Trump's State of the Union: Home run or Disaster?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi looks on as U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis
February 9, 2020 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: State Of The UnionEconomyDonald TrumpNancy PelosiRegulations

Trump's State of the Union: Home run or Disaster?

And what did he get wrong?

Another paramount concern is that a new federal program would give future administrations—that may be less friendly to school choice—a toehold to regulate participating private schools, damaging school choice in the long run. What requirements might a left-leaning administration place on schools that accept students paying tuition through the federal tax credit program?

The administration’s support of parent choice in education is welcome, but Washington should stop there. Taxpayers and students do not need carve-outs in the tax code, but for federal officials to set an example for future administrations: Allow—encourage, even—state lawmakers to create more public and private learning options in the form of scholarships, education savings accounts, magnet schools, and charter schools to offer new opportunities for students from all walks of life.

The goal of conservative policymakers should be to significantly narrow, rather than broaden, Washington’s reach in education policy. Unfortunately, this proposal goes in the wrong direction.

—Lindsey Burke, director, Center for Education Policy


Unleashing American Energy

Affordable energy is fundamentally important for a healthy and vibrant economy. 

Tonight, President Donald Trump mentioned how his administration has helped grow such an economy, in part by permitting access to our country’s vast oil and gas supply. We are now a net energy exporter, and access to this energy has not only made us less dependent on foreign oil, but has also resulted in greater job opportunities, lower electricity prices, and more income for all Americans all across the country.

—Kevin Dayaratna, senior statistician and research programmer, Center for Data Analysis


Cherishing the Value of Life

Tonight, President Donald Trump recognized 2-year-old Ellie Schneider, a special guest at the State of the Union address. Ellie was born when she was just 21 weeks and 6 days old and weighed less than a pound at the time of her birth. One of the youngest premature infants to ever survive, Ellie is now happy, healthy, and thriving.

Trump lauded the medical advancements that allow an increasing number of premature babies to survive and thrive, and called on Congress to commit additional resources to fund neonatal research.

He also called on Congress to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would protect women and unborn children from gruesome late-term abortions performed after 20 weeks.

The U.S. is one of only seven countries in the world that allows elective abortion past 20 weeks (five months), at which point scientific evidence suggests that the baby is capable of feeling excruciating pain during an abortion procedure.

At the state level, over a dozen states across the country have enacted 20-week bills. Regardless of party affiliation, Americans support significant abortion restrictions by a large margin. In fact, 70% of Americans support limiting abortion to, at most, the first trimester.

Congress should ensure that public policy respects the rights of the most vulnerable and innocent among us—including the right to life, our most basic and fundamental freedom. Enacting legislation to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain would be a meaningful step to build a culture that cherishes human life.

—Melanie Israel, research associate, Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society


Remaking the Federal Judiciary

The president highlighted that he has (so far) appointed 187 judges, including Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and he promised that there are many more “in the pipeline.” As the Judicial Appointment Tracker shows, only President Bill Clinton appointed more at this point, but just one more.

Quantity is just one side of the coin, however. Quality is the other. Trump’s judicial appointment record goes beyond the number of judges he appoints, because the real impact on the country will come from the kind of judges he appoints.

Trump uses the shorthand of judges who will “uphold the Constitution as written.” That means they will take the Constitution (or statutes or regulations) and figure out what the Constitution meant when it was written. That’s what it is supposed to mean today, so that judges follow the Constitution instead of controlling it.

Trump has been more consistent than any president in history in appointing judges who take this traditional, defined approach to deciding cases.

The other part of the story is that Trump is making such a profound change in the judiciary in the face of a campaign of resistance and obstruction that no president has ever faced. The pattern documented in The Heritage Foundation’s report on the 115th Congress only got worse in 2019.

Democrats have radically changed more than 200 years of confirmation history by making opposition to Trump’s judicial nominations the rule rather than the exception. In just three years, Trump’s judges have received more than three times as many votes against confirmation as all the judges confirmed in the 20th century combined.

Federal judges serve for an average of more than 20 years, long after the president who appoints them is gone. Trump’s judges, and the move away from a political judiciary, may well end up being his most important legacy.

—Thomas Jipping, deputy director, Meese Center for Legal & Judicial Studies

Passing Criminal Justice Reform

Trump highlighted the First Step Act and praised Congress for coming together to pass the law that gave people a “second chance at life.” As the president said, “Everybody said that criminal justice reform could not be done, but I got it done, and the people in this room got it done.” 

He is right about that.

The First Step Act was a landmark bipartisan law that ushered in what Heritage Foundation scholars described as much-needed reforms.

Among other things, the act gave hope to prisoners convicted of some drug trafficking crimes where they are not the type of hard-core criminals or major drug traffickers that deserve long-term incapacitation, and it promises to provide them some of the skills they need to reduce the risk that they will recidivate and maximize the likelihood that they will become law-abiding, productive citizens when they are released and return to our communities.

Trump’s reference to second chances called attention to his plans for additional legislation that would ease employment barriers for formerly incarcerated people like Tony Rankins, who attended the State of the Union as one of Trump’s special guests.

Rankins served in the Army in Afghanistan, but lost his job and family to drug addiction, which led him to crime and incarceration. He now has a stable job and has reunited with his family.

Trump is working to pass additional legislation that would make it easier for other former prisoners to do the same.

It is doubtless the case that there are other people like Rankins. The criminal law should not throw them away. There should always be room in the law to recognize the frailties of human character where someone does not make crime a career, does not pillage the community, and does not end a life before nature takes its course. 

As Heritage scholars have observed, criminal justice reform needs to address more than just prison conditions and sentences. It needs to tackle the criminal code itself and rein in the authority of executive agencies to create crimes.  

For too long, Congress has allowed administrative agencies to define crimes in ways that the average person would not know to be criminal. That is a serious flaw in the criminal law. Congress should revisit the authority given to agencies to define terms that can lead to criminal liability, and Congress should revise the criminal code so that no one is at risk of innocently crossing the line between legal and illegal.

Mens rea (Latin for “guilty mind”) reform remains a crucial issue, too. Before he retired, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was a champion of mens rea reform. Without a champion in Congress, the time is ripe for Trump to take up that cause. 

Heritage scholars have provided a roadmap for how Trump can use his executive authority to further mens rea reform while also encouraging Congress to work on the issue. We urge the president to do so.

—John G. Malcolm, vice president, Institute for Constitutional Government; Paul Larkin, Jr., senior legal research fellow, Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies; and GianCarlo Canaparo, legal fellow, Meese Center

Protecting the Second Amendment

President Donald Trump told the nation, “Just as we believe in the First Amendment, we also believe in another constitutional right that is under siege all across our country. So long as I am president I will always protect your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”

The president is right—lawmakers across the country and at all levels of government have spent the last several years taking aim at the Second Amendment. More importantly, he is right to insist on protecting this important safeguard of liberty.

We all want a safe nation. We all want to know that our loved ones are protected against those who would do them harm. We all grieve with the communities whose peace has been shattered by horrific acts of evil. But we do ourselves and our communities no favors by caving to emotionally laden appeals to “just do something” about gun violence—especially when that “something” often means imposing severe restrictions on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.