Balancing Risk and Reward in Trump’s Surprising First Hill Battle
Delaying budget finish until he’s president means his priorities must wait, creates an opening for Democrats
Donald Trump’s presidential transition is already salted with plenty of big surprises. For Congress, the most unsettling may be his decision to start his legislative agenda-setting by ignoring this famous life lesson:
“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” goes the aphorism often attributed to one of Trump’s most accomplished predecessors, Thomas Jefferson.
The incoming president, however, has decreed that procrastination will be a virtue when it comes to this year’s federal budget, completion of which is officially two months overdue as of Wednesday.
He has concluded it’s in his best interests to keep the debate alive through his first 10 weeks in power. That’s why the biggest must-do item for the lame-duck 114th Congress has become passage of a stopgap continuing resolution maintaining current spending levels for all programs and agencies — with a few high-profile exceptions, especially the military — probably through the end of March, when fiscal 2017 will be half over. The deadline is the end of next week, Dec. 9, the expiration date on the CR enacted this fall to tide the government over until after the election.
Top Hill Republicans were taken totally by surprise when, just a week after his stunning upset, Trump sent word that haggling over the fine print on the discretionary spending spreadsheet would be among his earliest legislative priorities.
These GOP elders have spent all year struggling to get comfortable with a national standard-bearer who often delights in violating normal ground rules of political engagement and often succeeds after flouting conventional political wisdom. Still, they were freshly flummoxed by Trump’s insistence on escalating a fight he could have totally avoided — especially since his rationale for joining doesn’t seem strong when compared to the reasons for staying away.
Kicking the can
Republican appropriators, with extensive cooperation from the Democrats, had been reasonably (if not overly) optimistic that a comprehensive, program-by-program set of $1 trillion worth of spending decisions could be agreed upon and turned into an omnibus appropriations bill (or maybe split into two or three) that could have been cleared with decent bipartisan majorities by the middle of December.
Doing so would have sent members home for the holidays confident in the notion that, if nothing else, they had cleared the decks of all fiscal detritus and could begin addressing Trump’s own multi-faceted, if amorphous, legislative program without distraction, starting in January.
The week before Thanksgiving, though, Trump’s transition team told Republican leaders to halt all negotiations — assuring a kicking of the budgetary can so far down the road that the 45th president would have to take the lead in handling it.
This pleases the relatively small but doggedly confrontational clique of conservatives, mostly in the House, whom Trump is counting on to be a bulwark of support for his own big-ticket goals. They fear these sort of catch-all packages end up less like a cliche “Christmas tree,” festooned with wholesome treats for the nation, and more akin to a devil’s workshop where expensive goodies get doled out secretively to special interests.
These Republicans don’t want to give President Barack Obama any more opportunities for bargaining during his final weeks on the job. Instead, they’re eager to wait until a President Trump can spend some of his first-hundred-days’ political capital in pursuit of a “great deal” on behalf of a smaller, less regulatory and more culturally conservative federal government.
Trump is presumably chomping at the bit for this opportunity as well — otherwise he wouldn’t have insisted on it. But a cost-benefit analysis of that decision, albeit one using the Capitol norms Trump is wont to disregard, suggests the risks readily outweigh the rewards.
For starters, there’s the strong chance that the fight over what can fairly be called “last year’s” budget will so dominate Trump’s relationship with Congress at the start of 2017 that many of his own initiatives will be relegated to secondary importance — if they’re not crowded out altogether — until April.
Plenty of the things Trump has promised to do — from limiting immigration and abandoning trade agreements to rescinding environmental regulations and freezing federal hiring — can be done by signing executive orders right after the inauguration.
But his real marquee priorities all require intense collaboration with Congress.
Repealing the 2010 health care law, for starters, will mean carrying out the sort of legislative two-step that normally taxes the Hill’s lawmaking muscles for an entire season or longer: Congress would first need to adopt a budget resolution that grants special permission for the writing of a filibuster-proof reconciliation bill. Then, it would have to transform that measure into a weapon for killing the health care law in a way Senate Democrats would be powerless to stop.
That’s all assuming, as seems likely, that the replacement debate will need to be put off to another day because Trump and the Hill GOP aren’t close to agreeing on an approach.
But simply accomplishing the two-part repeal mechanics, while at the same time deliberating spending priorities for every program and agency, looks to be a very heavy lift for Republicans in Congress who are pretty out of practice when it comes to multitasking and a new president who’s never worked in government before.
It beggars belief to think that, before the government funding basics are settled, Trump and Congress will have any bandwidth for advancing legislation that would invest $1 trillion in public works during the next decade, launch construction on a southern border wall or deeply cut taxes while simplifying the IRS code — to name only the most ambitious of the new president’s desires.
In addition, of course, the Trump administration cannot reasonably send its own, priority-defining initial budget proposal to Congress (for fiscal 2018, which starts Oct. 1) until his nascent Office of Management and Budget understands the final balance of accounts for fiscal 2017.
Meanwhile, the behemoth spending package will be a huge undertaking, even in isolation.
Several top positions in the House and Senate Appropriations committee hierarchies will be getting new occupants in a few weeks. And, since their interests will deviate from those currently in power, much of this year’s painstaking work on the 11 remaining regular bills will get trashed.
The delay also means reopening the debate over whether the grand total for spending should be cut by $30 billion, or about 3 percent — a disagreement within the GOP ranks that was instrumental to stopping the normal budget process in its tracks this year.
There’s also the bitter fight over whether spending caps should be lifted for the Pentagon only. GOP defense hawks now have Trump in their corner pushing this approach. But fiscal hawk Republicans want the restrictions applied universally and almost all Democrats are unwilling to boost military spending unless domestic social programs get at least as generous an increase.
Finally, the bill will be a magnet for those Republicans seeking to launch holy wars over policy issues, either their own hobby horses or Trump’s. Conservatives are sure to revive this year’s efforts (assuming the CR isn’t available to them) to eliminate all funding for Planned Parenthood, close the Export-Import Bank and eviscerate some remaining regulations on campaign finance, for example. Riders to ban immigrants from Muslim countries, deny federal aid to “sanctuary cities,” relax federal gun control enforcement, fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline or maybe even make it a criminal offense to burn an American flag will surely get promoted as well, whether or not the new president asks to use the spending bill as the vehicle for those of his ideas.
Such a package will present a very tempting target to the Democrats, especially their new Senate minority leader, Charles E. Schumer of New York. The 48 senators in the minority can slow-walk Cabinet nominees but no longer have the power to filibuster them to oblivion. Reconciliation means they can’t stop the end of the health care law, either. And they may decide it’s unwise to play the extraordinary filibuster card if Trump choses a mainstream conservative to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s very conservative seat on the Supreme Court.
So the midwinter spending package may present Schumer with his first clear-cut opportunity to take on Trump and the GOP Congress. If his troops stay even somewhat close to unified, they’ve got the votes to block any appropriations bill.
What remains to be seen is whether they could (politically) get away with doing so. They’d have to persuade the country — which is clamoring for a more functional government — such recalcitrance is warranted because the budget deviates so much from mainstream “American values.” That looks to be a tough sell, because in recent shutdown showdowns, the court of public opinion has consistently favored the president.
But if the dawn of the Trump era has proved anything, it’s that so many truisms and precedents about our governance do not currently apply.