Politically Advantageous, Financially Irresponsible
The President has struck a deal to raise the debt ceiling, continue funding the government, and provide funding aid to all of those ailing from Hurricane Harvey—a feat which would normally be met with celebration from his backers in Congress and party writ large. But this was no ordinary deal. Instead of standing up for his colleagues or negotiating the fine details of budget allocation, President Trump decided to sign on to a plan proposed by Democratic Congressional leaders, whom had been, assumedly, his sworn enemies since the beginning of his presidency. This deal would extend government funding and raise the debt ceiling for three months instead of the 18 months asked for by GOP leaders—laying the groundwork for what will surely be a contentions end to 2017.
The shock and condemnation from his Republican colleagues was swift and fierce as they realized the political reins of power had slipped from their hands—at least on this issue. “It’s just a betrayal of everything we’ve been talking about for years as Republicans,” former senator Jim DeMint told Politico. Rep. Mike Simpson from Idaho chimed in, saying that the debt ceiling should be raised every day if this is how the president is going to behave.
On the other side of the aisle, there was limited celebration mixed with trepidation. In many, there was a sense of fulfillment from Democrats for getting everything they asked from a far-right president. President Trump himself fell back on his usual measure of success, TV ratings, and media reactions. In what Politico described as a “jovial" call to Democratic leadership, Trump bragged about the reactions from the news media to the deal and flaunted his newly found bipartisan appeal. However, Democrats should be wary of deals like this, regardless of the coverage they get or the ease with which they are accomplished.
The debt ceiling is an authorization Congress gives itself to pay the bills which the government has accrued. There are two critical things people need to know about it.
First, the debt ceiling is a political tool, not a mandated act of budgetary legislation. When one stops to think about it, Congress really shouldn’t have to give itself authorization to pay its own bills. This should be a no-brainer and a necessary step rolled into the budget making process. If Congress has allocated money to be spent, they should also ensure that those bills will be paid. Instead, every year or so Congress decides to have this bizzare fight with itself over paying bills—almost like a married couple arguing over the dinner table about a purchase they maybe shouldn’t have made after the credit statement has already arrived in the mail. In recent years, this allocation step has become an advantageous political football for those in Congress looking to extrude action on their own personal priorities. During President Obama’s tenure, Congressional Republicans held the debt ceiling hostage to such an extent that the nation lost it’s AAA credit rating—prompting Obama to famously exclaim that he would never negotiation on the Debt ceiling again.
In fact, one of the main reasons the Democrats were so happy about their short term funding extension is that it will force the Republicans to take a series of contentious votes on the eve of a mid-term year. The Republicans, for their part, wanted to put this off for as long as possible because they know there are people in their own caucus who are against voting for the debt ceiling at all. Mark Meadows, the de-facto leader of the Freedom Caucus and one of the most conservative Republicans in the House, has explained many times that his group doesn’t want to vote for a blanket raising of the ceiling without cuts to government spending (silly when you remember the money under the ceiling has already been spent). And so, both the Democratic and Republican leaders walked into Trump’s office with politics on their minds, not fiscal responsibility.
Second, the debt ceiling should be extended as far in to the future as possible. Regardless of their short term political priorities or jubilation over forcing Republicans into contentious votes in the winter, it’s hard not to see how the Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot on this deal. It truly is financially irresponsible to not push the debt ceiling as far in to the future as possible. Taking gambles on political votes is not something that should be done when the nation's credit rating is on the line. Regardless of their political goals, the Republicans' plan to approve an 18 month raising of the ceiling would have been the best solution to end the constant infighting and allow the Congress to get on to more productive business.
Having the possibility of not reauthorizing the debt ceiling looming over everyone helps no one. Back in 2013 when President Obama vowed to never debate over this issue again, his admisntration made the point that the nation's finances are to important and to fragile to be thrown around as a political football. His administration was right. There are two very important factors looming as long as the debt ceiling fight looms. The first is the possibility of not lifting the program—an action which would have absolutely catastrophic consequences for this nation's finances. Chief US economist at S&P Global Ratings, Beth Ann Bovino, said recently that not raising the debt ceiling in 2017 would be more damaging to the economy than the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008. This is because if the United States shows to the world that it is unable to pay its debts, consumer confidence in this nation's lending would utterly plummet, businesses would pull their investments, revenue into the government would fall, nations would not pay their interest on lending, and the government's ability to insure borrowed money would be returned would take such a massive hit that economists assume the nation would fall straight back into recession.
