Now that the hysteria has faded a bit over Donald Trump’s acceptance of a proposal from congressional Democrats to tie short-term extensions of appropriations and the debt limit to hurricane relief-and-recovery funding, it’s a good time to reassess what actually happened. And despite wildly overwritten assessments of Trump becoming a moderate or a Democrat or a moderate Democrat, it is important to understand that all the deal really did was to delay a completely manufactured crisis until December. And it in no way disturbed the underlying reality, which has now been in place since 2010: Absent virtual intra-party unanimity, neither party has the power to completely impose its will on the opposition.
The debt-limit extension will be no less of a “must-pass” bill in December than it was this month, even if it does continue to provide House conservatives and Democrats the opportunity to make demands that in the end will probably cancel each other out. Similarly, a government shutdown won’t suddenly make any more sense prior to the new year than it did prior to the Fiscal New Year.
Indeed, other than its exacerbation of existing intra-GOP tensions, the most interesting thing about the Trump/Democratic agreement is the very different assumptions it exposed in how the next big item on the GOP agenda proceeds: the tax bill. The White House thinks getting all the contrived debt/funding fights temporarily out of the way will make it easier to get going on tax legislation before October. Congressional Republicans fear that Trump is creating a year-end disaster in which tax legislation gets hopelessly snarled with debt and appropriations negotiations.
The idea that time is the main obstacle to accomplishing tax legislation, rather than substantive disagreements and procedural complications, is dubious at best. The number of questions surrounding the long-awaited tax bill isn’t shrinking. We still don’t know if we’re looking at a “tax reform” bill with revenue offsets for tax cuts, or a big package of offsetting tax and spending cuts. And we don’t know if or to what extent legislation once attached to the failed health-care bill might be rolled over into the new effort. Notwithstanding the short-term fiscal deal, there’s no reason to think Republicans and Democrats are close enough on basic tax principles to make any kind of bipartisan bill even remotely possible. And as with the health-care bill, that means the only option Republicans have is to use the budget process to “set up” a tax bill that can get through the Senate with 50 votes.
Once again, Republicans are facing big internal fights over the budget deficit and whether it even matters; over the extent to which the simple goal of giving businesses and wealthy individuals tax “relief” will be complicated by spending-cut obsessions or the perceived need to cut middle-class taxpayers in on the deal; and over demands from right-to-lifers and nativists and other powerful GOP constituencies that their various pet causes get tossed into the stew.
More “time” for tax legislation doesn’t remove any of these intra-party conflicts. And indeed, passage of a “clean” debt limit and appropriations bill last week takes away a potential vehicle for many special-interest legislative priorities that may now seek shelter in the budget/tax bill.
From a larger perspective, 2017 continues to show that even a GOP trifecta giving Republicans control of both the Executive and Legislative branches doesn’t necessarily change the fundamental gridlock in Washington. Without 60 Senate votes or the willingness to kill the legislative filibuster, the GOP must cram as much of its agenda as possible into budget bills that won’t accommodate everything and that only allow for two intra-party defections. That puts them ultimately in the same boat as the Democrats of the Obama presidency — at least after the loss of a Senate seat in 2010 denied them 60 votes.
So from just about any point of view, Trump’s fiscal deal with congressional Democrats didn’t change a whole lot. An entirely separate question is how long the two parties can continue to reach these short-term deals and kick the fiscal can down the road without frustrated ideologues — particularly on the right, with its pent-up demands to roll back many decades of progressive accomplishments — exploding. All we know is that each approaching “train wreck” somehow keeps being avoided.