A last-minute spending bill to keep the government working until late September was reached last night. There are a couple of takeaways here. First, it’s amazing that the government came so damn close to shutting down when one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress. How does it even come to pass that a party can be so divided against itself that it literally came close to a government shutdown despite its stranglehold on power? There’s a powerful object lesson there about how ineffective the Republican party has become when it comes to actually governing. They’re actually much more effective as a minority party when they can merely criticize, like they did for the past eight years. They raise a lot of money with it, and they don’t have to do anything but bitch and act outraged to fire up their base. Once in power, they seem to bumble around a lot.
The second and more important takeaway is how little the Trump Administration and conservatives in general got out of this. For someone who is supposed to be the best negotiator there is, or so he’s frequently told us, Trump seems to have gotten steamrolled. Not only did he punt on a great many of his legislative and political priorities, but it seems that the minority Democratic party came out of this deal with a solid win.
First win: The border wall. The budget bill contains explicit language blocking it. Last week it was already widely reported there were would no money to start construction on this, Trump’s biggest (and dumbest) legislative priority. But this budget agreement goes further by enacting hard limits on how Trump can use new money for border security (e.g. to invest in new technology and repair existing fencing). This would appear to block the administration’s claim that they already have statutory authority to build the wall under a 2006 law, and directly prevents any such attempt at an end run around Congress. Also, the $1.5 billion for border security is half as much as the White House requested, and the bill does not cut funding to sanctuary cities. Just last week, a federal judge said it would require an act of Congress to cut that funding, and that plainly didn’t happen. Finally, the budget does not provide funds for any new deportation force.
Surprisingly, Obama’s “cancer moonshot” remains generously funded. Trump sought to slash spending at the National Institutes of Health by $1.2 billion for the rest of this fiscal year. Instead, the NIH will get a $2 billion boost, on top of the huge increase it got last year. To give some credit where due, there are some Republican appropriators who care about biomedical research (not necessarily for strictly altruistic reasons), including Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and these lawmakers delivered. Trump also failed in his efforts to cut money for other kinds of scientific inquiry such as advanced energy research, which got an increase over last year’s budget.
Democrats are also pleased that non-defense domestic spending will increase – something team Trump specifically said wouldn’t happen. The administration’s blueprint sought $18 billion in cuts. Instead, this budget actually seems to somewhat grow the government. Mitch McConnell made sure $4.6 billion got put aside to permanently extend health benefits to 22,000 retired Appalachian coal miners and their families. Nancy Pelosi made sure $295 million was included to shore up Medicaid in Puerto Rico (which was at a crisis point, for those who haven’t been following the situation there). And although it wasn’t a priority for Trump to reimburse local law enforcement agencies for the cost of protecting him and the first family in Florida and Ne3w York, Chuck Schumer fought for and got $61 million for that purpose. Another $2 billion in disaster relief money for states also likely bought some votes – legislators from Gulf states may deny climate change for political purposes, but that doesn’t keep buildings above water. And yes, I’m explicitly suggesting that the games that Republicans play around this issue are that cynical.
Another win for Dems and the planet, for that matter, is that the EPA has emerged largely unscathed. Although some regulations have already been rolled back (have a nice tall glass of coal mining waste, West Virginia!), the budget deal doesn’t come close to the one-third cut in EPA’s budget that Trump sought. The final deal trims EPA’s $8 billion budget by just $80 million – a one percent haircut. And no staff cuts, either. To the chagrin of many conservatives, Planned Parenthood will also continue to receive its current level of funding.
The fact of the matter is that no matter what, these legislators have to go home to their constituents. Talking big cuts is fine, but nobody wants it in their own backyard. And the Republicans are so torn apart by internal divisions and lack of cohesion around specifics of policy that they needed Democrats to avoid a government shutdown – because how bad would that have looked for Republicans? And that gave Democratic lawmakers tremendous leverage. It’s been reported that Democrats forced Republicans to drop over 160 riders with all sorts of poison pills, like eliminating the fiduciary rule or watering down EPA regulations. Dems were even able to block the Justice Department from restricting the dispensing of medical marijuana in states where it has been legalized.
We’ll be in for more budget drama in the fall, but if this is any sign, Trump is really out of his league in negotiations with Congress, much as we saw with the health care bill. And it raises the question of how much he can really get done. I’m fine with it if the answer to that is very little.