Fac­ing the bud­get

The pres­i­dent may not get every­thing he wants, but it will be the next big test of party unity

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Her­bert Lon­don Her­bert Lon­don is pres­i­dent of the Lon­don Cen­ter for Pol­icy Re­search.

Each year leg­is­la­tors sharpen their knives, con­sider key con­stituent needs and meet to pass a bud­get. This year isn’t very dif­fer­ent ex­cept that when the Repub­li­cans could not unify to re­place Oba­macare, un­ex­pected ques­tions about the party emerged.

The Democrats are united in op­po­si­tion and af­ter tast­ing Repub­li­can blood in the D.C. wa­ters are ve­he­mently op­posed to com­pro­mise. For the Repub­li­can lead­ers, the chal­lenge is keep­ing the Free­dom Cau­cus in tow. The party ap­pears to be riven by the schism be­tween prag­ma­tists and ide­al­ists.

Some Repub­li­cans con­tend they are wor­ried about re­peat­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of 2013 when the party drew most of the ire over a par­tial shut­down. How­ever, a Repub­li­can Congress shut­ting down a Repub­li­can gov­ern­ment would be the height of folly.

Pres­i­dent Trump has re­quested new fund­ing for the ex­ten­sion of the wall with Mexico. He also wants to boost mil­i­tary spend­ing to the tune of $54 bil­lion. It is un­likely he gets all that he wants. The ques­tion is does he get enough to de­clare vic­tory.

Apart from a need to pass the bud­get, Repub­li­cans have other big ticket items they seek to com­plete this year, in­clud­ing the tax code. This is no time to ap­pear tim­o­rous, but the Repub­li­cans should not be over­con­fi­dent ei­ther.

The bud­get will be the next big test on whether party unity can tran­scend the party’s di­vi­sions. Mr. Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan have to demon­strate they can main­tain party dis­ci­pline. The public jury awaits an an­swer.

One mat­ter is clear, the Trump agenda can­not be held hostage to the Free­dom Cau­cus. This is the time for Mr. Trump to as­sert, he is pres­i­dent and can­not be intimidated by a mi­nor­ity in the party. At the same time Mr. Trump will need con­sen­sus to in­crease the de­fense bud­get. The re­vi­sion of Oba­macare is a more for­mi­da­ble task than bud­get ap­proval. But it is no less im­por­tant. With the fail­ure to ad­dress Oba­macare, Mr. Trump can­not abide an­other loss. The sym­bol­ism alone, with a press corps out to nail him, would be dev­as­tat­ing.

Bud­get rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is al­ways a bruis­ing bat­tle. The Democrats may be less in­clined to work with Mr. Trump than usual. Nonethe­less, he should reach out to them in a man­ner that sug­gests rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Even if it doesn’t achieve an en­sem­ble — like leg­is­la­ture, it will have cre­ated an im­pres­sion of the pres­i­dent as healer.

A gov­ern­ment bud­get through its var­i­ous gives and takes is a ne­go­ti­a­tion. Rarely does a pres­i­dent get every­thing he wants and rarely does he end up with noth­ing. Since bud­gets set the stage for pol­icy, the pres­i­dent would ar­gue for bud­get items to the ex­clu­sion of oth­ers. Since 60 per­cent of the bud­get is de­ter­mined by Medi­care, Med­i­caid and So­cial Se­cu­rity (the so-called “Third Rail” in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics) there is rel­a­tively less flex­i­bil­ity than one might as­sume.

Then there are those past bud­get amend­ments brought about through hu­man in­ter­ven­tion such as war or nat­u­ral catas­tro­phes such as tor­na­does. In any given year the gov­ern­ment can count on the vi­cis­si­tudes of con­flict or nat­u­ral dis­as­ter to war­rant emer­gency fund­ing.

As a con­se­quence, the bud­get is mal­leable, less a func­tion of un­yield­ing science and more a func­tion of hu­man as­sess­ment.

How­ever, fraught with prob­lems this bud­get project raises, Mr. Trump should think of it as the next big chal­lenge he is obliged to con­front. He must dis­play a level of com­pe­tence in ad­dress­ing it and a level of un­com­mon hu­mil­ity in un­der­stand­ing the ar­cane process.

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