After threatening to veto the big omnibus spending bill and after railing against it moments before as a “ridiculous situation,” President Trump confirmed to reporters that he has signed the $1.3 trillion spending package. Trump also attacked the bill because it doesn’t protect the “dreamers,” which is like me breaking into your house and then saying I’m angry that you didn’t have an alarm system.
But the real reason Trump is probably angry about the bill is that Democrats won out. Indeed, the true message of this whole affair is that Republicans know full well that their agenda, and even their entire ideological approach to governing, is one that the American public just doesn’t share. They have complete control of government, and they aren’t willing to put their beliefs into practice.
After spending years protesting deficits under President Barack Obama, Republicans in Congress voted for the spending package. We all know there’s really no such thing as a Republican “deficit hawk” — they pretend to care deeply about the deficit when there’s a Democrat in the White House so they can restrain spending and hamstring the economy, but when there’s a Republican in the White House, all that goes right out the window. Sure, some ultra-conservatives complained about this bill on the grounds that it raises the deficit, but they all voted for the GOP tax plan. The truth is that like all “deficit hawks,” they only invoke deficits to cut programs they don’t like.
Republicans know that if they actually did cut spending the way they claim to want to, the public would be horrified. And with a wave election coming, they didn’t want to pass a bill full of cuts to popular programs, which would generate controversy and give voters even more of a reason to reject them in November.
So they gave Democrats almost everything they wanted. Here are some of the ways Democrats won out in this bill, despite being in the minority in both houses:
- $1.6 billion for border fencing, but with the specification that it only apply to existing designs, meaning no wall.
- The Fix NICS Act, which modestly improves the existing gun background-check system, plus a provision instructing the Centers for Disease Control that it is free to conduct research on gun violence. Such research was effectively stopped in 1996.
- A slight increase to the IRS budget. While not nearly what the agency needs, especially given the challenge of implementing the new tax law, at least it doesn’t continue the long-standing GOP effort to starve the IRS of funds and make enforcement a joke.
- $380 million in assistance to states to improve the security of their election systems, and $300 million to the FBI to combat Russian hacking of those systems.
- No repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which prevents churches from endorsing candidates and acting as political organizations. President Trump has advocated that the amendment be repealed.
- A bar on employers such as restaurants keeping any portion of workers’ tips. The Trump Labor Department had proposed allowing tip “pooling,” including letting the boss control and potentially take workers’ tips.
- Increases for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Trump had proposed eliminating them entirely.
- No cuts to the EPA (Trump had proposed cutting the agency’s budget by a third) and an increase in funding for clean energy research through ARPA-E, which Trump had proposed eliminating entirely.
- Increased funding for affordable housing.
- Increased education funding, along with what nearly everyone is describing as a complete rejection of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s agenda.
- Increased funding for the National Institutes of Health.
- A doubling of child-care funding for low-income families.
- No defunding of sanctuary cities or Planned Parenthood.
Yes, there are some things in there that Republicans wanted. They boosted the defense budget to $700 billion and threw money at some other of their priorities, such as “abstinence-only” education. But when it comes to cutting domestic spending — which nearly all Republicans say they want to do — they took a pass.
Why? The simple reason is that they’re afraid. They understand all too well that while voters might say they like “small government” in the abstract, voters also really like nearly all the things government does. And when you start cutting those programs, there’s a backlash. With an election coming less than eight months from now, the last thing they need is to provoke controversies over slashing important and popular programs.
The great experiment in total Republican control of Washington could well be over less than a year from now, and while they’ve gotten some of what they wanted (especially the tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy), they’ve decided to stop well short of full implementation of the conservative agenda. Amid all the horrors of the Trump presidency, at least we can be thankful for that.