Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Coming Budget Showdown

Published in National Review Online on August 7, 2017


When it comes to the relationship between congressional Republicans and the Trump administration, 2017 has so far been a year of massive coordination problems. Or at least that’s the term you’d use if you wanted to avoid four-letter words.

This has been most evident in the legislative process around health care, of course. That process isn’t dead (though it has hardly lacked for obituaries, almost since the moment it began), but it has obviously been quite dysfunctional, and prominent among the reasons for that have been a series of misalignments between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the House and then the Senate, members and staff found themselves bizarrely uncertain at almost every point about what the administration’s substantive positions were, and just when they thought they had a handle on those (or when they thought they could ignore them) the president himself would pull the rug out from under whatever conclusions they’d drawn. This often didn’t seem to be done intentionally, in the traditional sense. At the core of the problem on the administration’s side has been the president’s own uncertainty about how the legislative process works and what role he might play in shaping it, but there have also seemed to be strong differences of opinion among his advisors that ended up sending very mixed signals without ever being fully articulated to members of Congress.

At the same time, the White House has also often been oddly uncertain of just where things were headed on the Hill. This wasn’t exactly a function of a lack of communication. There has been a lot of communication. And there were times when the administration was very engaged and also pretty constructive. But at key moments it seemed as if the White House just had the wrong impression of where key members stood on the bills before them and what would happen next, and also found various turns in the process utterly baffling. Obviously, the basic lack of common vision and purpose (and at times even of coherent camps) among congressional Republicans was a major source of this confusion. The process at key moments just hasn’t made any sense, so it’s hard to blame the president’s advisors for being confused—everyone else has been confused too. But the combination of these factors has made for a terrible mess.

The problems underlying that confusion are not unique to health care. And although the effort to avoid them when it comes to tax reform does seem to be going reasonably well (proving again that tax cuts are the only common language among elected Republicans at this point), they are already cropping up on the other pressing priority confronting the elected branches this fall: the budget process.

Every passing day brings closer some key budget deadlines that will soon force a focus on the familiar challenge of keeping the government open. There will be a debt-ceiling vote, there may be a new budget resolution that could get tax reform started, and there will need to be votes on appropriations for the coming 2018 fiscal year. Some of these could be combined, and also combined with some other legislation (like a reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program) though it doesn’t appear that either the administration or congressional leaders now have a clear strategy for which and how. And none of them will be easy. But the biggest challenge is likely to be the appropriations process.

The basic problem is simple: Mexico isn’t going to pay for the border wall that President Trump wants, and congressional Democrats don’t want to pay for it either.

Why is that a pressing issue in the budget process? Appropriations bills to fund the government will require 60 votes in the Senate, especially since Republicans want to bust the sequester cap on defense. Since time is short (the House, for instance, has about 10 legislative days on the calendar between now and September 30 when the new fiscal year starts) keeping the government open will probably require either a bipartisan continuing resolution to buy some time or a bipartisan budget deal to settle spending levels for the year. Either way, Democrats will resist appropriating money for a border wall but the Trump administration has suggested the president will not accept a bill that doesn’t provide such funding. At this point, it doesn’t seem like Democrats have much of an incentive to give ground on that subject, but it also seems unlikely that the president will incline to give ground on it. A shutdown is entirely possible.

Republican congressional leaders clearly want to avoid a shutdown. But it’s not nearly as clear that the president or his senior team agree. Back in May, Trump tweeted that “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!” If he still thinks so, it’s certainly in his power to make that happen. And even if he doesn’t want to, it won’t be all that easy to avoid. Congressional Republicans seem to be assuming that when it comes down to it the president will just back down and accept a funding bill without money for a border wall, or with some symbolic amount. They have come to think they are dealing with the weakest president they’ve ever seen. That may be what happens. But the level of confidence about it seems excessive.

If a shutdown does happen, the executive branch has a lot of control over just how it would work. The Obama administration used that control to maximize the pain involved, in order to put pressure on congressional Republicans. If it wanted to, the Trump administration could work instead to minimize the practical effects of a shutdown, or even to focus those in ways that might pressure Senate Democrats to give ground. But doing that would require careful preparation and disciplined execution, neither of which has so far been the administration’s forte.

And as of now, it just doesn’t seem as though congressional leaders and rank and file members are on the same page as the administration about whether a shutdown is desirable, what the key options are for strengthening the Republican hand in the coming weeks, and what some plausible scenarios look like.

Quite a lot needs to get done over the very few legislative days between now and the end of September to avoid a train wreck on the budget. It could surely happen. But getting a lot done in a short time would be quite a departure from how Washington has worked in 2017.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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