The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

The Trump Trifecta: Three Branches, New Faces

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


The chattering political class, with scant exception, prognosticated that Donald J. Trump had only the narrowest of opportunities to win the White House in the 2016 general election.  Indeed, many such solons suggested that his bombastic style, in addition to losing his own race, might also cost the Republicans control of the Senate (all but a foregone conclusion, given that the GOP was in a much more vulnerable position, defending 24 of the 34 seats up for election).

For Republicans, a victory by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would have meant the loss of the Supreme Court, perhaps for a generation, with at least one liberal appointment (to fill the vacancy created by the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia) to break the current 4-4 tie on the bench.  At best, even assuming an “unlikely” Trump victory, any conservative appointments to the Supreme Court could easily be stymied by Senate Democrats in their certain majority.  As hand-wringing on the right grew and the victory by Democrats turned into a predicted massacre, so did fears that the solidly Republican House of Representatives might also be in jeopardy.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box.  Pollsters seriously underestimated the Trump appeal to voters, and the billionaire businessman scored a surprising electoral college landslide, besting Clinton by 306-232 electoral votes.  Moreover, instead of being a drag on Senate and House races, Mr. Trump’s candidacy buoyed endangered incumbents far better than expected.  House losses were kept to a bare minimum, with a net gain of only six seats for the Democrats, while only two incumbent senators (both Republicans) were defeated for re-election.  And with the President-elect’s party still in control of the “confirmation chamber,” the promise of a conservative appointment to the Supreme Court will maintain and perhaps expand the rightward bent on the bench.

Thus, the 2016 GOP sweep of all three branches of government amounts to a political trifecta.

The House

Following the wave election of 2014, Republicans enjoyed their largest majority in the House of Representatives (247-188) since the “Roaring Twenties.”  From such heights, the most likely direction is often down.  But the slide turned out to be minimal, with a net loss of only six seats.  Only 12 incumbents were defeated for re-election:  nine Republicans and three Democrats.  Along with those 12 victors, the upcoming 115th Congress will include an additional 42 new members.  But not all of them are truly “new” members:  Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), who gave up her seat to run unsuccessfully for Senate in 2014, has filled the vacancy created by the death of Rep. Mark Takai (D-Hawaii), who had succeeded her; Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) reclaimed the seat that he previously lost to Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.); and Carol Shea-Porter (R-N.H.) did the same, defeating Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) for the seat that has volleyed between the two.

The freshman class will consist of 28 Republicans and 26 Democrats, with Republicans still strongly in the majority (241-194), 23 seats more than the 218 needed.

Republican conference rules stipulate term limits (six years) for committee chairmen.  In the 115th Congress, those term limits, as well as some retirements, have yielded seven new chairmanships:  Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), Appropriations; Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), Education and the Workforce; Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Energy and Commerce; Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), Veterans’ Affairs; Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), Administration; Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), Ethics; and Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), Joint Economic Committee.  Furthermore, assuming that Rep. Tom Price will be confirmed as Secretary of Health and Human Services, there will be a new chairman of the House Budget Committee.

House leadership will remain unchanged at the very top rungs, with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the current Republican Conference Chair, retaining their positions from the previous congress.  Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) was elected Policy Committee Chairman, with Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) succeeding Rep. Foxx as the Conference Secretary.  Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) was elected chair of the chamber’s GOP campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Finally, five of the six non-voting members of the House of Representatives were re-elected from their respective territories and the federal district:  Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam); Del. Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-American Samoa); Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia); Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-U.S. Virgin Islands); and Del. Gregorio Sablan (I-Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands).  The newest delegate, Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon (R-Puerto Rico), succeeds Pedro Pierluisi (D-Puerto Rico) as the Resident Commissioner, after the latter gave up his seat to run unsuccessfully for governor.

The Senate

Only two incumbent senators, Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), were defeated for re-election.  Five others retired:  Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and David Vitter (R-La.).  Since all of the retirees were succeeded by members of their own party, the Republicans remain in the majority (52-48), diminished by two from their 54-46 majority during the 114th Congress.

