As the Trump era approaches, one of the great imponderables is how well the Trump administration will get along with a Republican-controlled Congress.
The latest signs are not good for a smoothly operating GOP trifecta government. To say that Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, and Tom Price, Trump’s Health and Human Services appointee, are not on the same page about how to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act is a massive understatement. Looking beyond the Obamacare thicket, everybody’s plans on Capitol Hill for 2017 involve major reforms of corporate and individual taxes and also quite possibly undertaking a version of entitlement reform that would functionally wipe out the whole Great Society legacy of anti-poverty programs. Though no one knows exactly where Trump will come out on these broader budget goals, it’s no secret that the agenda his campaign suggests are about 180 degrees away from the debt-and-deficit-shrinking rhetoric so many congressional Republicans have deployed so often in the recent past.
Yes, there are ample grounds for the cynical observation that congressional Republicans only care about budget deficits when a Democrat is in the White House. But there is no question that conservatives really do want to pursue the decimation of “liberal” spending programs as an end in itself, and will agitate the air about debt and deficits to increase the pressure to do so, even if it’s opposed by a Republican administration. So how can the new Trump regime avoid this conflict early in its tenure?
Trump’s friend and adviser Newt Gingrich has a solution: Change the score by abolishing the only independent scorekeeper, the Congressional Budget Office.
Congressional Republicans are about to be confronted with the first great choice of the Trump era, and it will be interesting to see if they can apply the lessons of the November 8th victory and the country’s desire for real change.
The Congressional Budget Office is simply incompatible with the Trump era. President-elect Trump won as an entrepreneurial change agent who would “drain the swamp”, get Washington under control, take charge of the bureaucracies, and get things done in an entrepreneurial, common sense way. The Congressional Budget Office is the opposite of these commitments. It is a left-wing, corrupt, bureaucratic defender of big government and liberalism.
That is how Gingrich describes the Republican-controlled congressional budget arm. And there is every reason to suspect the problem he (and other Trump allies) perceives with CBO has nothing to do with “liberalism” and everything to do with inconvenient budget math. CBO may have painted a big bull’s-eye on itself with a December report about options for reducing the budget deficit that defied the Trump claim that it’s possible to slash high-end taxes and boost defense spending while not doing anything to offend Republican or swing voters. As one MarketWatch columnist put it:
The good news is that the green eye-shades and number-crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office have just produced a fantastic checklist for a massive, Texas-Chainsaw-Massacre-style attack on all that “waste” and “padding” and “featherbedding” in the entire U.S. federal budget. The bad news? Donald Trump’s budget math still doesn’t add up. Not even close.
Thus, the CBO is providing a bright-yellow-line guide for Tea Party–style fiscal hawks centered in the House Freedom Caucus to throw a monkey wrench into Trump’s plans. As Gingrich accurately says, the quickest way to put the monkey wrench back into the toolbox is to abolish the CBO, leaving Trump’s Office of Management and Budget as the sole official arbiter of spending, revenue, deficit, and debt estimates. As budget expert Stan Collender notes, this would represent a staggering abdication of congressional independence:
This would be an extraordinary step backwards. Until CBO was created, Congress had no independent and reliable source of information to use when voting on anything. The committee that proposed the legislation typically had an interest in making the numbers as positive as possible so the estimates were often as tainted as they could be. In other cases, Congress had no choice but to rely on the Office of Management and Budget – the president’s agency for the analysis – something that representatives and senators found unacceptable more than 4 decades ago.
It is indeed “extraordinary” that a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is advocating this step. But it is highly consistent with Trump’s more general effort to delegitimize any sources of public information that he or his hirelings do not control. And for precisely that reason, there’s a good chance that Gingrich really is speaking for the 45th president in demanding unilateral budget disarmament by Congress.
And if there’s any doubt about the inconvenience CBO’s honesty represents for the GOP at this moment, it was probably resolved today when the agency reported that the repeal of Obamacare as it was enacted by Republicans in 2015’s “dry run” bill (vetoed by Obama) would “result in 32 million people losing health insurance and would double the price of insurance premiums within a decade.” That’s news Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue just don’t want to hear.