The Budget Deal

Well, something really did happen on the way to the Mueller Report. Congress struck a budget deal that is a mini-version of the grand bargain Democrats are always all too willing to cut with Republicans, but this time it worked and is likely to have positive consequences and set the scene for other constructive legislative initiatives, though not at least until the congressional elections this November. The budget deal has been much criticized. People on the Right say that it does away with any shambles of the idea that Conservatives are interested in fiscal austerity, and people on the left suggest that the deal just shows what hypocrites are the deficit hawks, who now show themselves willing to bust the budget just so long as they have very recently taken care of the need to give tax cuts to their financial backers. Consider, instead, what the budget deal does accomplish in the way of re-introducing some rationality into the budget process.

The deal did away with the debt ceiling for a year. That does not mean it just raised the debt ceiling; it said there would be no debt ceiling for a year. That is a good thing because it ends what seems to be the endless crisis of having to raise the ceiling every few months and even indicates the possibility of doing away with the debt ceiling entirely, it being a law set by the congress that has no use other than creating a crisis each side can use to leverage what it wants so that the government doesn’t close down. Maybe we will have yearly reauthorizations of no debt ceiling until a time comes when we do away with it entirely, which will make both sides either get on with legislating or allow nothing to happen without it causing the government to close down, when what even that means is unclear in that more and more personnel get regarded as essential every time we go through one of these exercises.

The second major thing accomplished by the budget deal is an end to sequesters. This was the measure  passed in 2013 to freeze domestic and defense budgets so as to hold the Congress hostage so that it would have to find cuts that could be agreed upon so that the onerous sequesters could be lifted. Cuts would come because Republicans could not stand to see a freeze on defense spending and Democrats could not stand to see a freeze on domestic spending. But, as is the way with such things, what was temporary so as to force compromise simply became the way things were. Now, in a trade off, lifting defense curbs is largely matched by lifting domestic curbs, which means a great deal more money gets spent in both realms. Now, it might seem that raising defense spending is unnecessary. Usually, a time of peace brings a cut in defense spending until the next time the nation goes to war. At the present moment, we are largely at peace, even if there are four or five thousand United States troops in what seems a never ending commitment to Afghanistan and a few thousand United States troops mopping up ISIS in Iraq and protecting our Kurdish allies. Not much of a war commitment, but this administration keeps acting as if we are at war and that our defenses have diminished and so want a larger defense budget. That is a cheap price to pay, according to the Democratic point of view, for the domestic expenditures in the new budget. These include extending medical care for children for ten years and providing disaster relief for Texas and Puerto Rico, among other places.

Now, disaster relief in Puerto Rico has been badly misspent. Reports suggest that FEMA did not have a standby list of contractors to go with in case a disaster should strike and so went with fly by night operations, and has declared both that it is pulling out of Puerto Rico and that it is staying. It seems that Republican Presidents appoint hacks to be in charge of disaster relief while Obama and Clinton appointed professionals. Moreover, there is a good deal of corruption in Puerto Rico itself in the administration of disaster relief. I don’t know how to resolve that problem, as well as the overall inefficiency and corruption of the Puerto Rican government, except by placing the entire island in receivership, as happened with Camden, N. J., and various other places, but that is likely to lead to a political backlash no federal administration would want to deal with, and so I suspect the money will go down the tubes and Puerto Rico will solve its problems by depopulating, the interior of the island emptied out, while the casinos in San Juan continue to profit from the tourist trade.

There are other housekeeping measures that are part of the budget deal. The CHIP program for child health is extended four more years, which puts it in line to become permanent, and the new budget also puts money towards medical research, which is always underfunded in that we don’t know which research investment will pay off, and so it is necessary to fund a full spectrum of research, and it even gets rid of a medical advisory board within the Obamacare framework that proved unnecessary. It also provides funding for the opioid crisis, which Trump talked about but never got around to funding.

Liberal commentators have joined Conservative ones in pointing out that the deal might prove inflationary, that a time of full employment is not when to prime the pump but, rather, the time to draw down the deficit. So liberals, this time around, are joining up with those who are always predicting inflation or a stock market crash whether or not either ever comes. The real issue, however, is political rather than economic. The Congress recently passed a tax plan that also adds greatly to the deficit and can lead to inflation if the millionaires and billionaires who get the money decide to actually invest it. So does that mean that programs that help the poor and middle class should be withheld and inflation only be allowed to be incurred because of money given to the rich? Why defer what the majority of the population needs? If the Congress is so concerned about inflation, then rescind the tax cuts.

This budget deal would not have come together except for its fortuitous timing and the fact of the present occupant of the White House. Trump’s everyday shenanigans, such as wanting a big parade for no reason other than to publicize himself, and the misadventures of his staff, including domestic abuse charges that led to the resignations of two of them this past week, are what keep the 24-hour news channels busy with fodder and so provide cover for Congress getting down to business and putting a bill on the President’s desk that he is told he should sign by everyone around him. The bill would have never seen the light of day if Hillary had become President because every day would have been devoted to another Benghazi-like hearing to show what a bitch she was and to deny her any legislation that might put her in a good light.

It is also the case that the election in November is far enough away that both sides can speculate about how the bill is to their advantage. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan can think that their members can campaign on having been part of a do something Congress that got through tax changes that put some money in the pockets of constituents and also passed a budget that indicated that Congress could act responsibly. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi can think that they will take over Congress by running against Trump and that no one will remember the budget deal that far down the line, and if people do, it will be for the positive things the Democrats were able to put in it. It is unlikely that any other bills will get passed before election time in that rumors of what the Trump administration will propose in the way of infrastructure are non-starters for the Democrats in that not enough money is being put on the table and the plans are for privatization rather than for public funding of construction based on what are still cheap interest rates. Moreover, the Dreamers legislation is not likely to get anywhere if for no other reason than that the President has firmly put his foot down against people from “shithole” countries, and the Democrats cannot accede to cutting down on such a program that would alter standards for legal immigration. So we wait upon the midterms.

Meanwhile, the President goes on with his on again off again tactics to fire Mueller, lately by threatening to fire Rosenstein which sets up the President appointing someone to replace him who will do Trump’s bidding, now that the highly regarded third ranking member of the Justice Department, Rachel Brand, is gone. But it is too late for all of that maneuvering. Mueller already probably has all the information he needs, on the basis of already completed interviews and financials, to make a very plausible case against the President and a draft of it is probably already written up, a stroke key away from being released to the Washington Post should Mueller believe he is about to be relieved of his duties. That will give Congress all it needs to engage in impeachment proceedings, should it become so inclined. There is no need for civil or criminal indictments. And Congress will make up its mind to do that if they feel they have no recourse but to do so, the evidence of significant malfeasance so clear. It will be up to the Republicans if they decide they finally want to distance themselves from this President. And that is the way it should be, Congress only reluctantly and in a bipartisan manner pulled to deciding on impeachment, which should be a very rare and never frivolous matter, however much it was the case that Clinton was impeached for what were clearly only partisan reasons.