By: Johnathan Wroblewski, Lecturer on Law for the Semester in Washington Externship
For the presidency of Donald Trump, 2019 has ushered in a new and very different kind of chapter. The first chapter began with Trump’s 2016 election. A few days after the election, I travelled to Cambridge and met with three different groups of students, including the incoming Semester in Washington Class of 2017. You may remember those days and what people on campus and around the country were feeling then. For liberals and conservatives, there was anxiety, bred by an uncertainty of what the future would hold, and shock after an election result almost no one expected. That uncertainty and shock held sway in D.C. too, with anxiety slowly morphing into questions and strategizing: How would the President govern? What would the new Administration look like and who would join it? How would the President impact the work of Congress and the bureaucracy? What would be the policy agenda? And how should each of us react?
Chapter Two of the Trump presidency was about governing in a time of unified, Republican control of U.S. government. Not that the President was any more predictable or stable or graceful in his actions or his politics during this phase of his presidency. But some things became much clearer. For one, the President would continue to tweet and speak in the tone that sets him apart, with all of its ramifications. For another, the White House’s lack of policy craft — or even a significant policy agenda — left a critical and consequential vacuum. The vacuum was partially filled by establishment Republicans who controlled Congress and the levers of power in Washington — think the filling of the federal Judiciary and tax cuts. Where the views of these leaders were shared across almost the entirety of the party, there was action. The vacuum was also partially filled by strong agency leadership — think Attorney General Jeff Session’s undoing Obama-era actions at the Department of Justice, or deregulation in other agencies, or the end of net neutrality. And finally, the vacuum was partially filled by inaction and chaos — think the budget, immigration and many other policies — where the Republican party itself has been fractured and thus there has been an inability to make policy deals. Policy craft still matters. And the lack of it in the White House has consequences. The shutdown of January 2018 was one of them.
And now Chapter Three. The President’s policy agenda, beyond stricter immigration controls, remains foggy at best. Policy craft at the White House has not improved, with the exception of the passage of criminal justice reform legislation, led by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, just hours before this most recent shutdown. And of course, most importantly, Paul Ryan has been replaced by Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, and a new Democratic majority has taken control of the House of Representatives. That really matters. And the first manifestation of it was the capitulation by the President on Friday to end the longest shutdown in American history; at least temporarily. Elections matter; and leadership matters. And the new Democratic majority in the House will make for — has already made for — a completely new policy and political dynamic in Washington. It will manifest itself in ways large and small over the semester and over the next two years. We’ll talk about all this on Tuesday and Thursday and what it means for us and the country.
For the Semester in Washington Program, 2019 is shaping up to be a fascinating year (from day one). The policy vacuums, opportunities, fights and chaos will be all around us. So will varying tones of debate, and certainly some crudeness. How will we deal with it? What will we do in our placements? We have a terrific group of very talented students who have arranged — and for some, rearranged — wonderful placements in and around Washington. These placements began for some in the Winter Term (during the shutdown), and will begin for others this week. Regardless, the placements will give us the opportunity to be part of government litigation, legal advice and policymaking. In addition, our class will read and think and discuss policymaking by the government lawyer. We will consider a framework for policymaking; discuss the ethics of government lawyering (who do we really work for); and practice some of the skills needed for the government lawyer engaged in policymaking and legal advising. And we will have a front row seat to — and a role to play in — the history unfolding before our very eyes. We will examine it all throughout the semester, beginning on Tuesday.
We will also meet some fascinating people who have made government lawyering and policymaking at least a part of their careers and get their take on the events of the day. We will attend a Supreme Court argument. We will discuss the policymaking process with those who have lived it. We will find some folks who represent private companies and try to figure out what drives their interactions with the federal government and their policy work. We will share a few meals together, and we will do some pro bono work that will take us away from the Washington of the monuments and majestic government buildings and to the Washington where many poor people live and work and need legal services. I think it will be a terrific few months.
I will be blogging twice a week, a day or two before class, linking to policy issues in the news and trying to make connections to our study of policymaking and our experiences working every day in the federal government. Please comment now and then and let us know what you’re thinking.
Here’s to a great semester!