Since well before Election Day, the nightmare scenario for many liberals has been a Republican “trifecta” victory that would enable Paul Ryan and other conservative leaders in Congress to put together a massive budget reconciliation bill that would not only erase much of Barack Obama’s legacy but do serious damage to progressive policy accomplishments going all the way back to the 1960s. Such a bill could be enacted by simple majorities in both Houses thanks to the special procedures established for budget legislation. Ryan himself made it abundantly clear that introducing a new budget reconciliation bill was his own plan for 2017. And congressional Republicans even conducted a dry run in 2015 with a reconciliation bill they knew Barack Obama would veto.
After November 8, the prospect of sweeping budget legislation implementing long-desired conservative policies gained even more ground, with talk of a really early budget bill that would address urgent GOP priorities like the repeal of Obamacare and defunding of Planned Parenthood — perhaps to be whipped through Congress in time to arrive on Trump’s desk when the Oval Office is still full of boxes to be unpacked. There’s been a lot of talk about how, exactly, this momentous bill will handle the difficult question of how quickly to phase out Obamacare, and the differences of opinion among congressional Republicans on that subject. But no one seems to doubt the reconciliation train, whatever its exact cargo, is coming down the track very rapidly.
A lot of Congress watchers assume Paul Ryan always has a budget bill in his pocket, ready for use at a moment’s notice. Senate Republican leaders also have a lot of experience in drafting budget legislation, thanks to their many efforts to force Barack Obama to veto their work.
But what about the new administration’s input? If a January Budget Blitz is in the offing, you wouldn’t guess that from the scant attention apparently being given to budget matters in the Trump transition effort. As longtime budget maven Stan Collender has pointed out, the many Cabinet appointments made so far do not include a director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Yes, OMB isn’t the only major cabinet position that hasn’t yet been announced. But given all of the budget-related work that Trump will be have to face early next year – a 2017 budget resolution in January or February, a debt ceiling suspension that expires in March, the possibility of a government shutdown when the continuing resolution runs out at the end of April and the possible submission of a 2018 budget, not to mention budget-related issues such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act – you would think that the selection of the OMB director would be one of the president-elect’s most pressing needs.
But no. And more surprising still, as Collender earlier reported, there’s some buzz that Trump could break every precedent by refraining from submitting his own federal budget for the fiscal year that will begin next October.
Now that might help explain why an OMB director is not a very high priority for Team Trump. But what does that say about administration involvement in a Budget Blitz, whether it is in January or later on (whatever is leftover from the first budget bill — including major tax and spending cuts — will probably be rolled over into a second and much larger bill later in the year)?
Two possible explanations come to mind right away. The first is that Trump intends to outsource budget policy to congressional Republicans for the time being, letting Ryan & Co. have their way with the evisceration of liberal programs and policies they have been rehearsing for the last eight years. That would certainly make those conservatives who have so conspicuously distrusted Trump very happy, and would probably convince them to let the new president pursue his own policy hobbies in other areas without a lot of GOP carping.
The more unsettling possibility from the GOP point of view is that Team Trump simply hasn’t come to grips with budget policy and personnel just yet, and will at some point abruptly put the brakes on any Ryan Express aimed at setting federal spending and revenue priorities very early next year. One can imagine the pleasure presidential chief strategist Stephen Bannon would take in calling up Ryan and telling him to cool his jets on any budget bills until otherwise instructed by the White House.
Which is the right explanation? I certainly don’t know. But if there’s any significant chance Trump and congressional Republicans are on very different pages when it comes to how they will together reshape the federal government and its funding, the prospects for GOP unity that have been glimmering on the horizon since November 8 could turn out to represent a false dawn.
The issue has major implications for the opposition party, too, of course. If Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are ready to rock and roll with one or more budget bills to be dealt with on up-or-down votes that cannot be delayed by filibuster, then Democrats’ only hope is to close ranks and fight like hell to turn the three Senate Republicans they’ll need to throw a monkey wrench into the process. But if behind the scenes the White House is planning some nasty surprises for Paul Ryan and other conventional Republicans eager to enact his budget blueprint, then Democrats may simply need to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy the show.