Each year legislators sharpen their knives, consider key constituent needs and meet to pass a budget. This year isn’t very different except that when the Republicans could not unify to replace Obamacare, unexpected questions about the party emerged.
The Democrats are united in opposition and after tasting Republican blood in the D.C. waters are vehemently opposed to compromise. For the Republican leaders, the challenge is keeping the Freedom Caucus in tow. The party appears to be riven by the schism between pragmatists and idealists.
Some Republicans contend they are worried about repeating the experience of 2013 when the party drew most of the ire over a partial shutdown. However, a Republican Congress shutting down a Republican government would be the height of folly.
President Trump has requested new funding for the extension of the wall with Mexico. He also wants to boost military spending to the tune of $54 billion. It is unlikely he gets all that he wants. The question is does he get enough to declare victory.
Apart from a need to pass the budget, Republicans have other big ticket items they seek to complete this year, including the tax code. This is no time to appear timorous, but the Republicans should not be overconfident either.
The budget will be the next big test on whether party unity can transcend the party’s divisions. Mr. Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan have to demonstrate they can maintain party discipline. The public jury awaits an answer.
One matter is clear, the Trump agenda cannot be held hostage to the Freedom Caucus. This is the time for Mr. Trump to assert, he is president and cannot be intimidated by a minority in the party. At the same time Mr. Trump will need consensus to increase the defense budget. The revision of Obamacare is a more formidable task than budget approval. But it is no less important. With the failure to address Obamacare, Mr. Trump cannot abide another loss. The symbolism alone, with a press corps out to nail him, would be devastating.
Budget reconciliation is always a bruising battle. The Democrats may be less inclined to work with Mr. Trump than usual. Nonetheless, he should reach out to them in a manner that suggests reconciliation. Even if it doesn’t achieve an ensemble — like legislature, it will have created an impression of the president as healer.
A government budget through its various gives and takes is a negotiation. Rarely does a president get everything he wants and rarely does he end up with nothing. Since budgets set the stage for policy, the president would argue for budget items to the exclusion of others. Since 60 percent of the budget is determined by Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security (the so-called “Third Rail” in American politics) there is relatively less flexibility than one might assume.
Then there are those past budget amendments brought about through human intervention such as war or natural catastrophes such as tornadoes. In any given year the government can count on the vicissitudes of conflict or natural disaster to warrant emergency funding. As a consequence, the budget is malleable, less a function of unyielding science and more a function of human assessment.
However, fraught with problems this budget project raises, Mr. Trump should think of it as the next big challenge he is obliged to confront. He must display a level of competence in addressing it and a level of uncommon humility in understanding the arcane process.
• Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.