As President Donald Trump's first 100 days in office draw to a close, it's tempting to slap a letter grade on the administration's opening act, where much was promised and little was delivered. It's possible that the best grade is, for now, an "incomplete" because the greatest potential of the Trump administration to affect that change has little to do with the attention-craving septuagenarian in the Oval Office, and much more to do with who Trump has appointed to run other parts of the government.
Trump, it hardly needs to be said, is unlike any president who came before him.
He was elected on a promise to remake the federal government in total. To drain the swamp. To "dismantle the administrative state," as Steve Bannon, one of Trump's top advisers, put it. He was also elected with less than a majority of voters supporting him, and low approval ratings have dogged him since Inauguration Day. The gap between Trump's mantle and his mandate is greater than any president in recent memory.
It's also true that Trump faced a steeper learning curve than any other president, given his complete lack of knowledge and experience in politics. Whether Trump even wants to climb that curve has been a matter of some debate, though he's at least now admitting ("This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier," Trump told Reuters in an interview published Friday) that he's in over his head.
Trump can't do it all. No president can. The federal leviathan is simply too large.
Enter the appointees. There's plenty of room to quibble with the men and women whom Trump has selected to run many of the federal government's top agencies and departments (looking at you, Attorney General Jeff Sessions), but libertarians should be at least mildly optimistic about several choices: Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Scott Pruitt as the director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Ajit Pai as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to name just three.
The FCC's status as an independent regulatory agency means Pai is in a position to make the biggest, or at least the most immediate, impact. This week, Pai announced plans to roll back net neutrality rules put in place by the Obama administration in 2015. Net neutrality was a political response to a problem that doesn't really exist—Obama's FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, struggled to find any examples of how Internet Service Providers had throttled data or blocked websites, and worked in secret with the White House to create a set of regulations that would pass legal muster—and loosening government regulation of the Internet is a win for businesses and users.
Scrapping these rules, Pai told Reason's Nick Gillespie, won't harm consumers or the public interest because there was no reason for them in the first place. The rationales were mere "phantoms that were conjured up by people who wanted the FCC for political reasons to over-regulate the internet," Pai told Gillespie. "We were not living in a digital dystopia in the years leading up to 2015."
Trump and Congress teamed-up to use the Congressional Review Act 13 times during the first 100 days to repeal Obama-era regulations, including the FCC's 2016 privacy rule. "This regulation imposed uniquely rigid requirements on broadband providers, suppressing competition in the market for online advertising," says Ryan Radia, a research fellow for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank.
Pruit, at the EPA, announced in March that the agency will reconsider the final determination and decide by April 1, 2018 whether the Obama-era CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency) standards will remain in place. Those rules drive up the cost of making cars and automakers say the new level set last year by the Obama Administration may be unachievable. Even if CAFE standards were useful in helping nudge fuel efficiency upwards over the past decade—something that probably would have happened anyway—there's good reason to question whether they are still needed.
Devos, probably Trump's most controversial pick, has not yet demolished public schools or fired all of America's teachers (as some opponents of her confirmation might have led you to believe she would). But she has called for scaling back Department of Education spending on Title II programs and wants to reconsider Title IX rules that have run roughshod over students accused (but not convicted) of sexual assaults on college campuses.
You could add to the list Ryan Zinke, Trump's Secretary of the Interior, who this week received an executive order from Trump to review the existing five-year plan for offshore drilling, passed during the Obama administration's final months. Zinke will be responsible for reviewing permitting and regulatory issues for offshore drilling, with an eye towards surveying additional drilling sites, something the industry has been keen to do for some time (offshore surveying hasn't been widely done since before the shale gas revolution swept through the drilling industry).
Add, too, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, who may be willing to reconsider some of the nonsensical rules on how tobacco products are marketed in the United States to better inform customers about the dangers of smoking and steer them towards healthier options. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, who was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday, deserves a mention for his interest in rolling back several Obama-era regulations that hike the cost of doing business, like the 2016 rule-change that doubled the threshold for workers earning overtime pay.
Only time will tell if these appointees can follow through on this ambitious regulatory agenda.
Hopefully Trump will see fit to stay out of the way. His current fascination with threatening to start wars—those of trade or those with bombs—and his willingness to surround himself with interventionist foreign policy advisers should be a major red flag.
"My feeling about Trump on energy, environment, and climate issues is that if he keeps all his promises, if he even keeps 80 percent of his promises, this will be the biggest change-direction we've ever had in the way of getting rid of the administrative state," CEI's Myron Ebell (who served on Trump's transition team) told Reason editor-at-large Matt Welch, for the cover story of the latest edition of the magazine. "Now, if he keeps his promises on some other issues, like trade, you know, I'm scared to death."
The swamp is large, full of territorial crocodiles and blood-sucking leaches. It will not be drained in 100 days, and certainly won't be by anyone who, like Trump, is enamored by the trappings of power and who lacks the attention span to grasp complex policy.
If there's something good to be said of Trump after his First 100 Days, it is this: he's done what a good CEO should do by putting some of the right people in positions to do good things. Check back in the next 100 days (and the 100 after that) to see what's been accomplished.