Congress finally proved this week it could legislate in a bipartisan way, but only at the price of swelling the national debt.
The flood of additional red ink, at a time of near-full employment, makes no sense to economists, but eased the politics for both sides.
Passage of the spending measure, which President Trump quickly signed, achieves a big goal for the White House — higher military spending. That could provide a welcome change of topic from a spouse-abuse scandal that has cost Trump a key aide and could yet threaten his chief of staff, John Kelly.
I’m David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.
THE BUDGET BUSTER
The spending measure that the Senate and House both passed in the wee hours of Friday morning put an end to a six-year experiment in budget straitjacketing that leaders of both parties hated, but that had helped shrink the deficit steadily through President Obama’s second term.
[Want to know what’s in the bill? Here’s a summary, including some special-interest tax measures that came along for the ride.]
The budget rules, the so-called sequester, grew out of the agreement that ended a standoff over the federal debt in the summer of 2011. Then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), prodded by conservatives in his caucus, insisted that the House would agree to increase the debt limit only if Obama and the Senate agreed to an equivalent cut in federal spending.
After long, unsuccessful negotiations and a standoff that nearly resulted in a default on the debt, the two sides agreed that if they couldn’t come up with anything better by the end of the year, automatic spending cuts and caps on defense and domestic programs would go into effect.
Neither side wanted the automatic cuts, or sequesters — they were intended to frighten both parties into a spending compromise. But compromise proved scarier.
So for several years, spending for most federal agencies has been subject to a slushy sort of semi-freeze. And each year, the chorus of protest has grown louder.
The most powerful objections came from the military.
“As hard as the last 16 years of war have been, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act’s defense spending caps,” Defense Secretary James Mattis recently told Congress, referring to the law that imposed the sequesters.
Getting out from under the defense sequester has been a driving issue for military hawks, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, all year. Democratic leaders said they would go along, but only if the Republicans agreed to provide more money to certain domestic programs, as well.
Democrats initially insisted on equal increases for both sides. In the end, they bowed to the reality of GOP control of the House and Senate and agreed to just over $80 billion a year in defense increases in the two-year bill and about $65 billion a year for domestic programs, focused on children’s health and public-health programs, medical research, veterans hospitals and money to repair roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
IMMIGRATION UP NEXT
Democrats also gave up their quest to hold the money bill hostage to gain agreement on a bill to protect the young immigrants known as Dreamers.
In the Senate, they did so after winning agreement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for a full debate and open vote on an immigration bill. That debate will begin next week.
In the House, however, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has not made a similar promise, despite a dramatic eight-hour, seven-minute speech by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) on Thursday.
The most Ryan has been willing to say is that the House will take up immigration as the “next big priority.” But he’s not committed himself on what sort of bill he’ll bring to the floor and what amendments might be allowed.
Advocates for the Dreamers, immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, hope that if they can muster a strong Senate vote on a bipartisan compromise, that will put pressure on the House and Trump to go along. We’ll find out soon.
In theory, the existing protections that allow Dreamers to live and work in the U.S. legally begin expiring on March 5. In practice, however, a court order has directed the administration to keep the program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), in operation. That court order will be in effect for an indefinite period, depending on action from the Supreme Court.
‘PERMANENT ERA OF TRILLION-DOLLAR DEFICITS’
Back during the George W. Bush administration, as federal spending rose, small-government conservatives angrily protested that neither party was truly committed to fiscal discipline.
Then, during the Obama years, Republicans made a great show of protesting the deficit increases that Democrats said were needed to stimulate the economy during the Great Recession.
In Obama’s second term, the deficit dropped rapidly as the economy started to recover.
Now, conservatives are finding out, yet again, that many Republicans only really object to red ink when a Democrat is president.
As Don Lee wrote, the new spending bill is expected to add $300 billion to $400 billion to the deficit. That’s on top of the tax cut, which already was going to increase the deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next decade.
By next year, the government may need to borrow $1 trillion or more, and there’s no decline in sight.
