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Thinking about the $1.3 trillion—that’s “trillion” with a “t” for “terrifying”—omnibus spending bill that President Trump signed on Friday, I wonder who is most unhappy about that incontinent, 2,232-page monument to congressional irresponsibility. (A small token of its irresponsibility—and its contempt for the public—was that the bill had to be signed a mere 17 hours after being passed by the Senate. “Otherwise”—cue the scary voice and Halloween music—“the government will shut down!” Is that a threat or a promise?)
There have been all sorts of lists of winners and losers. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that “We Democrats are really happy” with the bill, which will stuff enough cash into the bloated congressional gizzard to keep the government wheezing along through September. Many, nay most, on the other side of the D.C. gastrointestinal tract are not happy. “With Omnibus Signing,” as one representative headline put it, “Trump Formally Surrenders To The Swamp.”
I had myself, like other fiscally responsible Americans, hoped that President Trump would veto that bill, as he suggested he might as late as Friday morning. Still, it is well to keep in mind a fundamental truth that some canny tweeter put with pithy conciseness: “Regardless of how you feel about the #omnibus, it’s still a good day when you wake up and realize Hillary Clinton is not our president.”
True, too true. And remember, politics in democratic countries always involves compromise. I was not convinced that the president got enough of what he wanted—a measly $1.6 billion “down payment” for the border wall, for example (he wanted $25 billion) in exchange for the Candyland giveaways to the Dems. But let’s leave the particular budget items to one side. The bill was simply too big. I think the government should spend less money, especially on things unrelated to national security. That Republicans, reputedly the party of fiscal sanity, occupy the White House, control both houses of Congress (as well as a majority of state legislatures and governorships) and that this is is the best they can do suggests how difficult public thriftiness is.
Rot Runs Deep
Or perhaps it merely suggests how wide and deep the D.C. swamp is, and how corrupt most politicians from both parties really are. It is amazing how quickly the power and perquisites of public office transform ordinary men and women into inveterate swamp dwellers, concerned overwhelmingly with maintaining and enhancing their status, not the commonweal.
Did I mention that Congress gave itself a raise of $60 million in the bill? Spending other people’s money is easy once you get the hang of it. One thing Congress never seems to get around to considering seriously is term limits. Can you blame them? Power. Riches. Influence. Social position. All for life if they’re lucky. Who would wish to turn off that spigot—especially when there are millions upon millions of saps (that would be us taxpayers) willing to pay for it all? Nope, most lawmakers, once they get to the promised land of the Capitol, are not going budge if they can help it.
But I digress. I ask again: Who is most unhappy about the passage of the omnibus spending bill?
It may seem ironic, but I think it may be President Trump. He signaled his dissatisfaction with the bill early on and, as I say, talked about vetoing it. “It’s not right,” he said, “and it’s very bad for our country.” When push came to shove, however, he signed it only, he said, because of the robust provisions it made for military spending: pay increases for those who defend us as well as money for new military hardware.
Noting correctly that the president’s “highest duty is to keep America safe,” Trump said he signed the bill as a matter of “national security.” The U.S. military had suffered grievously under Barack Obama. The world is an increasingly dangerous place and yet our military readiness and capability have been sharply eroded. The military provisions of the omnibus bill will go a long way towards addressing that deferred maintenance.
Nevertheless, he said in announcing his signing of the bill, he would “never sign a bill like this again.” Like many of his predecessors, President Trump asked for an end to the filibuster. He also asked for a line-item veto so the president was not presented with an all-or-nothing choice.
The problem, of course, is that ending the filibuster would remove not only a major opportunity for partisan grandstanding but also an important tool of legislative blackmail. And providing the president with a line-item veto would introduce an element of transparency into the legislative process that would be deeply incompatible with the imperative to feather one’s nest and grease the wheels of politics without the irritating incursion of public scrutiny and accountability. So: I doubt it will ever happen.
This dog’s breakfast of a spending bill illustrates a fundamental fact about the metabolism of modern American politics. Republicans, when they’re in charge, allow Democrats to indulge in massive domestic spending in exchange for money for the military. Democrats, when they’re in charge, deny Republicans money for military spending in exchange for massive domestic spending and tax increases. You see how it works. It’s analogous to the one-way ratchet the Democrats employ on so-called social issues and judicial decisions. As far as is humanly possible, the trend goes in one direction only: towards more and more “progressive”—and expensive—positions.
It will be interesting to see whether Donald Trump will be able to keep his promise not to sign another such example of fiscal incontinence. It will be interesting, too, to see how his battle against the swamp proceeds. Will he be able to maintain—and, perhaps, even improve on—the tax cuts he won at the end of last year? Will he get his wall? Will he stanch the flow of illegal immigration and do something about the thousands upon thousands of alien miscreants who are here now, preying on our communities? Will he be able to keep up the pace of prosperity-enhancing deregulation? Will his economic policies spark the sustained 3-4 percent growth we need? Will he, finally, manage to evade the real collusion story of our times: the collusion between our intelligence and law-enforcement institutions, on the one hand, and the Clinton campaign and deep state operatives from the Obama Administration, on the other, to destroy Donald Trump’s presidency?
The point is, last week’s passage of the omnibus spending catastrophe did not take place in a vacuum. It is part of the elaborate choreography of the swamp. There are already hints that President Trump may be cannier about swamp draining and fiscal responsibility than is widely appreciated. In any case, this spending bill cannot be understood in isolation from the whole package of D.C. initiatives. There are thousands upon thousands of “civil servants” whose daily suspiration adds, drop by drop, to the swamp. Most of them detest Donald Trump. Most of them cannot be fired. That is the hand the president was dealt. Ronald Reagan faced something similar. He did not get everything he wanted, not by a long shot. But he got some critical things accomplished in his eight years. Were I betting man, I’d wager that Donald Trump has some important, some world-changing victories to look forward to in the nearly seven years he has left as president.
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