsky alludes to, how much a President can get done will depend on the make-up of the Senate and House of Representatives.

As a Republican, Trump would likely prioritise a tax cut and push for the most radically business-friendly package he can get through congress. But exactly how this would look, says Molly Reynolds, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, a non-profit public policy organisation based in Washington, DC, would depend on the make-up of congress.

The Republicans are almost certainly going to continue to control the House after the November elections, but may lose control of the Senate to the Democrats. If this happens, it would be harder for Trump to enact some of his more conservative policy proposals.

As Terri Bimes, a lecturer at the Berkeley’s Institute of Government Studies, explains: If the Senate is controlled by the Democrats or if the Republicans fail to get a filibuster proof majority or the House is lost to Democrats, legislative gridlock is the likeliest scenario.

“Even if the Republicans win big in the Senate (which is not likely) and retain control of the House, it is unsure if the congressional members of the Republican party will take their marching orders from a maverick like Donald Trump,” Bimes says.

Aside from this, the action a President can take without congressional approval depends on the policy area where he is attempting to make a change.

Read more: Republicans to trump - eight things I hate about you

There are some things a President can do through executive authority alone, and others that need explicit congressional approval, says Reynolds: “For example, Presidents generally have more latitude to act without congressional cooperation in the foreign policy arena than in domestic policy, though that distinction isn’t hard and fast.”

President Obama, facing a Republican Congress whose Republican leaders have vowed to fight Obama's legislative agenda tooth and nail, has resorted to executive orders to achieve some major policy outcomes.

But, as Bimes continues, the problem with most of these kinds of executive rulings is that they can be reversed by the next President who may disagree with their predecessor's perspective. “Hence Ted Cruz's pledge to tear up all of President Obama's executive orders on the first day of office if elected. They also could face legal challenges.”

Reynolds agrees, adding: “What's more, how much power the President has to act without congressional approval often gets challenged in the courts by those who disagree with the President's actions. We have seen this recently, for example, with the legal challenge to President Obama's executive actions on immigration.”

If you take immigration, Trump could – at least temporarily – implement his plan to prevent Muslim immigrants from entering the United States. But ultimately, he is likely to be challenged in court.

And any proposals requiring actual federal funds – think the wall or deporting undocumented immigrants – would be severely more unlikely, as it would be difficult to get Congress to enact spending bills that contain money for those initiatives, Reynolds adds.

On trade, current law does give the President some ability to impose tariffs due to import competition. But this is restrained by the World Trade Organisation. Contemplate a situation where George W. Bush imposed steel tariffs in 2002, which were subsequently ruled illegal.

One area where Trump could make a big change is the Supreme Court. The court currently hangs in the balance, with four members conservative and four liberal, given the passing of conservative Justice Scalia. If the Republican Senate manages to block Obama’s attempt to appoint the next justice, whoever Trump would appoint could transform the political balance of the Supreme Court and American politics.

Still, Trump may well have taken the US by storm, stating he will “make America great again”. He may find it harder than he thinks.

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