White House loads thinly staffed agencies with policy deadlines

Key Points
  • Trump has signed more than two dozen executive orders on issues ranging from border security to government restructuring and financial reform.
  • The White House has set upward of 46 deadlines before the end of the year, including some 15 outlined in the president's controversial travel ban.
What Trump's 26 executive orders have in common...

Since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has signed more than two dozen executive orders on issues ranging from border security to government restructuring and financial reform. But most of those executive orders have one commonality: They assign the heavy lifting to government agencies and set ambitious deadlines for them to report back.

In all, the White House has set upward of 46 deadlines before the end of the year, including some 15 outlined in the president's controversial travel ban, which is currently stalled. On Friday, the Treasury Department received two new deadlines: In two months it must identify burdensome or complex tax regulation; in six months it must assemble a plan to fix them.

"I think the purposes of the orders are to make clear what the president and the administration's priorities are and to signify the importance of these issues to the American people," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters on Friday.

The Trump White House has issued seven more executive orders than President Barack Obama in the same period. Those signings have come with campaign-like rallies and splashy photo ops, even as the resulting recommendations remain months away.

"It could be that President Trump wants to be more hands-on," said Sean Moulton, program manager at the Project on Government Oversight. "While obviously, the agencies are doing the work, he wants to put his name on it; that could be his preferred way of operating."

The market is watching two deadlines closely. First, the Treasury Department is expected to file a report by the first week of June outlining its guideposts for financial reform. The findings will likely inform the final draft of the Financial Choice Act 2.0, the House's replacement for Dodd-Frank, a draft of which was released on April 19 and will be debated April 26.

Rob Nichols, president of the American Bankers Association, told CNBC that the report would "provide key stakeholders with the important opportunity to better understand President Trump's priorities and goals for financial regulation in the months and years ahead."

The second closely watched deadline came via an informal announcement, not an official executive order. In early April, the U.S. and China established a "100-day plan" to revisit the countries' trade relationship and begin untangling issues that have plagued the two nations for decades and resulted in a trade deficit which stood at $347 billion at the end of 2016 that the president has roundly criticized.

The expiration of that time frame will happen in mid-July, though the president's advisors have suggested there will be "way stations" of progress before then, and that the large issues will take much longer to resolve.

"We have to show each other that we can walk together, then we can start running," said the president's chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, at a recent conference in Washington. "We're not saying it's 100-and-done, we're saying it's a start, and we start working really hard after the 100-day plan on the big things that are really going to move the needle."

The due dates are difficult to calculate because it's unclear when the White House is starting the official clock on many of these matters and whether they'll offer leeway if an agency needs more time. Agencies currently operate with skeletal staff as the nomination process drags on and temporary budgets as Congress works to pass a spending bill to keep the government open. Within the executive branch, only the Department of Homeland Security has a deputy secretary confirmed and installed.

The Treasury alone — in addition to financial regulation and tax burdens – must consult on or submit its own findings on U.S. trade deficits, energy independence, anti-dumping policies, "Buy American" laws and regulatory reform. But the agency only has 1 of 28 appointed positions filled, according to The Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service.

President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order entitled 'Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch' in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., March 13, 2017.
Michael Reynolds | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In early February, a Gallup Poll found that 47 percent of respondents believed Trump was "moving too fast" with his executive orders. At the time of the polling, Trump had signed seven, including the first version of a controversial travel ban that has been challenged by the courts. Gallup has not asked that question in a follow-up survey since then.

A declining number of respondents in an NBC News/WSJ poll believe that the president's approach so far has been productive. Some 39 percent give him high marks for being effective and getting things done, down from 46 percent who said this in February, before the White House and Congress faced their high-profile stumble in passing a new health-care law.

The White House has sought to use executive orders as a way to get the ball rolling on core campaign issues — like the construction of a new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — despite waffling support from Congress. A Jan. 25 executive order calls for a comprehensive study of border security by the end of July. Funding for the wall has become a hot potato issue on both sides of the aisle as a government shutdown looms at the end of the week unless a spending bill is passed.

"Typically what presidents will do is they'll think about, 'How far can I go; What can I get away with here' and adjust accordingly, whereas here, you have a president leading with his neck," said William Howell, a presidential scholar at the University of Chicago.

Trump has shown a willingness to change course as he acquires new information. He's already done so on the Export-Import Bank, personnel at the Federal Reserve and relations with China, based on feedback from corporate executives. And the deluge of agency input could serve as yet another moderating force as the White House finds its footing.

"I think there are genuine efforts here to create changes in how government does things," said Moulton. "As they get more information, they will realize real restrictions on what changes they can make."