Thursday, March 30, 2017

MORNING PETE: MAJOR ISSUES #2 The Role of the Federal Government (Part 1: Trump’s Budget)

The March 18 release of President Trump’s budget proposal to Congress provides us with a clear view of how he (and his close advisors, particularly his budget director, Mick Mulvaney) intend to dramatically reduce the important role that the federal government has played in American life since 1933 when the first of the New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt began the transformation away from the conservative laissez-faire economic policies of Republican Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover that helped create the conditions for the Great Depression.

While Trump’s campaign rhetoric about “draining the swamp in Washington” should have prepared us for such a budget, not since the New Deal have we seen a budget that so clearly and dramatically alters the role of the federal government in place during a prior administration.

Our first glimpse of the ways in which the Trump/Bannon cabal intend to dismember the “administrative state,” as they have dubbed it, was the stream of Executive Orders from the White House during the first six weeks after the inauguration. This was closely paralleled by a flurry of barely-noticed deregulatory bills passed by the Senate that are indicative of how the McConnell-driven Senate might work hand-in-glove with the White House to remake the federal government to be unabashedly pro-big business or, at the very least, laissez-faire. Then, Paul Ryan’s March 6 release of his proposed  “American Health Care Act” showed clearly that he and a small group of House leaders also intend to greatly reduce the role of the federal government in addressing the basic needs of ordinary Americans, starting with access to affordable healthcare.

In order to understand the magnitude of this reduction in the role of the federal government, it may be instructive to consider the last 40 years of American politics, starting with the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. By doing so, we may see that 2 major ideological struggles about the proper role of the federal government have been at the heart of American politics during this period:

1. The long standing tension between the powers of the states and those of the federal government, which has haunted the American Federalist system since the Founders  first debated this matter while creating the Constitution, and which has been a North/South divide, intertwined with issues of race, ever since. 

Consider the following race-related historical examples of the tension between States Rights and Federalism: slavery, abolition, the various free-state/slave-state compromises, secession of the Southern states, the Civil War, Radical Reconstruction, the KKK, Jim Crow Laws, lynchings, racially segregated schools in the South and the 1954 Supreme Court-ordered desegregation of those schools, the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960’s and the murders of civil rights workers in the South, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the assassinations of Medgar Evers in 1963 and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968; and more recently: voter suppression, Stand Your Ground and similar state laws, Ferguson and other police shootings of Black men, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Confederate Flag controversies in the South.


2. The pendulum swings between Progressivism and Conservatism that have dominated social and economic policy responses to the growth of capitalism over the past century: from the Trust Busting presidency of Teddy Roosevelt to 20 or so years of Laissez-Faire economic policies by the next 5 presidents who followed him (including Democrat, Woodrow Wilson) then back to FDR’s ground-changing New Deal followed by Truman’s progressive Square Deal then a swing back to President Reagan’s anti-New Deal conservatism (exemplified by his famous statement “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" and then back again to Obama’s progressive Affordable Care Act and Executive Orders regarding civil and human rights. 

The actions and intentions of Trump, Bannon, Ryan, McConnell et al to dismantle the “administrative state” and get rid of  “nanny” state policies can certainly be seen as being the latest and most extreme swing of this pendulum since the New Deal.

It may also be instructive to consider two somewhat smaller debates regarding the proper role of the federal government that seem to be at play at this time: 


1. The foreign policy debate between isolationism and interventionism, the former often (but not always) accompanied by nationalism and/or xenophobia and the latter often (but not always) resulting in protracted and unpopular wars. 

2. The constitutional debates on a wide range of social issues that grow out of a longstanding tension between libertarian insistence on individual liberties and liberal commitment to equal protection under the laws. 

This tension is often played out in federal court cases on issues such as racial discrimination in housing, abortion, affirmative action, capital punishment, marriage equality, gun control, religious freedom, free speech, and criminal justice. Moreover, over the past 40 years, these tensions have poisoned the process of appointing federal judges to the extent that there are virtual ideological “tests” of a president’s appointments to the Supreme Court.

So when you read Budget Director Mulvaney’s claims that elimination of certain programs (such as Meals on Wheels for seniors) and the drastic reduction in funding certain executive departments (like the Environmental Protection Agency) are being undertaken simply to reduce waste and inefficiency, don’t believe a word of it. 

While no one would deny that there is waste and inefficiency in government, the idea that this is really the goal of the budget is palpably false. First of all, this is nothing new: such efficiencies and reductions in waste have, in fact, been carried out in every administration since Jimmy Carter’s (1976-80). But, even more important: even if every remaining bit of waste were to be eliminated and every possible efficiency carried out, this would barely budge the needle of the likely $4 trillion budget, let alone the probably $500 million annual deficit, or our roughly $14 trillion national debt. 

So what’s really going on with this budget?

