Trump’s Budget and the Fiscal Crisis of the State: Something’s Gotta Give

The Washington Post has a good article this morning on the response on Capitol Hill to Trump’s budget.

The big news is that the biggest opposition to Trump’s budget is coming from—it’s almost getting predictable, at this point—not the Democrats but the Republicans.

Some of President Trump’s best friends in Congress sharply criticized his first budget Thursday, with defense hawks saying the proposed hike in Pentagon spending wasn’t big enough, while rural conservatives and others attacked plans to cut a wide range of federal agencies and programs.

The bad mood among Republican critics was tempered by a consensus that the president’s budget wasn’t going very far on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers reminded everybody that they ultimately control the nation’s purse strings.

“While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the president’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive,” Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. “We will certainly review this budget proposal, but Congress ultimately has the power of the purse.”

No president ever gets everything he wants on the budget, but this is Trump’s first year in office, the moment when he should be getting maximal cooperation. We’re now past the 50-day mark of Trump’s First 100 Days, and he has yet to win a single major victory. That doesn’t put him in the best negotiating position when it comes to dealing with Congress. Certainly not with the opposition, and increasingly, it seems, not with his party either.

What’s doubly interesting here is that the opposition from his party is as incoherent and divided as Trump himself.

One part of the party thinks Trump’s budget doesn’t go far enough; John McCain thinks that Trump’s increases in military spending aren’t nearly as big as they should be. Another part thinks Trump’s budget goes too far—either on increasing defense or decreasing spending on social programs and elsewhere. Another part doesn’t like the way Trump is going after their district-level pork. And there’s a last part—this one shocked me—that thinks that, when it comes to foreign policy, Trump’s budget pushes too hard on the military front, not hard enough on the diplomatic front.

Several Republicans also said they were wary of the deep cuts Trump proposed for foreign aid.

“As General [Jim] Mattis said prophetically, slashing the diplomatic efforts will cause them to have to buy more ammunition,” Rogers said, referring to the defense secretary. “There is two sides to fighting the problem that we’re in: There is military and then there’s diplomatic. And we can’t afford to dismantle the diplomatic half of that equation.”

That particular argument is almost an exact replay of the fight over Reagan’s budgets, only this time, it’s not Democrats saying the Republican president is leaning too much on hard power; it’s Republicans.

Three takeaways:

First, as I’ve said many times now, despite their reputation for party unity and discipline, the congressional Republicans are all over the map. We saw this in the fight to unseat John Boehner and Eric Cantor, and it was only their opposition to a second term for Obama that allowed them to paper over the fissures. Now those fissures are out in the open.

Second, the room for maneuver on Republican fiscal policy is rapidly narrowing. The Republicans, including Trump, want major tax cuts. Some part of the party, including Trump, also wants major increases in defense spending. Trump has said you can’t touch Social Security and Medicare, and even though hardliners in the party claim they want to privatize or eliminate these two programs, when the Republicans had their chance under George W. Bush to do it, they balked. And behind all that are the Obama-era agreements on spending and sequesters as well as these rules about pay-as-you-go—as well as another looming debt ceiling crisis—that stipulate that an increase in one area needs to be balanced by a decrease somewhere else or a tax increase. It’s really not clear where the GOP can go; they’re boxed in and they’ve boxed themselves in. Something’s gotta give.

Last, in the LRB six years ago, I argued that fiscal crises of the state, historically, have been auspicious moments for the left (think the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution). That began to change in the 1970s, when the radical right and the neoliberal center used related-type crises to push either austerity or supply-side economics, programs and policies we’ve been living with ever since. But given where things are now going—where the right, which has been in the driver’s seat on economic policy since the 1970s, finds it way forward increasingly blocked—it could be that we’ll find ourselves, in the coming years, in a fiscal crisis of the more familiar sort.

Not exactly a fiscal crisis like those that marked the modern era, when the monarchy literally began running out of money to pay for wars and other forms of state-building and was forced to summon a more democratic formation in order to raise money. After all, the deficit right now is not especially high, and there seems to be no sign that the American state couldn’t continue borrowing. Most of the constraints today are politically self-imposed, but in a way that’s the point: these politically self-imposed constraints seem like they are increasingly hamstringing movement on a range of fronts, and it could be that those hamstrings are at a breaking point.

An intelligent and properly aligned progressive opposition could use this moment to drive home the point that we do not find ourselves in this cul-de-sac just because of Trump or the GOP’s incompetence but because of a half-century of misalignment and misplaced priorities; the right and the neoliberal center have brought us to this impasse. An intelligent and properly aligned progressive opposition could use this moment as an opportunity to smash through the self-imposed constraints that both parties have placed on the imagination and on policy. An intelligent and properly aligned progressive opposition could use this moment the way its forbears did: as a moment to call forth a new political formation of the left.

It’s possible—if the left can get its act together.


  1. mark March 17, 2017 at 10:07 am | #

    “It’s really not clear where the GOP can go; they’re boxed in and they’ve boxed themselves in.”

    This is a grand form (les grand form?) at the national level of Ted Honderich’s “Conservative Property Freedom”, that artificial aggregating together of freedoms to a small number of people at the top to restrict the freedoms of the majority.

