×

Donald Trump is keeping us all busy but getting very little done


Barack Obama shakes hands with Donald Trump during the Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2017.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
Barack Obama shakes hands with Donald Trump during the Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2017.

Speaking on ABC's This Week last Sunday, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller argued that the Trump administration "has done more in three weeks than most presidents have done in an entire administration."

And it certainly feels like an enormous amount of news has transpired in the brief time since Donald Trump's inauguration. We've had two separate waves of massive protests, White House–initiated controversies over crowd size and voter fraud, a flurry of diplomatic activity related to China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and a gobsmacking number of insider leaks from the White House.

But stepping back, the reality is that Trump has not actually done very much. He's signed three laws: a waiver to allow James Mattis to serve as defense secretary, the rollback of an obscure Obama regulation that made oil companies disclose their payoffs to foreign governments, and whatever the GAO Access and Oversight Act of 2017 is (it passed Congress unanimously and seems to be leftover business from the previous administration). His most consequential executive order is now tied up in court.

More from Vox:
Trump signs his first significant bill — killing a transparency rule for oil companies
It looks like the Trump team was in touch with the Russians before the election after all
A new Breitbart article reveals much about the war inside the White House

By contrast, eight years ago this Friday, Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) — the fiscal stimulus bill that serves as the second- or third-most-consequential piece of legislation he signed during his two terms in office. And that wasn't his first bill. It's still very early in Trump's term in office, and it's certainly possible that he'll pick up the pace down the road. But there's an enormous difference in life between being busy and getting things done. And so far, Trump's frenzy of activity hasn't added up to very much.

Obama's first four weeks accomplished an enormous amount

By the time the stimulus was signed, Obama had already signed two significant pieces of legislation. One, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, changed the statute of limitations on pay discrimination lawsuits to make it easier for victims of unfair labor practices to obtain compensation. The other, a reauthorization and expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, has since been overshadowed by the Affordable Care Act, but it was a significant bill in its own right. The bill added almost $33 billion in funding to provide insurance coverage to about 4 million children, including — for the first time — a provision to allow legal immigrants to obtain coverage without a waiting period.

The money was found through an increase in the federal excise tax on tobacco products. A 2012 study from Jidong Huang and Frank Chaloupka found that the increase reduced the number of teen smokers by about 250,000 and the number of teen smokeless tobacco users by nearly 200,000 in the short term.

Even more consequentially, they believe the "long-term projected number of youth prevented from smoking or using smokeless tobacco that resulted from the 2009 federal tax increase could be much larger," since smoking is, famously, addictive, so the impact of getting people to not start is cumulative over time. That adds up to many thousands of lives saved over the years — while the Lilly Ledbetter Act's provisions are already sufficiently entrenched that there is zero GOP effort to reverse them.

Either of these bills is easily more significant than anything Trump has done so far, yet both are dwarfed by the long- and short-term impact of the stimulus bill.

ARRA was more than a fiscal stimulus

The stimulus bill's primary purpose, of course, was to promote economic recovery. And while economists will debate until the cows come home exactly how successful — and how cost-effective — it was at doing this, there is broad expert consensus that it created jobs and reduced the unemployment rate during the peak crisis years.

Congressional Budget Office estimates of its impact across four years show that even if you believe the most pessimistic assessments, it added hundreds of billions of dollars to total economic output and supported millions of jobs (See chart here).

But beyond the short-term economic impact, the stimulus also had a substantial long-term legacy.

"The Trump administration, meanwhile, not only has almost no legislative accomplishments but also shows no sign of having made any progress."

One clear example of this is the way the Race to the Top grant program — which made education money available to states contingent on adopting administration-favored policy reforms — spurred change nationwide. The University of Chicago's William Howell concluded in a 2015 assessment that this worked. Regardless of the merits of the underlying reforms, "the president managed to stimulate reforms that had stalled in state legislatures, stood no chance of enactment in Congress, and could not be accomplished via unilateral action."

They repaired 42,000 miles of road, bought more than 12,000 mass transit vehicles, and cleaned up water supplies nationwide.

Tax credits for renewable energy production kept the wind and solar energy sectors afloat at a time when business investment was tanking, and have semipermanently entrenched these industries as significant players in the American energy mix. There are now twice as many jobs tied to solar energy production as coal, as solar installations have soared 2,000 percent.

Trump, obviously, has not yet signed laws transforming American education, health, or transportation policy.

Trump hasn't even started on anything

Barack Obama shakes hands with Donald Trump during the Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2017.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
Barack Obama shakes hands with Donald Trump during the Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2017.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, not only has almost no legislative accomplishments but also shows no sign of having made any progress.

New presidents often have at least one popular bill teed up for them quickly that was vetoed by their predecessor. That was the story, essentially, with the Lilly Ledbetter Act and with the Family and Medical Leave Act that Bill Clinton signed on February 5, 1993. Trump doesn't have one of those — or, indeed, anything — largely because congressional Republicans don't seem to have stress-tested their plan for repealing the Affordable Care Act.

The thing they had repeatedly passed only to face Obama's veto pen was repeal of Obamacare — repeal that was always supposed to be paired with some unspecified future replacement.

And Plan A during the transition — called "repeal and delay" — was to quickly pass a repeal bill and then work out a replacement plan later. Because Obamacare repeal is also a giant tax cut for the rich, this would then set a new lower baseline for tax revenue that could be used as a starting point for tax reform legislation. Republican senators, however, turn out to be queasy about the idea of voting for repeal without a sense of what the replacement looks like. But the GOP has no consensus at all on what a replacement should look like, which, for now at least, has left the entire legislative agenda stalled.

Commentary by Matt Yglesias, a writer at Vox. Follow him on Twitter @mattyglesias.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.