Democrats score a big budget win

The budget agreement which funds the federal government through the end of the fiscal year (September 30) proves that although Democrats don’t control any part of government, they still wield enormous clout. For the most part the Omnibus funding bill demonstrates the power of Democrats and vested interests. Trump and Republicans may say they are going to change government, but the agreement proves it’s mostly bluster and that Trump is a largely powerless president with his influence receding more every day.

Indeed, it’s hard to find any good news for Republicans in this spending bill except for a modest increase in defense spending. Money talks and all others walk. This bill proves who’s really exercising power. Consider:

  • There are no cuts to “Obamacare” or the subsidies to the Affordable Care Act. Insurers now have enough certainty to set realistic rates and most will prefer to stay in the exchanges. The tens of millions at risk of losing health insurance can breathe easier, at least for now.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is funded at 99% of last year’s level. So much for the deep cuts Trump promised and really the existential threat to its existence. Proposed changes to degrade environmental protections will probably fizzle too, as environmental law is unchanged and the same staff is largely in place.
  • Not a dime goes to fund Trump’s wall along the Mexican border. ICE gets a small budget increase and funds may be used to repair and replace the existing border fence only. There are funds to hire only 100 more ICE border agents.
  • Our socialist national train system, Amtrak, got a $105M increase.
  • The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities did not get eliminated or even cut. Each agency gets a $2M increase instead. Ditto for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I guess Big Bird is going to stay for another year.
  • My ex-agency, the U.S. Geological Survey gets $23M in additional funding, much of it earmarked for improving earthquake prediction but also for better groundwater level monitoring.
  • The IRS maintained its last year’s budget and additional money was allocated for improving customer service.
  • The Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal services to the poor, maintains a steady budget.
  • The Justice Department is barred from using its funds to undercut local government’s marijuana initiatives.
  • The National Parks Service was funded at last year’s level.
  • There are none of the large cuts Trump wanted to the National Institute for Health that Trump wanted. In fact NIH gets $2B more.
  • Planned Parenthood is not blocked from receiving federal money. Federal funds still can’t be used for abortion services, but this has been the policy for about forty years.

One might call this the April 30 miracle: a bright ray of sun after a few very dark and uncertain months. Perhaps though it is not so miraculous. For Republican control of government is largely a mirage. Trump waffles and vacillates, making basic planning pretty much impossible. This leaves Republicans in congress to govern, but it’s a muscle so atrophied that it has proved nearly impotent. For it’s unclear what it means to be a Republican. Republicans have been great at opposition, but poor at legislating. The party is comprised of factions with vastly different agendas and with no history of compromise, and with no one feeling the duty to compromise even among themselves.

Still, in a way this Omnibus bill is good news for Republicans. By dodging the issues they supposedly care most about, they increase their reelection chances in 2018 and 2020. And that’s what this is really about. The curious thing though is that at best it gives them the illusion of power, because it’s only real power if you can execute it. Perhaps the hope is that in retaining a power that is largely not exercised they will one day have a majority where their caucuses are united enough to actually accomplish some of those massive changes they ran on. More than likely, they are hoping their base won’t hold their feet to the fire and they are good enough (not being Democrats) and their districts are so tightly gerrymandered where it won’t matter.

Citizen opposition though is a huge but unstated factor. Republicans understand the tide is turning rapidly against them so they are pulling up drawbridges and filling the moats. They don’t want to show up at town halls. Marches, protests, petitions to Congress and (at times) massive numbers of phone calls to Congress are having an impact. It’s making Republicans scared and sowing confusion and hesitancy.

For a supposedly principled and aggressive party, Republicans are looking more like Keystone Kops. For those of us in the opposition, this is good. Let’s hope activists and Democrats can sustain this through the 2018 elections. As long as Trump is president, it’s quite likely, which is why Trump’s time in office may be shorter than anyone thinks.

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