Even a cursory analysis of what is being eliminated or greatly reduced shows clearly that this is an unabashedly pro-business budget that seeks to do away with most government regulation of business and to privatize as much federal government activity as possible; i.e. reduce the size and scope of the federal government.

It is, moreover, a budget designed to achieve the longtime goal of Tea Party Congressional budget hawks (of whom Mulvaney was a key leader until he left the House to become Trump’s Budget Director): to dramatically reduce the absolute size of government in order to substantially reduce taxes (primarily on the wealthy, who have been falsely dubbed “job creators” by anti-Tax proponents like Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform). 

Indeed, it was Norquist who famously revealed (in a May 2001 NPR interview) the truth about the conservative Republican drive to greatly reduce the size of government: “I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Thus, we should be very clear that the Trump administration and the Republican Congress intend to dramatically reduce the role of the government in American life.

How likely are they to succeed in this effort?

Unlike the Executive orders and the Senate deregulation bills---most of which were barely mentioned in the media and so were unnoticed by most Americans--- the Trump budget and the RyanCare bill have already been met with strong (mostly negative) reactions by politicians, media commentators, organizations, and ordinary citizens across the political spectrum. So, I think it fair to expect that the coming debates on these two measures in Congress (and in the media) will give us further insights into the very wide range of views in this country about the proper role of the federal government.

I believe we can also expect that, under the influence of lobbyists, the media, and “public opinion” and through the usual messy “sausage-making” of Congress, both the budget and the health care bill will be much altered before they are passed by Congress and signed by the President, so it remains to be seen exactly how the role of the federal government will be changed by Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.

The Budget, itself

In the meantime, let us look beneath the covers of the Trump/Mulvaney budget to see what it is proposing to do, as reported in a couple of easy-to-follow graphic explanations:


And here is just one article, Trump Takes Gamble in Cutting Funding for Agencies That Aid His Base, which (1) lays out Mulvaney’s stated reasoning behind the budget, (2) describes just some of the opposition to various aspects of it by Democrats, Republicans, and even some conservatives, and (3) identifies some aspects of the budget that will negatively impact many who voted for Trump.

Here are my take-aways from these articles:

First of all, consider that the budget has been described by the White House as a “muscular” budget, an America First budget. This is clearly something Donald Trump wants and needs to feel powerful (Military Spending), to feel loved by his base (the Wall), and to succeed where he perceives that recent past presidents have failed (defeat Islamic terrorism and North Korea; stand up to China and Europe on trade, etc.)

Further, as Budget Director Mulvaney explained to the press: 
What did you expect? This budget reflects almost everything that Trump, the candidate, said he would do. In that sense, it is an aspirational declaration, not a practical one.

So, if this budget is merely aspirational, what might a budget that eventually passes look like?

In my opinion: 

1. It will probably be less draconian in order to get the support needed from moderate Republicans (yes, there are still a few).

2. That said, it will nevertheless likely be devastating to the poor, make life very difficult for the working poor, disappoint and frustrate the middle class, and be a totally unnecessary boon to the wealthy.

3. Moreover, it could cripple efforts to address such pressing problems as Climate Change, Poverty, and Healthcare.

4. However, in order to pass, the budget will need to include spending that may not now be in it for: programs that are popular with most Republicans like support for local law enforcement and the NIH; projects that allow Republican Congresspersons to “bring home the bacon” to their states and districts; pet projects of key Republican supporters; products and services that business lobbyists press for; widely popular entities like the National Park system, NPR & PBS, and the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities; as well as government agency activities that are simply too vital to be hamstrung by inadequate budgets (e.g., the CDC, FAA, NSF, IRS, etc.).
5. Probably, the biggest obstacle that Congress will face in trying to agree on some kind of compromise budget will be the challenge of resolving competing ideological positions among Republicans: fiscal conservative political leaders like Paul Ryan; uncompromising ultra-Conservative members in both houses of Congress; right-wing radio talk hosts and their listeners; moderate Republican elected officials like Senators Susan Collins and John McCain; Libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul; as well as conservative organizations like The Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform, and the various Koch brothers’ organizations. They may even need the support of Blue Dog Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin.

6. And then there’s the challenge to Congress of doing all of the above and yet passing a budget that Trump can “live with”, one that will satisfy his need for a “muscular” budget.

7. Finally,  here’s the scariest part, the part that most Americans probably don’t realize is coming. Listen to what Budget Director Mulvaney stated in a March 16 news conference: “The budget blueprint [aka the "skinny budget," which addresses only so-called discretionary spending], again, does not deal with the debt. It doesn’t even deal with the deficit. It is simply the first part of the appropriations process.” This is where conservatives can do real and lasting damage to the role of the federal government in American life: an all out attack on the safety nets of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Signing off for awhile.

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