Big Priorities, Limited Attention: How Much can Trump Get Done?

Patrick Gauding
PhD Candidate, University of Kansas

Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was run on an agenda of bold policy changes that he claims will “drain the swamp.” These promises, including withdrawing from international trade agreements, repealing and replacing Obamacare, tax code reform, extensive enforcement of illegal immigration laws, and the erection of a wall on the border with Mexico, all represent major shifts in policy from previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican, and will require both significant attention and mobilization of resources within government to effect. If Republicans and the Trump administration hope to enact these changes, we should expect a significant uptick in policy attention within government. Institutional rules, such as the reconciliation process, and the common nature of limited attention mean that this agenda will stretch over time, which in turn would require significant political momentum. Can we expect policymaking will function similarly under the new “normal” of the Trump era, or will information be disregarded in the interest of political gain?

Policy attention and information are critical predictors of policy adoption in bureaucratic governments. Baumgartner and Jones have laid out these concepts under their theory of Punctuated Equilibrium. In brief, PET presumes that actors are boundedly rational with regards to policy attention, and that systemic policy changes are noted by brief periods of intense attention followed by longer periods of relative stability. PET is a widely used theoretical framework for studying governmental budgets, policy change with regards to public opinion, and institutional actions, such as governmental hearings (Baumgartner, Jones and Mortensen 2007). Simply put, policy consideration and adoption are fueled by both policy attention and information, and the manipulation of both resources can change have important effects in both policy consideration and adoption. As Jones and Baumgartner note, “understanding how information is processed in the political system allows us to understand how policies are chosen, reified, and occasionally dramatically revised.” (Jones and Baumgartner 2005, 54). Political investment in status quo situations is modified in the policy system by the strength of attention to policy problems, and is a key predictor of both policy consideration and adoption. If policy drives politics, and public opinion exerts influence on policy decisions, how do policymakers respond? Certainly, this is a reductionist framework of the complex nature of policymaking. Mass public opinion, legislator interests, electoral concerns, presidential priorities, and social and economic conditions are but a few of the key inputs, and in a boundedly rational system, it is not possible for people to be fully informed on every problem. Legislators will, much as is possible, seek problems to fit policy agendas, select information sources which support their positions, and limit the introduction of contradictory information (Baumgartner and Jones 2015).

How will these factors change under the Trump administration? Certainly, some policymaking will continue, but how will the relationship between agenda setting and information be modified by the context of Trump? And what is the relationship between Trump campaign promises and which policies are enacted? Understanding how this White House’s policy priorities are received and processed through the Congress is of significant theoretical interest. The stated major priorities of the Trump administration are controversial and would involve significant change and expense. Republicans have run on repealing and replacing Obamacare since 2010, but have run into extensive difficulty in passing their American Health Care Act. The version that recently passed the House was shepherded through with no mark-up hearings and no CBO score. Republican members have faced significant public backlash in polls and at town hall meetings. Is this how the Republican majority will deal with the conflict between their priorities and those of the public? Attention and information play different roles in different fields, but if the majority is legislating without even basic information about the impacts of a bill, how should policy scholars treat this? Certainly, one can argue that party leaders are prioritizing a policy win over policy quality, but this flies in the face of the assumptions of PET and other policymaking theories.

Moreover, what will happen to the policymaking agenda if Congressional and public attention are monopolized in following the developments of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia? The elephant in the room for Republicans is that this issue seems to have staying power. With the 2018 midterms looming, and a full agenda of priorities, how will Congress choose to process all of these issues? Republicans will feel pressure to deliver, especially on healthcare reform, fearing primary challenges. Meanwhile, Democratic voters might be expected to be more mobilized than in usual midterm cycles. Does this mean dispensing with the usual processes of policy study, such as CBO and CRS reports, for the sake of passing something? A critical variable of interest for the 115th Congress will be the number and content of committee hearings, particularly budget and oversight hearings. I expect that the major policy fights will see more media coverage than ever, but fewer hearings. Less information will be considered, and bills will be drafted and passed quickly. If policy attention is high, but policy choices are unpopular both with legislators and the public, the incentive to dispense with these issues will also be high. The lessons of 2010 for Democrats loom large for Republicans now, in that sustained attention to unpopular reforms risks electoral annihilation. I expect that unpopular policies will be considered more rapidly, and the amount of attention paid in congressional hearings will be negatively correlated with negative attention to the President.

The full impact of the 115th Congress will need to be measured following its conclusion, but as a start, we should consider what data will be needed. Data from the Policy Agendas project will need to be extended, and should provide a great baseline for comparison. Additionally, researchers should consider the alternative hypothesis that budgets under the Trump administration will look more similar to previous administrations than not. If Trump’s unpopularity continues or worsens, can we expect that congressional Republicans will continue to take political risks for the president’s agenda? I am doubtful.


  • Baumgartner, Frank R., and Bryan D. Jones. 2015. The Politics of Information: Problem Definition and the Course of Public Policy in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Baumgartner, Frank R., Bryan D. Jones, and Peter B. Mortensen. 2014. “Punctuated Equilibrium Theory: Explaining Stability and Change in Public Policymaking,” In Theories of the Policy Process, 3rd Ed. Eds. Paul A. Sabatier and Christopher M. Weible. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Jones, Bryan D., and Frank R. Baumgartner. 2005. The Politics of Attention: How Government Prioritizes Problems. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.