Just before President Trump’s health care plan went down in flames, Press Secretary Sean Spicer defiantly told reporters, “We're not looking at a Plan B.”
Well, it’s clearly time now to look at a Plan B. It’s going to take a long time to clear the massive debris littering the path between Trump and fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill, and that’s going to clog legislative progress on health insurance, tax reform, infrastructure, the budget, and everything else.
But Trump has another option, right at his fingertips. It’s one that might well suit him much better. And while it wouldn’t be nearly as flashy as his failed “repeal and replace” pledge, it would give him a way to put some quick points on the board. Plan B: As a seasoned executive, he could concentrate on being chief executive of the federal government of the United States. In fact, that’s the crucial opportunity senior adviser Jared Kushner could bring with Trump’s new Office of American Innovation.
The big policy ideas require legislative action, but it’s going to take Trump a long time to build a real working relationship with Republicans on the Hill, assuming that the Republicans on the Hill can pull themselves together to work on anything. In the meantime, there’s a lot that Trump can do to make good on his promise to “produce results, and apply my ‘ahead of schedule, under budget’ mentality to the government.”
Plan B would come in three parts: concentrate squarely on big programs that connect the federal government most to citizens; focus on producing results that matter; and weave together the president’s collection of executive orders into a single coherent plan.
First, identify big programs that matter most. One of the reasons why “draining the swamp” caught on was that government so often seems, well, swampy. It’s thick, muddy, and hard to navigate. For most citizens, it’s just not easy to track where their tax dollars go. An executive who runs hotels understands that customers want value for the money they spend, especially on the things they care most about.
So here’s a collection of programs to focus on first.
- Travel. We’re getting near the summer vacation season. Why not start first on travel-related programs, including airport security screening; air-traffic control; immigration, customs, border protection, and passports? Remember the mega-lines at airport screening checkpoints last summer? If that happens again, Trump will own them. It’s far better to avoid big problems than to have images of long lines dominating the news channels. And, for good measure, he can make sure that visitors to national parks and memorials have a great experience.
- Health care. Trump couldn’t push through his health insurance program. But he can make sure the FDA gets good drugs and medical devices to market faster, and make sure that what’s on the market is safe. His National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control can make sure we’re ready for the inevitable next Zika or Ebola outbreak.
- Natural disasters. Nothing eats up a president’s popularity faster than being caught ham-handed when disasters strike. The odds are slim that Trump will make it until the 2020 election without having to deal with a major disaster. Now’s the time to make sure FEMA is ready.
- Law enforcement. We all count on the FBI to catch the bad guys and the federal prisons to keep them locked up. Stumbles here are always big news.
- Veterans. Trump promised to improve the nation’s care for vets. This is a program everyone cares about.
- Census. We’ll all come face to face with the census in 2020, one of the few things the Constitution actually requires the government to do. Information technology failures cost the government a billion dollars in the run up to the 2010 census. Trump won’t want headlines like that as he’s gearing up for the 2020 campaign.
- Taxes. This is nobody’s favorite part of government. But everything the government does needs money and the IRS collects it. Trump can do all he can to continue efforts to make sure tax season is as painless as possible for taxpayers—and that the government collects all the taxes it’s owed.
Anybody out there opposed to making travel smooth, drugs safe, response to natural disasters quick, the FBI effective, vets served well, the census a painless process, and paying taxes as easy as possible? I didn’t think so.
Second, demonstrate a return on investment. The president knows that the government doesn’t have the same kind of bottom line as his private company. But, in his “skinny budget,” the president has already pledged that “all federal agencies will be responsible for reporting critical performance metrics and showing demonstrable improvement.” A plan for developing a bottom line that tells taxpayers what government gives them in return for their money is critical.
Third, make it happen. What if the president doubled down on what’s already on the table? He’s already signed a blizzard of executive orders: one for review of regulations and another that requires cabinet secretaries to reorganize their departments. There’s an executive order to replace the hiring freeze for government workers with something new and a short but potentially powerful management plan in the “skinny budget.”
Trump could weave these together into a strategy that gave him real swamp-draining traction. Plan B would give him leverage over a huge swath of the federal government, since the “programs that matter” above actually account for 62 percent of all federal employees outside defense. It would deliver results that citizens would notice. It would give him real help in “draining the swamp.” And it would play up his private-sector experience.
Sooner or later, Trump will have to figure out how to do business with Congress, especially if he wants to put his name on big policy ideas. After the health care meltdown, however, that’s going to take time. In the meantime, though, he’s got Plan B, which he can get rolling immediately and without having to haggle with Capitol Hill. He can do it, he can own it, he can produce results, and he wouldn’t have to share credit.
And he could score some real wins that would fit pretty neatly into 140-character tweets.
Donald F. Kettl is a professor and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.