This past week Congress passed and the President signed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill. The 2,232-page bill avoids a government shutdown that would have otherwise happened this past weekend and will keep the government open till at least September.
The omnibus bill, H.R. 1625, did not pass without great controversy however. Many on both the left and right derided how the bill increased federal spending and will add over a trillion dollars to the federal debt through running its course.
The most notable provisions from the bill were an increase in military spending, $1.5 billion for President Trump’s border wall, and funding to better prevent gun violence through fixes to background checks and increased training.
Despite January’s government shutdown being caused over brinkmanship negotiation positions over creating a permanent solution to DACA, the bill did not address a solution for recipients in anyway. Both Republicans and Democrats took to blaming each other over the lack of a solution, as legislative circling has kept this issue from being properly addressed.
In the Senate, 25 Republicans and 40 Democrats voted for the bill compared to 23 Republicans and 9 Democrats that voted against it. In the House, 145 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted for the bill compared to 90 Republicans and 77 Democrats against.
In an ironic way, the omnibus was a bipartisan bill in a hyperpolarized Washington. The lead up to the eventual package was marred by immense fighting over every issue from sanctuary cities to Planned Parenthood, from full funding for the border wall to a federal support of the “Gateway” commuter rail tunnel being built to connect New York and New Jersey.
Procedural concerns were also vast, as many complained of the short timeline between the bill’s release and its vote, as well as its deficit impact.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who personally created a one-night government shutdown back in early February, took to Twitter and deridingly said “Victory for conservatives today is that all of America now knows what a budget-busting bomb this bill is. Hopefully, today’s battle will embolden conservatives to descend on Congress and demand Constitutional government."
Senator Paul’s sentiments were shared by many Republicans who voted against the bill, as well as grassroots activists, citing its fiscal irresponsibility and lack of any contribution towards reducing our country’s spending deficit let alone overall debt.
The deficit question always comes up every so often in debates over spending on the Hill but rarely has it ever been enacted on in a serious way. There are a multitude of reasons for this, beginning with the fact that no individual members of Congress have a clear incentive to look after the “forest.” Rather, members of Congress all have their various issue priorities and objectives they hope to get into the bill and for which they can claim success for.
Secondly is the still low economic impact of the debt as of the moment, even if the future is worrisome if we stay our current course. Currently the national debt stands at roughly $21.05 trillion or 105% of GDP. We still are a far ways away from Japan’s infamous and economy-crushing national debt, which stands at 238% gross of GDP.
Nonetheless, according to the CIA Factbook our country remains in the top twenty nations worldwide consistently for the level of our public debt compared to our economic production. In comparison, the gross debt-to-GDP ratio of the United Kingdom is 84.9%, Germany is 81.9%, Brazil is 71.2%, China is 65.7%, India is 41.1%, and Russia is 10.9%.
It is also worth noting that our national debt has been increasingly rapidly in not just recent decades but recent years relative to our nation’s overall economy. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, our debt-to-GDP ratio stood at a mere 62%. In 1980, it was a mere 31%.
Undoubtedly our current fiscal practices will eventually need remedying, as our country’s strong economic engine cannot keep pace spending on a limitless credit card that is only consequence-free for so long.
However, as the recent omnibus battle showed, in a Washington that is facing extreme tension over a variety of controversial policy debates it is difficult enough to even keep the government open let alone address longer-term priorities. Once our country has gotten itself out of the current paralyzed situation it is in, we may hopefully begin to finally do so.
Last week Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District went from voting for then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 by roughly 20 points to, at the moment barring a recount, voting for a Democrat by just under three tenths of a percent.
As with each special election since the beginning of President Trump’s term, the pundits and strategists have been putting their spin on it to try to somehow line it up with the agenda they are seeking to push, no matter the results.
What are clear however are the facts. Democrat Conor Lamb, a Marine officer and Ivy-League educated former prosecutor, ran as essentially a conservative Republican according to the RNC and others. He was pro-life, pro-firearms, and “anti-Nancy Pelosi.”
In contrast, Pennsylvania State Representative Rick Saccone ran under the message that he “was Trump before Trump was Trump.” While seemingly a smart strategy in a district that seemingly was so heavily for Trump in 2016, the fact that it didn’t work out is indeed noteworthy.
Pennsylvania’s 18th District, at least until the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s ordered redistricting takes place in just a few months for this November, is a mix of both “Trump Country” and traditional “Republican” strongholds. Located largely on the Alleghany Plateau, it is a mix of Pittsburgh suburbs and rust belt former industrial centers.
