Politics & Policy

A Disappointing Budget Bill

(Reuters photo: Larry Downing)

Republicans control the White House and both branches of Congress, but you wouldn’t know it by the budget they are preparing to pass into law.

After avoiding a government shutdown last week, and with another shutdown looming on Friday, House and Senate leaders have hammered out a 1,700-page, $1 trillion omnibus spending bill to fund the government through the end of fiscal year 2017 (which falls on September 30). It is noteworthy for what it does not include: namely, most of Donald Trump’s and Republicans’ recent campaign promises. The bill does not defund Planned Parenthood. It does not include any of the president’s deep cuts to domestic agencies. Public broadcasting is funded at current levels. The National Endowment for the Arts’ budget is increased. There’s even funding for California’s high-speed rail.

So what did Republicans get? As has been widely reported, the bill does not fund the president’s border wall. Instead, it provides $1.5 billion for border-security improvements, such as new technology and repairs to existing infrastructure. Inasmuch as the border wall was oversold as a solution to illegal border crossings, that may be a decent trade, but there is no indication that these measures at the border will be accompanied by financing for more-aggressive interior enforcement. Indeed, the $1.5 billion cannot be used to hire additional Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Additionally, while increasing spending for border security, Republicans are once again backing an increase to the H-2B visa program, which issues visas to foreign workers for temporary non-agricultural service jobs. Republicans temporarily quadrupled the program in the December 2015 omnibus bill, apparently under the impression that ski lifts would go unmanned without help from Guatemalan workers. Now they are set to double the program’s cap for the remainder of the fiscal year, giving seasonal businesses new opportunities to undercut American workers.

That said, there is one significant victory. The president received $15 billion for the Pentagon, half of his desired defense-budget increase, as well as $10 billion for emergency defense spending through the overseas contingency fund — and these defense outlays were not tethered to an equal increase in non-defense discretionary spending. That was the precedent during the Obama years, and it’s good that it has been broken.

Nonetheless, these things aside, it’s hard to chalk the bill up as anything but a loss. Yes, there were limits to what Republicans could do: They need Democratic votes to push a spending bill over the finish line, and they would undoubtedly shoulder the blame for any shutdown — justifiably or not. Presumably, Republican leadership decided that, since they’ll be negotiating another budget in September, they should keep their powder dry for the time being.

But Republicans have a tendency to keep their powder dry indefinitely, and it’s hard to imagine a different outcome in future negotiations. After all, Republican voters supposedly elected a “fighter,” yet neither the president nor the Republican leadership seem to have fought for much of anything in this round.


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