How much advice does the president need? Should the president rely on just one person for advice on a straightforward policy question, or delegate a decision to a single person?
Challenge #1: Any policy problem difficult enough to make it to the president’s desk is usually multidimensional.
Challenge #2: The work of government is often highly interconnected. What one department does affects another.
Challenge #3: Once you get past the analysis, most presidential decisions involve tradeoffs among competing values and interests. I believe those judgment calls should be made by the person selected by voters.
Let’s construct an imaginary example of what appears to be a straightforward, even simple, policy question, and then use that to understand how policy advice to a president typically works.
Suppose House & Senate Republicans are moving a bill to increase government infrastructure spending by $200 B over the next decade, fully offset by cuts to other government spending. Let’s pretend Senator Ron Wyden, senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, proposes doubling that new spending to $400 B over ten years with the increment to be offset by a roughly ten cent per gallon tax increase on gasoline and diesel fuel. Suppose Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has told White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus that he wants to talk to President Trump about this proposal. Finally, suppose President Trump decides he wants advice on how to respond to Senator Schumer.
Thus the question is: How should President Trump respond to Congressional Democrats’ proposal to double the proposed government infrastructure spending increase to $400 B, offset by a tax increase of roughly ten cents per gallon on gas and diesel fuel?
Pretty straightforward, right? Let’s unpack the question the way a White House policy council staff would.
- Numbers: Are Senator Wyden’s numbers right? Will a ten cent per gallon fuel tax increase raise $200 B over ten years? A tax increase will increase the gross pump price, which will reduce demand for fuel, partially offsetting the initial price increase. What is the net effect on the pump price from a ten cent per gallon gross increase?
- More infrastructure: How much should the president value an additional $200 B of infrastructure spending? How much more economic growth and how much better of a quality of life will an additional $200 B buy? What does it mean for people and stuff traveling by air, rail, car, truck, bus, and ship?
- Economic effects of tax increase: What are the economic effects of tax and price increases of that size? Will they slow growth and by how much? What are the distributional impacts: regional geographic distribution, urban vs. rural, income distribution? What are the sectoral impacts: trucking, agriculture, Uber/Lyft/taxi, the transport component of the cost of consumer goods?
- Environmental: More expensive fuel —> less driving —> less pollution and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. How big are these effects and how do they compare with other policy tools like fuel economy requirements and limits on power plant and industrial emissions?
- Energy supply and demand; national security: How much will domestic fuel demand decline? How will that affect domestic oil and gasoline suppliers? How will it affect U.S. oil and fuel imports and exports? Will those changes affect our relationships with foreign oil suppliers like Venezuela and the Middle East?
- Other increments: What if we did half what Senator Schumer is offering, +$100 B for a 5 cent increase? What if we doubled Schumer’s proposal to $400 B / 20 cents? What if we did Schumer’s +$200 B paid for half by gas tax and half by further spending cuts, or all by spending cuts?
Legislative, political, and communications dimensions
- Communications: Fuel tax increases are extremely unpopular and communicating support for them is hard. What is the best communications strategy? What exactly will the president and his Administration say?
- The politics are multi-dimensional:
- left-right: The more