    If your Carter parallel holds, Republicans will continue to address each other, in a line attributed to Henry Fielding, as “quarrelling with such a fellow is like shitting on a turd.”

  2. benjoya March 17, 2017 at 10:54 am | #

    We will never be secure until we’ve increased our military budget to match the size of the next three — no, make it five — largest militaries in the world. wait a minute…

    • ErrW March 18, 2017 at 1:06 pm | #

      Wait, wait! Bigger than the USA! Really, really, Yuuuuggggee!

  3. zenner41 March 17, 2017 at 11:03 am | #

    I would strongly emphasize your point at the end, that the left should not just rail on and on about Trump and GOP foolishness. Those are easy points to make, and too much of the left takes the view that to be more politically successful it needs to confine itself to the easy arguments that many people supposedly will readily accept. We need to dig a lot deeper into the capitalist system and show people why fundamental changes need to be made.

  4. Jonnybutter March 17, 2017 at 11:22 am | #

    “It’s possible—if the left can get its act together.”

    Lots of ppl need to realize they are on the left

    • D March 20, 2017 at 7:33 pm | #

      And that the Democratic Party is not the left.

      • jonnybutter March 21, 2017 at 1:57 pm | #

        yes, that is a big important insight to have too.

  5. Robert Daniels March 17, 2017 at 12:00 pm | #

    The American left couldn’t get laid in a whorehouse.

    • John k March 20, 2017 at 12:59 pm | #

      Now that’s just sad.
      Wait… Bernie could! But would he want to? Aye, there’s the rub.

  6. Bruce Wilder March 18, 2017 at 2:44 pm | #

    “An intelligent and properly aligned progressive opposition . . .”

    If you find one lying around, could you ship it to the U.S.?

    The continued absence of a left — social democratic or American liberal — is a feature of many Western polities. When neoliberalism collapsed on the left, it seemed to take out the left entirely.

  7. Michael Licitra March 18, 2017 at 4:40 pm | #

    Trump is president only because the Democratic Party is so bad. Back in the 80s, journalist Murray Kempton wrote that “Politics is like professional wrestling: Everybody is paid by the same people; the passion is phoney; and the outcomes are all rigged in advance”. I actually think politics is more like “Good Cop – Bad Cop”;. Both cops are working for the same result. It is just a head game to fool the perp. The Democrats are just the Good Cops.

    How bad did the Democrats have to have been to lose to Trump? It wasn’t just Clinton; the Democrats lost as a team. It was all of them. Every man, woman, child, and dog knew that the 2016 election was about “Change”. Except the Democrats. Hillary kept saying how they were not going to change a thing. Their only issue was that they were not Trump. There is an old saying in politics that you can’t beat something with nothing.

    The Democratic Party offers Nothing. The result of their strategy is that they are at the lowest point in their history. And they do not understand that, even now!

    How bad did the Democrats have to have been not to get a special prosecutor to investigate Trump’s apparent treason? Can you imagine the same outcome if the parties were reversed?

    These supposed fights are rigged. The Democrats hit the canvas before a single punch is thrown. They never fight for anything. They only just pretend to. They are bribe maximizers. They get into office saying one thing. Then, every day, all of them do the 180 degree opposite.

    The only possible answers are: a) Primary most Democratic office holders; or b) Start a new political party. Maybe we can call it The 99% Party. 99% of the public would benefit.

  8. Sam March 20, 2017 at 8:25 am | #

    A monetarily sovereign govt does not need to borrow to fund itself. There is no fiscal crisis at the national level, except we don’t spend enough.

    • jonnybutter March 21, 2017 at 11:08 am | #

      What Sam said! Especially when you are a very big rich country and even more especially when your currency is the reserve currency for much of the world and even more specially especially when there are effectively negative interest rates.

      This idea that the US Gov is ‘broke’ or strapped for money is perhaps the most destructive lie our politics is distorted and burdened by. Liberals believe it (like BO, who – like an idiot – dutifully endeavored to ‘pay down debt’ year after year) and some leftists believe it too. It is absurd.

      Of course if the Casino Bankrupter has his way, the US field of action will probably narrow.

  9. max March 20, 2017 at 3:42 pm | #

    Most of the constraints today are politically self-imposed, but in a way that’s the point: these politically self-imposed constraints seem like they are increasingly hamstringing movement on a range of fronts, and it could be that those hamstrings are at a breaking point.

    The point from the conservative/Chamber of Commerce economic point of view is that they should be trying to induce a fiscal crisis (using massive tax cuts) to force the state to implode in size. This keeps foundering on the rocks of Republican opposition to massive cuts, which is why they try and make the Dem’s do it for them. They need to keep getting reelected to keep pushing a crisis.

    We’re nowhere near a fiscal crisis and haven’t been in a long long time. Reason being that it turns out that a suicide mission to induce a fiscal crisis is not palatable to Republican politicians. They want someone else to do it for them. The closest they came was the debt ceiling battle of 2011. But again, R politicians balked because inducing that kind of crisis would destroy their personal wealth.

    Getting the idea though the head of the collective polity that there is no fiscal crisis and we’re no where near one, and further, that we could just tax the rich to fix a lot of it is the road to the fix.

    [‘Capitalism is great at generating lots of zeros and sucks at redistribution. The politicians of the Left tend to chicken out though because they come from the same class as the rich guys.’]

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