LU contributor Rusty Weiss did a nice write-up this week on the hot-mic incident in which Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jack Reed (D-RI) were caught calling Trump crazy.
It would be no surprise to progressives and Never-Trumpers that a couple of lawmakers on Capitol Hill might call Trump crazy. His tweeting history would come to mind for all such partisans, as well as for less-engaged Americans who rarely hear about anything other than Trump’s tweeting (or the wildly insubstantial “Russia Thing”).
But this impressionist view of the matter is precisely what is wrong with our public dialogue, and the things we think we know. Were Collins and Reed in fact focused on Trump’s tweeting in their hot-mic moment? Only tangentially – and on Collins’ part. She did have this to say about Trump’s public comments on Special Counsel Robert Mueller:
He should not say anything further about the special counsel, his staff or the investigation. I know it’s hard, but he needs to step back and not comment.
That relates, if only by implication, to Trump’s tweeting.
The real “crazy”
But her primary beef with Trump, in the discussion with Reed, was about policy and procedure. The Hill has the relevant comments transcribed.
In a conversation with Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the Maine Republican said of the president’s budget proposal that “whenever there was a grant, they just X-ed it out, with no metric, no thinking about it, no nothing. I mean it’s just incredibly irresponsible.”
President Trump’s budget proposal eliminated a slew of grants that provided welfare and social service support, such as the Community Development Block Grant.
Reed responded to Collins by saying, of Trump: “He’s crazy.”
Collins can be heard quietly saying, “I’m worried.”
In another sequence, Collins and Reed lament that a defense budget for 2018 has not yet been agreed on.
“If we don’t get a budget deal, we’re going to be paralyzed with DOD,” Reed says, referring to the Department of Defense.
Without a new spending deal, the defense budget would top out at $549 billion for the next fiscal year because of the Budget Control Act (BCA), which imposed spending ceilings on agencies. That’s below current spending levels and more than $70 billion less than what has been approved by the House Budget Committee.
“I don’t even think he knows that there is a BCA,” Collins says, before the two continue talking about recent appearances Trump made at the USS Gerald R. Ford, in which he called on Congress to pass a budget.
The impressive thing here is that Collins and Reed literally can’t think outside their conventional box, and they therefore call Trump crazy, ignorant, and irresponsible for doing so.
Clearly, they have a policy difference with Trump, in that they think block grants should be sacrosanct. The practice of federal block grants should, in their view, have a life of its own, one that an individual administration can exercise no meaningful discretion over. Once a block grant, always a block grant. You may start federal spending programs, but you may never decide not to continue funding them.
Disagreeing on this point is a policy dispute. It is not evidence that either party to the dispute is crazy or irresponsible.
It is manifestly not crazy to propose defunding block grants, any more than it’s crazy, per se, to propose defunding any other line item in the federal budget, such as additional F-22s or Planned Parenthood. “What a senator is surprised by or uncomfortable with” is not the definition of “crazy.”
But Collins and Reed assume away any possibility of truly reforming the way the U.S. government does business, by labeling an effort at actual change “crazy” and “irresponsible.”
Meanwhile, they are just – I am sorry to have to say – ignorant about Trump, in their exchange on the defense budget. Of course Trump knows what the Budget Control Act is. For readers whose ears are not attuned to the formal names of laws, the BCA is the 2011 law behind the notorious “sequester,” which by capping the spending of federal departments has done a fair amount of damage to military readiness in the last five years.
Trump and his administration have been talking regularly about the BCA since taking office. Indeed, as people with memories beyond five minutes ago will recall, Trump spoke of ending defense-budget sequestration a number of times during the 2016 campaign.
Since the defense budget process for 2018 began, Republicans in Congress have expressed optimism about Trump’s budgetary approach as the means of breaking the BCA’s grip on defense spending – because the Trump budget is treated as a true policy document, rather than simply a perfunctory continuation of existing spending lines.
“I think we have a tremendous opportunity to do the right thing,” said [Rep. Mac Thornberry , R-TX]. “There’s more of the federal budget being looked at, in play if you will, than has been the case for many years.”
