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21 September 2017 14:24 (South Africa)
World

US: From Hurricane Harvey to Cyclone Donald, a country weathering multiple storms

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump waits to greet President Sauli Niinisto of Finland as he arrives to the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 28 August 2017. EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW.

As yet another astounding hurricane lashes part of America, J. BROOKS SPECTOR reviews the legislative storm that struck Washington this past week, and looks to see if it is now the template for what will follow.

It is just possible America is living through a kind of near-biblical moment. Hurricane Harvey devastated the country’s fourth-largest city, Houston, and then, just a few days later, an even bigger storm, Hurricane Irma, was churning its way slowly up the state of Florida after wreaking havoc across many of the smaller islands in the Caribbean Sea. Then in the short interval between these two demonstrations of the power of nature, Donald Trump pulled a wild switcheroo storm of his own in his legislative agenda and strategy. The result almost completely left his erstwhile allies in his “own” party on the outside looking in, embarrassed, egg on their faces, trying to figure out what to do next with a man they continue to try working with, despite everything that keeps happening to them when they try.

Even in the face of astonishingly powerful natural forces such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and perhaps even a few more before the hurricane season finally draws to an end some six weeks from now, events that totally capture the headlines, the legislative process in the US lurches and grinds forward, regardless. By last week, however, it had become increasingly clear that the ambitious (even outrageous) legislative agenda the Trump forces thought they would be pushing across the finish line easily as a result of their 2016 electoral victory has now largely come to a spluttering stop.

Right up on their must-do, gonna-do, have-to-do agenda for 2017 was to “repeal and replace” Obamacare; pass a major tax reform measure; impose vast immigration changes; pass a huge new military spending spree and the building of a big, beautiful wall between the US and Mexico paid for by the hapless Mexicans, and pass that massive infrastructure build. All of this was in addition to a vast roll-back of regulatory measures in finance, pollution control and consumer protection. And none of this includes those massive changes in the American foreign policy and international trade positions vis-à-vis the country’s allies and antagonists propounded by Trump in his campaign bombast.

So, where do we stand on any such movements after two-thirds of a year’s worth of the Trumpian revolution? Well, almost nowhere, except for the administrative roll-back of some of those annoying environmental and consumer regulations – which had never been fixed in law in the first place (and some of those will be in the courts for quite a while yet). And, of course, just the other day, there was the passage of a three-month federal budget, combined with an increase in the debt ceiling and the initial funding for hurricane relief for Harvey’s effects.

But the amazing thing about this was that this combined measure was the opposite of what the Republican leadership in Congress had been hoping to achieve as an actual score in their legislative game. The last thing the Republicans wanted to be on the hook for – going into the mid-term election in 2018 – was a second vote to increase the debt ceiling once this first one expires.

And this lack of action doesn’t even include the fact that Trump has pushed any requirement for dealing with the DACA, “deferred action on childhood arrivals”, the so-called dreamers, on to Congress. These are the 800,000 or so children of illegal immigrants who had arrived in the US prior to their 16th birthdays and whose status had been regularised via an Obama-era executive order. In this way they had moved into the mainstream of society. In doing this, Trump has handed off this particular hot potato with a six-month expiration date – or has said he will pursue other administrative remedies. Mind you, Congress has been unable to come up with any immigration law changes for 30 years now.

Meanwhile, Trump then abruptly switched the playbook on dealing with hurricane aid/the debt ceiling/the federal budget. Until that moment, the GOP congressional leadership had been hoping somehow that they could achieve a longer-term measure that would have made them bite down on that evil-tasting bullet just once, when they reached a final budget resolution for the new fiscal year. (Fiscal years begin on 1 October for the US government.) For years, it has been a usual article of faith for many Republican legislators to vote, at least symbolically, against increasing the debt ceiling without any correspondingly symbolic cuts in government spending, as a way of satisfying a belief in the GOP credo that insists cutting spending is the true path to righteousness, enlightenment and heaven.

Now Republican legislators are going to be forced to vote on that very anathema at least twice going into the 2018 electoral cycle. And this will happen as even fiercer, more conservative, deficit and budget hawk Freedom Caucus primary opponents pop up in many congressional districts to challenge incumbent Republican moderates who voted for this combined measure – and who will then have to vote again for increasing the debt ceiling early in 2018. (To be fair, the constitution does not require a specific vote on raising debt ceilings, but it has been in place as standard practice for a long time to ensure Congress takes a specific stand on authorising additional deficit financing for government expenses.)

Up until that vote, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and National Economic Council head Gary Cohn had been the point persons in charge of shepherding congressional Republicans towards a larger settlement on debt, budget and federal funding for hurricane relief – and perhaps even a full budget year’s worth of funding. The irony of sending in two guys with deep Wall Street roots – Goldman Sachs to be precise – to talk turkey to GOP budget hawks seemed to pass right by the White House completely and Mnuchin and Cohn were actually booed by some who attended the two men’s meeting with the GOP congressional delegation.