The Cook Political Index rated the district as R+11 in 2017, which, given Trump’s margin of victory in the district, represents well how Trump swung the remaining “Reagan Democrats” to his cause to surprisingly win states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin back in November 2016. Trump outperformed Mitt Romney’s 17-point win in 2012 as well as Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) 11-point win in 2008.
The fact that now, almost a year and a half later, the district went blue may speak less about national trends but more about how some districts still have voters that are up for grabs.
In our current hyperpolarized time, many political strategists and operatives will suggest, often rightly, that the key to winning in the general election is to drive out the base. This is instead of trying to swing what is believed to be an increasingly non-existent middle of swing voters.
However in the case of PA-18, those swing voters actually existed and were swung. While Saccone did not have any major “push” factors himself as a candidate, Lamb’s campaign and his own background undoubtedly was a strong “pull” throwback to a moderate Democrat message that has been lacking in the national discourse in recent years.
It remains to be seen whether Lamb will join Alabama’s new Senator Doug Jones in what seems to be a small rebuilding of the Democrats’ moderate wings that were decimated in the 2010 Tea Party wave, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched whether from evaluating Lamb personally or his likely political calculus.
Nowadays pundits and strategists have become very accustomed to districts and voters behaving like they’ve always done in the past. Indeed that expectation often proves true – until it doesn’t, as in both 2016 and since.
The special elections this past year have seen point swings in some districts that remind us of the reality that voters are not stern partisans that cannot be swayed, whether in choosing to come out to vote or in the candidate they choose to vote for.
Current our country sees candidates often play to the bases of their parties, believing that is an effective way to both nullify primary challenges and win the general election. While that trend is in some ways both a reflection of as well as fuel for the fires of polarization, elections such as PA-18 show that the political calculus doesn’t always reward such a strategy.
Elected officials are creatures of opinion and habit, and as they see they can win by appealing to a broad and unified middle we will undoubtedly see them move in that direction. While this will not necessarily iron out real differences in policy belief that do and always will exist, nonetheless it is a realistic step towards simmering down our currently overheated politics at least a bit.
Last week President Trump officially implemented his long-expected steel and aluminum tariffs this week to a mix of praise and outrage that quickly broke party lines and that retrieved the word “mercantilism” from the history books to the national headlines.
The tariffs will implement a broad-based 25% tax on imported steel and 10% on imported aluminum. There will be an initial exception for Canada and Mexico, but Trump has said that exception may be removed if they don’t renegotiate trade deals like NAFTA to be in his opinion fairer to the United States.
Speaker Paul Ryan and a host of other Republican and Democratic leaders criticized the tariffs for overreaching in how they might hurt the many millions of steel and aluminum-reliant jobs, as well as the broader U.S. economy. In contrast, many Republicans and Democrats in rust-belt states essential to Trump’s 2016 victory applauded the move.
Economically, history has proven beyond a doubt these tariffs will raise prices here in the U.S., damage millions of jobs, and perhaps initiate extremely damaging trade wars with both rivals and allies that could unleash further untold havoc.
Whether when President George W. Bush implemented his own steel tariffs in 2002 to disaster and quick repeal or the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff having possibly deepened the Great Depression, the economic damage from tariffs has nearly always proved far greater than the hoped-for gains.
Due to these tariffs prices for countless goods that utilize steel and aluminum will go up, ranging from cars to construction to even canned consumables, leaving American consumers of all backgrounds with a bigger bill on everything from luxury products to basic necessities.
Yet the administration’s announcements indicate there may be another motive rather just supporting certain domestic industries for economic and jobs purposes. After all, unemployment remains at a 17-year low of 4.1%.
A major U.S. Commerce Department investigation and report last month that was the preliminary premise for the White House’s official tariff policy recommended the tariffs due to national security reasons, believing that a vibrant domestic metals production industry was needed in case future geopolitical events disrupted imports.
When Trump announced his tariff policy a few weeks later, he reinforced this nationalist-mercantile view by saying that metals production was needed or we "almost don’t have much of a country.”
That argument is undoubtedly worth pondering at least, as not only were there to be outright geopolitical conflict would our self-sufficiency be a concern but it may even be a factor in terms of leverage in negotiations and disputes.
The Commerce Department report shows that domestic steel production has declined in 2017 to roughly 72% of U.S. demand, which remains a significant sum, with the rest being from imports.
While the national security concerns remain complex, it seems that U.S. steel production remains still relatively quite strong. Essentially the tariff would act as an extremely expensive insurance policy on the American people for a particular set of geopolitical concerns that may never materialize.
