As Trump's 'roll-back cabinet' takes charge, lessons from Reagan era

Today’s president-elect may not have the ideological purity of Reagan, but many of his cabinet choices are just as conservative, if not more so. And they could have big impact. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Rep. Tom Price of Georgia testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday.

Update: This article was updated at 1:30 p.m. to include Rick Perry's comments from his confirmation hearing.

You could dub them the “roll-back cabinet” – Donald Trump’s nominees who are hostile to the very government agencies that they have been selected to lead.

In confirmation hearings this week, Democrats have decried and Republicans have rallied behind an Environmental Protection Agency appointee who has sued the agency 14 times (Scott Pruitt); a proposed Health secretary who promises to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Tom Price); and a billionaire who would be the nation’s top public educator but who supports vouchers to help kids leave public schools for private ones (Betsy DeVos).

Then there’s the designated Labor secretary who opposes significant increases in the minimum wage (Andy Puzder) and the proposed Energy secretary who, as a presidential candidate, called for the department’s abolishment (Rick Perry). Mr. Perry, however, walked back those comments during his confirmation hearing Thursday, saying, "after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination."

As a nation, America has been here before. Historians point to 1981, when Ronald Reagan also appointed cabinet secretaries who wanted to dismantle policies and programs in the departments they led.

In his first inaugural address, the Republican famously declared that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” His cabinet reflected that conservative view.

Today’s president-elect may not have the ideological purity of Reagan, but many of his cabinet choices are just as conservative, if not more so. They will be able to make serious inroads on policies they reject – if they don’t overreach, observers say.

“Trump is doing the exact same thing [as Reagan] with some figures who are even more radical,” writes political historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University in New Jersey in an email. “The strategy was effective for Reagan, and it will be for Trump.”  

That’s because Republican Trump will have a GOP-controlled Congress at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, while Reagan never enjoyed that political luxury. “The pushback from Capitol Hill will be limited,” says Professor Zelizer.

Reagan's revolutionary secretaries

Reagan appointed several of his revolutionary secretaries to less-prominent agencies and departments where they had a chance to alter practices, but not necessarily laws, observes historian Robert David Johnson of Brooklyn College in New York.

“Policies or statutes nominally remained in place, but the agency’s function was weakened or gutted,” he writes in an email.

Professor Johnson cites appointees such as Ann Gorsuch at the Environmental Protection Agency, James Watt at Interior, William Bradford Reynolds, who led the civil rights division at the Department of Justice, and Clarence Thomas, who was first an assistant secretary at the education department and then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Reagan tapped Mr. Thomas, who is now a United States Supreme Court justice, to push back against affirmative action. As EEOC chairman, Thomas pursued individual cases of discrimination instead of class-action lawsuits. That changed a practice but not a law.

Policy changes or different enforcement choices are things that a future administration with a different philosophy can reverse. But that gets much harder to do when changes affect the law, such as Congressman Price (R) of Georgia anticipates doing with an Obamacare “repeal and replace” as the secretary of Health and Human Services.

The EPA under Reagan may have relaxed pollution standards and cut budgets, but that didn’t change the central mission of the EPA, Johnson argues. If a future Secretary Price succeeds in repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, “his effect could be longer lasting.”

That is, if he doesn’t overreach, say historians.

Pushback on privatization

Americans love to rail against big government but they also love their government programs, especially Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

President George W. Bush found this out when he tried to partially privatize Social Security. It ran into a brick wall in a Democratic Congress.

And former Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan – now the speaker of the House – discovered the same over his plans to partially privatize Medicare through vouchers.

Democrats fought back with their “granny” ad, which depicted a Mr. Ryan look-alike pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair over a cliff. It was politically devastating for Republicans.

Former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont seized on this very issue at Wednesday’s nomination hearing for Price. The senator animatedly quoted Trump four times saying he would not cut the popular programs. Then he asked Price, who supports cuts to Medicare and Medicaid: “Is the president-elect, Mr. Trump, going to keep his word to the American people and not cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid? Or did he lie to the American people?”

Price replied that he hadn’t had extensive discussions with Trump about his promises, but he had “no reason to believe that he’s changed his position.”

When Price was pointedly asked by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee whether Medicare reform would be part of the repeal-and-replace bill for the Affordable Care Act, Price replied “absolutely not.”

Unsaid was that it could come up later, perhaps as part of tax reform.

The case of James Watt

Historian Zelizer cautions that what happened to Reagan could happen to Trump – that pushing too hard to reverse course from inside Washington could cause a huge backlash from grass roots outside Washington. This was especially true with Reagan’s environmental policy.

Mr. Watt, for instance, neither guarded his tongue nor his actions when it came to natural resource extraction and other issues at the Interior department. His overreach eventually isolated and sunk him, says former Senate historian Don Ritchie, in an email.

“Watt was a good example of a highly ideological cabinet officer who self-destructed by pushing policy too far and making too few friends to support him when he got into trouble.”

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