“This deal shows we’re in a permanent era of trillion-dollar deficits,” Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan advocacy group, told Lee.
Liberal economists argue that big deficits can be helpful during recessions, as in Obama’s first term. But no one has a policy rationale for huge deficits at a time when unemployment is at historic lows. The forecast is for inflation, which the Federal Reserve will tackle with tighter money.
“Interest rates are heading higher,” said economist Mark Zandi. “I’d buckle in.”
CHIEF OF STAFF KELLY UNDER SIEGE
When Trump brought John Kelly on board as chief of staff, the former Marine general was expected to bring some order and calm to a chaotic White House.
As Noah Bierman and Brian Bennett wrote, his image of calm and good judgment has rapidly melted away.
The latest crisis — and perhaps the most damaging — involves a top White House aide, Rob Porter, who resigned after news broke that he had allegedly abused two ex-wives.
Kelly initially stood by Porter, backing away only after a photo became public showing one of the women with a black eye that she said Porter had inflicted.
The chief of staff is now caught in a scandal that centers on the classic Washington question: “What did he know, and when did he know it?”
The FBI has been investigating the allegations of spousal abuse for a year because they came up during the background check needed for his security clearance. He had been doing his job, which requires daily handling of highly classified documents, with a temporary clearance.
Kelly, White House counsel Don McGahn, and at least some other top officials knew of the issue before it became public — in some cases months earlier — and took no action.
One White House official who did become involved was Hope Hicks, the communications director. She helped draft an initial statement defending Porter, officials said. She’s also been dating him.
“I think it’s fair to say we all could have done better,” Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah told reporters Thursday.
MEMO WARS — EPISODE 2, THE DEMOCRATS STRIKE BACK
First there was the Nunes memo, named for its author, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), which argued that the FBI and Justice Department had acted improperly in getting a classified warrant to conduct surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump foreign policy advisor who has long-standing ties to some Russians.
House Republicans voted to release that memo to the public, despite concerns about releasing classified information, and Trump agreed. But it fell flat, failing to provide clear evidence of impropriety.
Democrats have their own memo, rebutting Nunes, and Trump has until Saturday to decide whether to allow it to be made public. As Chris Megerian wrote, the dueling memos are just part of a continuing war to shape public opinion about the investigation being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
For privacy advocates, Nunes’ criticism of the FBI has caused mental whiplash, Evan Halper wrote. They’ve long argued that the country needs a full, open debate about government surveillance. Now there is one, but it’s thoroughly muddied by partisan politics, and the lead critics of the FBI are conservatives like Nunes who normally support surveillance.
On the right — and perhaps in the Oval Office -- some hoped the Nunes memo would provide justification for Trump to fire Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and supervises him.
The memo doesn’t seem to have helped much, but some conservative groups are still pursuing the cause and directing rage with advertisements aimed at Rosenstein and other veteran employees at the FBI and Justice, Joe Tanfani wrote.
TRUMP QUIET ON STOCKS, VOLUBLE ON ‘TREASON’
The president bragged often about the “Trump bump” in stocks as the market rose, complaining that he wasn’t getting the credit he thought he deserved. He’s been silent as markets dropped, Bierman wrote.
But he’s been unrestrained on another topic—Democrats not applauding for his State of the Union speech, which he found insulting.
“Someone said ‘treasonous.’ I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not?” he declared during a speech in Cincinnati this week.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq war veteran who lost her legs when the helicopter she was piloting came under fire, was having none of that.
“We don’t live in a dictatorship or a monarchy,” she tweeted. “I swore an oath — in the military and in the Senate — to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not to mindlessly cater to the whims of Cadet Bone Spurs and clap when he demands I clap.”
UNIONS BRACE FOR A BIG LOSS
As David Savage wrote, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority appears set to strike down public-sector union fees on free-speech grounds. The decision, in a case that will be argued before the court later this month, would be a huge blow to unions for public employees.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS
Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look.
That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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