Then, without apparent warning, Donald Trump switched signals and embraced the measure being championed by – wait for it – Democratic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. When this switch occurred, these two folks, heretofore the evil ones as far as Trump was concerned, were now his good buddies, Chuck and Nancy. Imagine how McConnell, Ryan and others felt from underneath that bus.

In this particular decision, it was a combined hurricane relief/debt ceiling/three-month budget bill that duly passed the Congress with lots of Democratic votes and rather fewer, and much more grudging Republican ones. The most benign possible explanation is that Trump stumbled across the old Clintonian idea of triangulation as a way of governing by finding a middle course between the extremes of both mainline parties and thus harvesting enough votes to pass legislation, even if true believers feel betrayed. Another way to look at it is simply that Trump really doesn’t care who he tosses aside and that he exists in a political universe where loyalty only goes up to him and not the reverse.

Given the abruptness of this Trumpian switcheroo, his real ignorance of political realities, and his obliviousness to the actual mechanics of governing, this result has left Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan with looks of total incredulity and amazement on their respective faces. “Hey, that’s not what we agreed to with the president, what’s going on here? What party are you a member of?” you could practically read on their physiognomies after the dust had settled.

As if to point out just how bizarre this was, ex-Wall Street Journal reporter Neil King tweeted after the congressional action, Ran into John Boehner at Trattoria Alberto, his DC hang out. ‘The nation needs you.’ ‘Oh God no,’ he said, radiantly sipping his merlot.” One can only imagine how Boehner feels to be out of this snake pit, now that he is no longer House speaker.

Or, as Seung Min Kim and Kyle Cheney described all this in an article in Politico,

President Donald Trump’s flirtations with Democrats and fixation on divisive campaign promises have paved the way for hazardous, rolling deadlines over the next six months on spending, the debt ceiling and immigration.

The debt and spending bill approved by Capitol Hill on Friday averted imminent fiscal disaster, but it’s added more misery for a Republican Party whose agenda has floundered even with unified control of Washington for the first time in a decade. It’s also given Democrats significant leverage to imperil tax reform, the GOP’s best hope at a major legislative victory.

Rather than dictating the agenda of Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers oftentimes find themselves at the whims of a capricious White House, Democrats in the minority and a calendar that’s getting increasingly packed ahead of campaign season next spring. [There are fewer than 50 days left in the 2017 legislative calendar and no rewrite of the tax code is going to happen in time.] Speaker Paul Ryan predicted in January that tax reform, Obamacare repeal and a border wall would all be done by now. Instead, Obamacare repeal may be completely dead at month’s end, there are just broad strokes on tax reform and many Republicans oppose the border wall being pushed by their own president.”

Ultimately, the Trump administration continues to wallow in its own incoherence and ineptitude – and there is virtually no evidence that the White House has any real plan to put its governmental house in order – either in its policies or its relationships with the rest of the government. And that, of course, doesn’t even begin to speak to its way of dealing with the rest of the globe. It has now become common cause in most places to note that Angela Merkel, virtually assured to yet again become the German chancellor after this month’s election, has become the de facto adult leader of the west, rather than the current denizen of the White House, even if in pure size of GDP and military footprint the US remains the global leader.

Even a journal as pro-business, pro-mid-right-of-centre government as The Economist had largely written Trump off as a disaster, even before this latest demonstration of public political ineptitude. As their “Lexington” columnist wrote this week before being reassigned from the US,

Enter President Donald Trump. A natural demagogue, he spotted how, after years of the war on terror, America was weary of trying to fix an ungrateful world. He grasped how, at home, millions could conceive of no benign explanation for economic and social changes that worried or disgusted them, and heard no argument from the two main parties that reassured them….”

In sum, Trump had a chance to make a difference.

But, “Lexington” concluded,

There are plausible scenarios in which Mr Trump, a cynical and undisciplined bully, brings catastrophe to the country that Lexington was raised to love, and where both his children were born. For now consider a disaster that is already certain. Mr Trump has a rare understanding of how change has left millions feeling disrespected, abused and alienated from mainstream politics. Alas, he has used that gift only to divide his country, for selfish ends. This is a tragic waste.”

With the “repeal and replace” Obamacare fiasco and this most recent budget measure as prime examples, the template is increasingly well-established of a presidency that has neither an understanding of political loyalty nor any firm, clear sense of where it wants to go when it tries to govern. There is no evidence to assume the Trump administration will be any better positioned in the months and years ahead than it is now. So, there is a chance for Congress in all this. Just maybe a deeply divided legislature will begin avoiding the president entirely, and then get its own house in order sufficiently to establish a legislative agenda both sides can agree upon. They can always let Donald Trump have a big party whenever he signs their bills into law, thereby allowing him to play at being president. But adults should be allowed to govern. Congress – are you listening? DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump waits to greet President Sauli Niinisto of Finland as he arrives to the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 28 August 2017. EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW.

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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