The new senators are:  Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.); Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.); Kamala Harris (D-Cal.); Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.); John Kennedy (R-La.); Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.); and Todd Young (R-Ind.).

While Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will succeed Sen. Reid (D-Nev.) as the minority leader, the majority leadership remains almost unchanged.  Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been re-elected Senate Majority Leader, with Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), John Thune (R-S.D.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) all re-elected to their previous positions of Majority Whip, Conference Chair, Conference Vice Chair, and Policy Committee Chair, respectively.  Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has been elected to head the National Republican Senatorial Committee, succeeding Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who was term-limited.  Finally, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is the President pro tempore of the Senate, third in the presidential order of succession behind the Vice President and the Speaker of the House.

With only a few exceptions, Senate chairmanships will remain unchanged.  However, term limits will force Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) to relinquish the gavels of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committees, respectively.  Sen. Barrasso will most likely relinquish chairmanship of the Indian Affairs Committee to take the helm at EPW, where he is the next most senior Republican after Sen. Inhofe.  If so, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) is next in line on Indian Affairs.  Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) is next in line at Banking, while Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) is next in line at the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, currently chaired by Sen. Vitter.

The Court

President-elect Trump has acknowledged the urgency of filling the Supreme Court vacancy, ideally within his first 100 days in office.  Certainly, a more youthful pick would ensure the likelihood of a conservative direction for the court for many years to come.

According to a February 13, 2016 Washington Post article, the average age at which justices retire is 78.7 years.  Currently, two of the eight justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 83, and Anthony Kennedy, 80) are above the average, while a third (Stephen Breyer, 78) is virtually there.  By the same token, Antonin Scalia was less than a month shy of his 80th birthday when he died on February 13, 2016.  In 2016, the average age of the court (including Scalia) was 70.4; for the surviving eight justices it is 69.25.  The living Republican appointees average 68.75 years of age, while the Democratic appointees average a slightly higher 69.75 years.  The generational divide slightly favors the Republicans (of the five justices under the age of 75, three were appointed by Republican presidents), while two of the three justices over the age of 75 were appointed by Democrats.

In addition to appointing Scalia’s successor (presumably a conservative for a conservative), President Trump may be able to cement the majority (at least five justices) if he’s able to appoint Justice Kennedy’s successor, ideally with someone more predictably conservative (given the latter’s reputation as a swing vote).  And if Trump is able to appoint the successor to either of the oldest Democratic appointees (Breyer and/or Ginsburg), the court’s conservative future could be assured.

The Administration

President-elect Trump has moved swiftly to nominate 13 of his preferences to lead the 15 departments of the federal government.  For defense, the choice is Gen. James N. Mattis, USMC (Ret.), assuming the granting of a waiver of the National Security Act of 1947 for the seven-year waiting period required for former military personnel to serve as Secretary of Defense, since Gen. Mattis has only been retired since 2013.  Other nominees include:  Wilbur Ross, for Commerce; Betsy DeVos, for Education; Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas), for Energy; Dr. Tom Price, the current House Budget Committee chairman, for Health and Human Services; Gen. John F. Kelly, USMC (Ret.), for Homeland Security; Dr. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon-turned-presidential candidate, for Housing and Urban Development; Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), for Interior; Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), as Attorney General; Andrew F. Puzder, the chief executive of CKE Restaurants, for Labor; Rex Tillerson, the chief executive officer of Exxon-Mobil, for State; Elaine Chao, who served as Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush, for Transportation; and Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs executive, for Treasury.

While there has been rampant speculation about the remaining cabinet slots, two department heads – Agriculture and Veterans Affairs – have not been nominated as of this writing.  Additionally, the President-elect has nominated select agency heads:  Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R-Okla.), for the Environmental Protection Agency; entertainment magnate Linda McMahon, for the Small Business Administration; and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), for the Central Intelligence Agency.

The American people will be governed, for at least the next four years, by a very different president and a very different cabinet.

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