Pushing the debt ceiling well off into the future mitigates all of this risk. Under the Republicans' original plan, there could have been an 18 month period of highly reduced risk of default, increased consumer confidence, and minimum arguments about funding stops. And so, on this the Congressional Democrats were wrong. Pushing this fight off until December makes the economy more volatile and it primes the country for an even fiercer fight in an even fiercer political landscape. This deal is no doubt a win for Democratic political priorities and it could very well hurt Republicans in their mid term elections—especially those Freedom Caucus members who will most assuredly not get the spending cuts their constituencies are demanding. But it is not a responsible way to deal with the nation's economic system—especially considering the fact that the American economy is having a pretty great run as of late. Now is not a good time to jeopardize it.
Despite the economic implications of this deal, it’s really hard to not see why this is such a stratifying win for the Democrats—and make no mistake, this is a massive win. For a President to so overtly buck his own party on such sensitive negotiations to the point where he accepts the opposing parties very first offer over an incredible cry of protest is nearly unprecedented. The Democrats were handed literally everything they asked for from a President who has been openly hostile towards them on every other piece of legislative negotiation.
Republicans have truly been hurt heavily on the politics of this. Not only will they have to take an incredibly contentious deal come December, they also had to deal with the blatant embarrassment of the whole affair. Here is a president, who Republicans have bent over backwards to appease at every possible turn, forcing them to stand on the floor of the House and present a Democratically sponsored bill with Democratic priorities and knowing you have to vote for it. This also comes in a year when Republicans have been unable to pull out a single legislative accomplishment. Paul Ryan’s dream of tax reform by the end of the year is now endlessly complicated by the fact that he has to deal with budget and debt ceiling negotiations in the month when he was supposed to be passing his Ayn Rand-ian vision of the future. Not to mention the fact that all of the news coverage has been going on and on about how the Republicans have been unable to make a deal even while in the Oval Office. Add that to the fact that Ryan has been facing near revolt from his own caucus for the better part of a year now.
For Democrats, this entire situation has been a sign of relief as it seems Chuck Schumer has figured out how to play the President like a fiddle to get what he wants. Senator Schumer is no Congressional lightweight and he is familiar with the same kind of New York style negotiation that Trump has built his own character around. Much like President Macron of France, it seems that Schumer has figured out the best way to get Trump to do a deal is to make sure you flatter him, emphasize the short term victory of the whole affair, and press on about how great the media coverage will be. Do all of that and bingo you've got the President on your side and you can make any kind of proposal you want.
Donald Trump is No Moderate
As Democrats celebrate this political victory, there has been a bizzare deluge of stories from major publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Associated Press proclaiming that President Trump has finally shown his true colors as a moderate independent. In the New York Times, Peter Baker writes,
“Although elected as a Republican last year, Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the current two-party system around the time of the Civil War.”
This is patented nonsense. Just as Democrats should be wary of their short term political victory, the media should be wary of inflating this line of thinking when there is an avalanche of evidence to the contrary. The media being so desperate to find some sense of direction or political motivation in a President who so obviously has no interest in policy has now lead it to make these wild assumptions because one small deal has been struck with the opposing party.
Donald Trump’s administration is the most conservative to run this nation's government in decades. Republican hardliners fill his cabinet and his executive appointments have been to the right and far-right at every possible turn. His judicial nominees are all strategically arranged to further conservative ideology through the courts for decades to come. The unprecedented nature at which the far right has taken the reins of American power have resulted in the overturning of popular policy the nation over for no other reason than because they can. One of Donald Trump's clearest motivating factors seems to be the elimination of anything popular enacted by his democratic predecessor—a sentiment shared by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan before Trump was even known for his Birther nonsense.
The President’s central motivation for siding with Democrats on the fiscal negations is not because he is some free wheeling independent ready to deal with anyone in Washington to get stuff done. It is because he has been constantly frustrated by his party’s inability to pass something through Congress because it has prevented him from the opportunity to take credit for a win. The President's primary motivation is his press coverage and TV ratings. He has been desperate to get himself a political victory since the inauguration. This is evident by the fact that he keeps flaunting the lie that his administration has done more than any other in history and why he has been so frustrated with Congressional Republicans' inability to pass major legislation. The reason Trump struck a deal with Democrats is the exact same reason he’s been lashing out at his Republican allies on Twitter. He wants a win. He wants the publicity. And if the GOP cannot get him that, he will go where he can find one.
If Trump truly was a free-wheeling independent ready to deal with anyone to get the country back on track, then where was the deal negations with Democrats on revision of the Affordable Care Act? Where were his negotiations with Chuck Schumer on his infrastructure plan—a priority he supposedly shared with Democrats. Why was his rescission of DACA not done with an assurance to Democrats that if they funded his wall, he would ram The Dream Act through his own Congressional leadership? Nothing that the President has done, independent of this single deal, has signaled any willingness to work independently—contrary to the incorrect assumptions of many.
Zachary Sizemore is the Managing Editor at Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.