While nothing is certain until a bill passes both houses and is signed by the president, the latest news out of Congress is that in a bizarre turn of events, some bipartisan agreement to pursue a path of sensible non-confrontation may have broken out. The Associated Press reports:
“The Trump administration and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are on the cusp of a critical debt and budget agreement, a deal that would amount to an against-the-odds victory for Washington pragmatists seeking to avoid politically dangerous tumult over fiscal deadlines.”
It looks like they’re going to agree to increases in both domestic spending (which Democrats want) and military spending (which Republicans want), along with a two-year increase in the debt ceiling and a pledge from Pelosi not to insert anything into the bill that would make it impossible for Republicans to vote for it, like a repeal of the Hyde Amendment.
How is such an agreeement possible in this fevered atmosphere of intense partisanship and mutual distrust? Allow me to explain.
You may remember that when Donald Trump became the presidential nominee of the Republican Party, the reaction of some Republicans was a deep suspicion, even dismay. How could this man, who neither knew nor cared how government works and had no commitment to conservative ideology, be trusted to do what they wanted?
It turned out, however, that their fears were misplaced. In fact, it is precisely Trump’s indifference to policy that has allowed them to run wild, as he turned one federal agency after another over to right-wing ideologues who were free to indulge their most extreme fantasies without constraint from the White House, so long as they didn’t prove an embarrassment to the president (which many of them have).
But every once in a while, Trump’s lack of commitment to conservative ideology has a real impact. This is one of those times.
As a candidate, Trump embraced some populist stances that didn’t fit with the small-government philosophy of the GOP elite. “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” he even said at one point, not because he particularly cared about those programs but because he sensed that it would be a popular thing to say. As it happens, the budgets his White House proposes do indeed try to cut those programs (and many other popular ones), but those documents are written by other people, people who actually believe in slashing government.
When Trump has to get involved himself - as he’ll have to do on this budget deal - his impulse not to cut too deeply into programs people like comes back to the fore. Likewise, even though when Barack Obama was president Trump urged Republicans to force a debt ceiling showdown that could imperil the full faith and credit of the United States, now that he’s in charge he is desperate to just increase the debt ceiling and avoid any such crisis.
But wait, you say - didn’t I just see an article about Trump telling aides to prepare for big budget cuts in 2021 if he wins a second term? Why yes you did. So what are we to make of that?
It’s hard to be certain, but I suspect it’s a way of assuring the ideologues both on his own staff and outside the administration that he hasn’t forgotten them and their priorities, and once he’s past the election he’ll deliver them the draconian safety-net cuts they’ve been yearning for. But will he, if doing so would be horribly unpopular? If I were them I wouldn’t count on it.
Meanwhile, if this deal goes through, conservatives in Congress will express their deep concern and say that we have to get back to fiscal responsibility. Some may even vote against this bill, knowing that their votes are not needed to pass it. But they won’t do it too loudly, because they don’t want to make Trump mad and they know that there’s not much point in pretending any longer that they actually care about the deficit - that is, until there’s a Democrat in the White House, at which point they’ll rediscover their commitment to forcing government shutdowns and debt ceiling crises in order to attack the safety net.
But for now, it’s in Trump’s interest to keep spending more, so that’s what he’ll do. And as always, Republicans will stand behind him.
Paul Waldman is a columnist with The Washington Post.