The other possibility is that the tariff is a heavy-handed negotiating tactic. Many Democrats and Republicans over the years have rightly expressed concern that while the United States follows international trade laws other nations do not, instead subsidizing their own industries heavily to distort the world market.
It is undoubtedly true that trade abuses need to be addressed and resolved, as they reduce the otherwise immense benefits of free trade in lower costs and greater innovation through competition.
Past U.S. efforts have been hesitant on throwing down the gauntlet, but Trump may now be trying a new strategy. As he touted on the campaign trail and even in his original announcement speech, he wanted us to replace what he believed to be our current soft tactics with the “best negotiators.” However, long and destructive trade wars may not be the best way to do it.
It remains to be seen how markets and prices move both immediately and in the long-term as these tariffs take effect as well as if this is but a temporary tactic or intended to be on a more permanent basis.
In the meantime, it may be a better time than ever to stock up on some cans.
Every year since 1973 thousands of conservatives from across the country gather about our nation’s capital for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, also known as “CPAC.”
CPAC has long been known a training ground for young conservatives, an exhibition stage for up-and-coming politicians and media personalities, as well as a barometer of the overall conservative movement.
However it also almost every year attracts slews of controversies and criticisms. This year they ranged from the invitation of controversial French nationalist-populist politician Marion Le Pen, daughter of former French President Marine Le Pen, to Dinesh D’Souza’s insensitive statement on the Florida school tragedy prior to the conference that led organizers to clarify he was not a speaker.
During the conference more gaffes popped up as well, as panelist Mona Charen denounced CPAC and conservatives from on-stage for giving Trump and other Republicans a pass on their moral failures, a strange statement regarding Michael Steele’s time as RNC Chair, and the booing of John McCain.
Nonetheless, this year’s CPAC had a wide range of well-known personalities from across the GOP world, ranging from President Donald Trump himself to rising millennial star Ben Shapiro, as well as other figures including Sean Hannity, John Bolton, Kellyanne Conway, and a slew of other executive branch officials and media personalities.
It was worth noting too who wasn’t there. Few overt “Never Trumper” conservatives, past or present, were given a platform. There was also minimal Congressional presence, with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) being the only Senator along with a small smattering of Congresspersons.
While Congress being on recess at the time undoubtedly contributed to the lack of representation from Congressional Republicans, polls showing massive double-digit leads for Democrats in 2018 on a generic ballot may have contributed to the desire of many Congresspersons to try to avoid hyper-ideological associations.
Also notable was the absence of Steve Bannon, who had been a major headliner presence at the prior year’s CPAC. Bannon has essentially disappeared ever since his denunciation in January by President Trump amid the fallout from the “Fire and Fury” book, which itself has recently been shown to be of increasing unreliability.
The speakers aside, CPAC ended up having a resoundingly pro-Trump audience, with its annual straw poll showing over 93% of attendees approved of Trump’s performance as President as of far compared to 85% among Republicans in general and around 40% with the overall public.
Despite it seeming like a niche event, each year’s CPAC is a strong reflection of the current mood of the most dedicated conservatives. It is here that the key ideas and people that end up taking roles of influence and responsibility in government, think tanks, and media all connect to and from.
Furthermore, the bulk of CPAC’s attendees are young. Consistently over half are usually under 25 years old, meaning that CPAC also sheds light on what the future of conservatism looks like.
It is worth remembering that while CPAC may reflect the conservative movement’s most dedicated activist and policy base very well, it often does not accurately mirror that of the overall Republican Party.
For example, the winner of CPAC’s annual presidential straw poll in 2016 was Ted Cruz with 40% followed by Marco Rubio with 30%, when at the time then-candidate Trump was the clear consensus candidate among the GOP base.
In 2013, 2014, and 2015, Rand Paul was the straw poll winner, following up his father Ron Paul’s wins in 2010 and 2011. Mitt Romney won the straw poll in 2008, 2009, and 2012, but that was only after what appears to have been a coordinated political operation rather than the opinion of organic CPAC attendees.
CPAC in the age of Trump undoubtedly represents well the uncertain footing the conservative movement and Republican Party is on. Even the past few weeks we’ve seen as how contradictory beliefs on trade and firearms has split many populists from traditional conservatives after what’s already been a tense few years.
As CPACs of the future roll about, undoubtedly eyes from both the left and right will continue watching to see the future of the core intellectual, policy, and activist heart and soul of the Republican Party and conservative movement.
Re-prints of some of my columns. NOTE: I ran a national weekly column from 2017 to 2018 printed/distributed by newspapers in dozens of states across the country. The 2017-2018 blogs in this section are re-prints of the national column.