Is the Trump administration a decisive break from the Clinton-Bush-Obama status quo—or an extension of it?
This fundamental question has hovered over Washington since the shock result of the 2016 election.
On Friday, March 23, 2018, the president provided an unmistakable answer. President Trump set aside the sword of reform. He took the pen to sign a $1.3 trillion budget. The national debt, which doubled under the respective administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, remains on a steep, unsustainable trajectory.
In approving this budget, President Trump signed articles of surrender to the Special Interest State that has occupied Washington for a generation.
Trump Recognizes Budget Folly
The president recognizes the monumental folly of the new budget. According to CNN, Trump said, “There are a lot of things I’m unhappy about in this bill….I said to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again.”
Like his recent predecessors, the president presented himself as somehow separate from the spectacle of a government he heads. This, even as he’s backed by a Congress of the same party.
He serves in all essentials as an emcee rather than a leader and manager. Where Presidents Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama often resembled cable talk-show hosts, Trump has imported flashier, reality-show production values into the same role.
The Special Interest State in Operation
President Trump’s assertions notwithstanding, Washington is not so much a “swamp” as a system. The civics text model has long since given way to a Special Interest State.
Congress and the executive branch have yielded their prerogatives to a vast array of special interests. Those interests lay claim to thousands of discrete decisions embedded in budgets and other statutes and regulations.
When political divisions emerge, the “compromise” tends to be ever-rising debt. Even when the economy is firing on all cylinders, as at present, the politicians readily add to the already dangerous levels of debt.
The latest budget deal is no exception. As summarized in the Atlantic, the Republicans obtained a massive increase in military spending, and the Democrats obtained steady or increased domestic spending. The legacy parties found common ground, agreeing to leave the account balancing to the one group assuredly not represented: future generations.
Who Are They Serving?
The new budget is the result of legislation that our representatives have not read, signed by a president with only the most general notion of its contents. Its more than two thousand pages were drafted in discrete parts, shrouded in darkness, shielded from public scrutiny.
If legislators vote on bills they have not read, can they be said to be serving We, the People? Of course not! They’re serving the special interests who have a hand in the drafting of a myriad of specific provisions.
Chuck Schumer is Thrilled with The Outcome
As the president noted he would "never sign another sign another bill like this again," New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer seemed thrilled with the Omnibus spending bill.
In the hours following the spending package Schumer said, "It’s a funny thing. In a certain sense, we’re able to accomplish more in the minority than we were when we had the presidency or even were in the majority.” The Senate Minority Leader continued, “At the end of the day, as the minority party, we feel good about being able to succeed in so many ways. We don’t have the House, we don’t have the Senate, we don’t have the presidency, but we produced a darn good bill for the priorities we have believed in.”
Succeeding by ballooning the debt? This is a window into just how irresponsible and dysfunctional DC has become.
Values and Accountability
Government budgets in representative democracies ultimately reflect the values of their citizens in a given time and place. With the legacy parties plying debt on rising generations, one anticipates a harsh verdict in the dock of history.
Budgets are also mechanisms of accountability. To govern is to choose, as the truism goes.
Conversely, not to choose is not to govern. Without budgetary constraints and appropriate procedures, hubris runs riot. There’s an implicit assumption that there are no limits to our capacities, no consequences for our heedlessness.
The US undertakes wars without the discipline of hard choices at home and abroad. We have parallel, open-ended commitments in domestic programs.
Government always spends other people’s money. Today’s government goes further, spending future generations’ money. If there’s any kind of silver lining to the crisis of student loan debt afflicting younger generations today, it may be that they’re being made painfully aware of the consequences of being debtors.
The President’s Choice
There’s an understandable tendency to lay all of this at the door of Congress.
Yet that would not be quite right. As Harry Truman declared, the presidency is the sole office in Washington charged with looking after all the people of the United States.
President Trump, like his recent predecessors, is abdicating the role that only he and his office can play. For all his histrionics, President Trump is maintaining the status quo in all essentials. Were he to depart office tomorrow, he would leave few traces.
This is not what voters sought from the Trump and Sanders insurgencies that recast our politics in 2016.
More importantly, a great nation cannot maintain its position if it cannot govern itself.
If President Trump is determined to make a change, he must do the hard work he has thus far avoided. He must give disciplined attention to personnel and management across the executive branch. He must pull up his shirtsleeves and negotiate with often difficult members of Congress and key interest groups. He must craft a comprehensive vision that can be reified within a sustainable budget.
President Trump’s unconventional preparation for the presidency may prompt some people to have greater patience with his progress than is customary. By any reckoning, his window for reform is closing.
The significance of the president’s surrender last week is plain to see, at home and abroad. Does the president comprehend the hinge moment before us? If so, how will he respond?