The split control of Congress resulting from the 2018 midterm elections is not going to lead to a grand bargain on the budget over the next two years that reduces the federal deficit.
Quite to the contrary, the election results mean that the federal budget will be even more of a hyperpartisan issue than it has been during this Congress and that the deficit is going to increase.
The split control will make it easier for Republicans and Democrats to blame each other for the fiscal sins of the past, the spiking deficits of the future and all of the shutdowns and debt ceiling cliffhangers that will be happening day-to-day.
The Democratic majority will give President Donald Trump an even better political foil than he’s had the past two years if (but more likely when) he doesn’t get what he wants. Instead of just blaming Congress, he’ll be able to criticize the Democrat-controlled House for thwarting his agenda. Even if it’s not true, as far as Trump is concerned, everything from a higher deficit to no wall to no military parade to no space force will be the Democrats’ fault.
The budget bottom line is simple: Senate Republicans will have a very different fiscal agenda than House Democrats, and both houses’ tax and spending to-do lists will be at odds with Trump’s plans. Unless there’s a severe economic crisis that requires a fiscal policy response and allows representatives and senators to abandon their established positions, it’s hard to imagine the three sides being able to agree on much of anything over the next two years on the budget.
Here are my top seven federal budget implications of the 2018 election.
1. Lame Duck Madness. The best chance Republicans now have to do away with the Affordable Care Act and to enact another tax cut will be during the lame duck session of Congress that will begin next week. To do that, however, they first will have to adopt a budget resolution that includes reconciliation instructions to repeal ACA and cut taxes…and the budget resolution and reconciliation bill will have to be adopted before the next Congress begins on January 3. Not including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, that’s only about six weeks to get work done that would normally take three months or more to do. And that doesn’t even include the seven appropriations bills that still have to be enacted by December 7.
2. Trillion-dollar (and rising) Deficits. There will be much talk and lots of finger-pointing but little-to-no action over the next two years on reducing the deficit. It wasn’t going to happen if Republicans retained control of both houses of Congress anyway, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the spending cuts and tax increases acceptable to the GOP will be even remotely acceptable to Democrats.
Unless Wall Street demands changes (the long-expected return of the bond market vigilantes), all of the things most likely to be enacted — think infrastructure — will increase rather than decrease the federal government’s red ink. That means that the latest projections from the Treasury/Office of Management and Budget and Congressional Budget Office showing a more than $1 trillion deficit in fiscal 2019 and 2020 now must be considered minimums.
3. Debt Ceiling Cliffhangers. The current suspension of the federal debt ceiling that expires March 1 will provide yet another opportunity for Trump, Senate Republicans and/or House Democrats to withhold their signature or votes unless they get something they want or to stop something they hate.
The assumption that the Treasury will use the same “extraordinary measures” that have been used in the past to delay the day of reckoning on the debt ceiling may be wrong this time if Trump feels the need to create a crisis that will give him leverage over House Democrats. Even if he ultimately wusses out again and the extraordinary measures are implemented, expect Trump to pound his chest and create uncertainty in financial markets about the debt ceiling in the weeks leading up to the deadline.
Also expect Trump to consider only increasing or suspending the debt ceiling for a short time so he can pound his chest more than once before the 2020 election.
4. Multiple Shutdown Showdowns. The House Democratic majority means that there will now be three players in every appropriations fight and that will tremendously complicate what was difficult negotiations without them.
The negotiations will be even worse if (1) Trump uses them as reelection campaign events and (2) House Democrats and Senate Republicans see a clear possibility that, no matter whether it’s a spending increase or decrease, the other side will be blamed.
It’s hard not to see anything but a continual series of threatened shutdowns under these circumstances. Even if Senate Republicans and House Democrats mutually agree to provide the spending increases the other wants, there will be no guarantee that Trump will go along or that he will sign a bill without demanding his own pound of appropriations flesh.
5. Two Years Without A Congressional Budget Resolution. Voting for budget resolutions has only been barely politically acceptable for most representatives and senators in recent years because it enabled reconciliation to be used and, therefore, a filibuster to be avoided in the Senate. That’s how the Affordable Care Act and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act were both put in place even though the Democrats and Republicans, respectively, didn’t have 60 votes.
But with Democrats in control the House and Republicans in control of the Senate, there will be few changes to mandatory programs and taxes that will be acceptable to both houses…so there will be no need for reconciliation. That will make the political pain of voting for a budget resolution and its projected trillion-dollar deficits completely unnecessary.
(For those who think reconciliation will be needed for a middle class tax cut of some kind…First, see #1: It might be done during the lame duck. Second, if there isn’t enough Democratic support in the Senate for what the GOP wants and, therefore, to prevent a filibuster, House Democrats won’t agree to a budget resolution that allows reconciliation to be used.)
6. Lots Of Deficit-Increasing Legislation. If they agree on anything, Senate Republicans and House Democrats will demand equal spending increases or revenue decreases for their pet programs. Trump will then want equal treatment for his priorities. An even higher than currently projected deficit (see #2) will be the result.
7. The Next Trump Budget Will Be Totally Meaningless. Trump’s first two budgets were little more than political campaign brochures masquerading as official government documents.
Trump’s next budget will be even more political. With little likelihood that anything he proposes will be taken seriously by the split Congress and with the president’s own reelection well underway by next February, the Trump 2020 budget will be even less of a serious fiscal plan that won’t be taken seriously on Capitol Hill and won’t last long enough to be a major discussion topic on that weekend’s political talk shows.