“Unlike previous years,” Thornberry explained, “you have a Congress and administration who are looking at the big budget picture”: repealing Obamacare, cutting Medicare, cutting Medicaid, reforming taxes (i.e. to raise revenue) — and, though the conservative Thornberry didn’t mention this option, increasing deficit spending. All these things intertwine because defense is a relatively small share of federal spending — only 14.7 percent, said Thornberry — so a small percentage cut to entitlements — or a small increase in taxes — could pay for a big percentage increase in defense.
Something Thornberry didn’t clarify is that the fell consequences of sequestration have become entrenched precisely because the Obama administration did not treat budgets as policy documents. The Obama administration didn’t want the budget process to be the venue it served as, throughout most of the life of the Republic, for highly public debate over our policy priorities.
That was a key reason why “budgeting” devolved into a series of continuing resolutions and occasional brinkmanship standoffs during the Obama years. Budget wasn’t about making policy, in the sense of the people’s representatives having visible, accountable primacy in the process.
Crafting the federal budget is supposed to be about making policy, according to the Constitution. What we spend money on is supposed to be the arena in which Congress exercises its biggest policy role. But the Obama administration preferred to make policy without all the noise and publicity that come with budget debates in Congress – and Congress rolled over for seeing its own role diminished.
A significant reason why that was acceptable to many in Congress, especially in the Senate, was that a frozen policy hierarchy – which is essentially what Obama achieved – makes a convenient smorgasbord of continuing leverage and influence for lawmakers. When nothing changes but the dollar figure each year, the lawmaker is guaranteed to retain his or her tools for constituency-tending (and lobbyist-attracting).
Collins and Reed think Trump is crazy, not because he doesn’t know that, but because he’s trying to change it.
How Trump could help the people
Now, could the Trump administration have done a better job of laying out for the people the case I’ve just made? Yes, I think it could have. The problem of hostile media is a real one, and the administration will always have trouble getting its message out in its own words. But I haven’t seen a real attempt to sell the reasoning for Trump’s budget approach to the people.
That’s what Reagan was so good at, and I’d like to see more of it from the Trump administration. Trump himself could achieve a lot by tweeting out key policy explanations, in easily digestible language.
Back in the 1980s, before the media rewrote the history on this, millions of Americans could succinctly state what Reagan’s goal was with cutting tax rates: to boost economic activity so that the lower rates would actually yield higher tax revenues (the purpose of which was to be addressing the national debt. That part, for multiple reasons, didn’t work out so well. But the much higher tax revenues did ensue).
Reagan was a fan of Arthur Laffer, whose famous “Laffer curve” predicted this outcome from lowering tax rates. Even Reagan’s critics at the time were unable to prevent the people from grasping this simple concept. The critics insisted it wouldn’t work – but they had to argue the point on Reagan’s terms.
Of course, in the years since, memory has faded, the media have doctored the story, and even such careful scholars as Victor Davis Hanson have come to routinely misstate Reagan’s tax policy as an attempt to “starve the [government] beast.”
But at the time, Reagan got his message through to the people, using the famous communication skills that the media never found a way to override.
Trump has a similarly effective set of communication skills. I wouldn’t presume to tell him what he must not tweet about – none of us out here can see the problems of government from the perspective of an Oval Office beset by an unprecedented array of enemies – but I would suggest what he ought to tweet about.
Belt out some policy bites. Don’t just state what the goal is, but state in those 140-character nibbles how the method of pursuit is designed to get us to the goal.
The American people are the shareholders in the Trump administration. Explain to us what you’d explain to shareholders: how your plans will bring about what the Trump voters think they’ve invested in.
Do that especially when clarifying the strategy is a good, basic, resonant lesson in the philosophy of American government. Not many folks will take the time to parse meaning out of Mac Thornberry’s comments reported by Breaking Defense. A lot of people’s eyes may glaze over when the usual pundits talk to them about how Trump wants to reform government processes. But they’ll hear, and their eyes won’t glaze over, if the word comes from Trump.