Early Returns

Trump's Debt-Limit Deal Much Ado About Nothing

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Not much there there.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The debt-limit deal struck by Donald Trump and congressional leaders Wednesday was immediately reported as a case of two things: Trump selling out Republicans and Trump negotiating badly. The deal calls for extensions from the end-of-September deadlines to Dec. 15 for funding the government and raising the debt limit, while at the same time passing initial Hurricane Harvey relief. 

I'm more inclined to agree with Dave Hopkins that while Trump certainly acted as if he was undermining House and Senate Republicans, there's really not much here.

For one thing, virtually everyone should have been expecting the "continuing resolution" to keep the government running until the end of the congressional session. After all, on Sept. 6, Congress simply wasn't anywhere close to completing its work on appropriations; the Senate has barely started. Standard practice, unless someone wants a government shutdown, is to kick the can down the road a few months.

The agreement on the debt limit was harder to predict, and it was certainly plausible that the parties might have agreed to raise it enough to get them past the midterm elections, or even longer. But as Hopkins says, it's not at all clear that there's really anything lost to Republicans with a shorter three-month extension. The only faction that has threatened to hold the debt limit hostage is the House Freedom Caucus, and it has little or no leverage here. It's true that most members of Congress, especially Republicans who have demagogued on the issue most recently, don't want to vote to raise the debt limit. The blunt fact is they'll have to do it. The endgame is probably to attach the rest of the Harvey relief money and, presumably, Irma relief, and that will provide more than enough votes for the debt limit to pass. 

To put it another way: House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House and Senate minority leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer did not appear to have any specific demands to put on either the debt-limit increase or the continuing resolution, so it's hard to see how any of them won or lost in this deal. The only important threat, in fact, had been Trump's bluff to shut down the government unless funding for his border wall was passed, so it's fair to think of him as the loser. Of course, he could still make the same demand in December, and no one would take his bluster seriously at that point, either. 

This still leaves plenty of hard bargaining over appropriations, where Republicans have no way to get around Democratic filibusters in the Senate. 

Congress scholar Josh Huder reads the agreement as a larger defeat for Republicans: "If you're a Democrat, you just stopped the entire Republican agenda." I rarely disagree with Huder, but as I see it, most of the agenda was already mostly dead, so I'm not sure what further damage this agreement can do (see also this thread from Brian Beutler). And the one important legislative item that still might be viable, a big tax cut, remains (as I see it) more or less in the same place -- the problem with passing it isn't lack of time, but lack of agreement. Nothing Trump agreed to Wednesday helps a tax bill move forward, but I'm not convinced that it harms the prospects of a bill, either.  

1. Jennifer Victor at Mischiefs of Faction on Trump's pay-to-play politics. An excellent piece, but I do have a couple of comments. I'm not as confident as Victor is that this pay-for-play pattern is necessarily legal, and I definitely believe the lawlessness Trump displays in these transactions can be a legitimate part of an article of impeachment -- that is, contempt for the norms of ethics is a form of abuse of power even if the president never crosses over the line to illegality. I'm also much less inclined to complain about the 19th-century party "corruption" than most people are. While those parties often wound up existing merely to funnel money to the bosses, they were often highly responsive to their constituents, in effect trading benefits for votes in what seems to me an acceptably democratic style. The trouble with Trump is that as a political creature without a party, and one who also has no respect for ethical constraints, there's no particular reason to believe that he's doing anything other than pocketing money in exchange for government favors. 

2. John Sides at the Monkey Cage on "Obama-Trump" voters, who appear to be quicker than other Trump voters to back away from the president. Remember, unless Trump can find some new voters somewhere, he really can't afford to lose any of his 2016 supporters. 

3. Mirya Holman on sheriffs

4. Josh Putnam on the Democrats' Unity Reform Commission and what it probably won't do about presidential caucuses

5. It's way too early to guess what will come of it, but Jonathan Cohn finds reason for optimism in a Senate committee hearing on strengthening Obamacare markets

6. Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer is leaving early. Bloomberg's Christopher Condon and Craig Torres report. This gives Trump a fourth vacancy even before Fed Chair Janet Yellen's term is up in February; he has made only one nomination so far, although names have been reported for the other two current openings. This is, of course, extremely important for the economy, which means it's also extremely important for Trump's re-election hopes. And he's probably even less predictable on these appointments than he is on most things. 

7. My Bloomberg View colleague Daniel Moss, however, sees no big shakeup in the works at the Fed. Plausible! 

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    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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