On the first day of his presidency, Donald Trump will face a serious governing challenge of his own creation.
He has promised a tax cut that will, by one estimate, reduce federal revenues by $7 trillion over 10 years. He has promised an infrastructure initiative that may cost another trillion. He has promised to rebuild the military. He has effectively promised not to make changes in Social Security and Medicare. And he has promised to move swiftly toward a balanced federal budget.
Taken together, these things can’t be taken together. Trump has made a series of pledges that can’t be reconciled. If he knew this during the campaign, he is cynical. If he is only finding out now, he is benighted. In either case, something has to give.
Congress and the country normally get a first glimpse of presidential priorities in the administration’s initial budget – hashed out internally, translated into legislative-speak by experts and published in a hefty book.
It makes for stupefying reading. It is a useful document nonetheless. The budget book throws an ocean of campaign pledges against the rocky shore of fiscal reality. Proposals and pledges must be forced into a pie chart. Anyone’s gain, it turns out, is someone’s loss.
The first time is the hardest. It is the equivalent of a final exam on the first day of class.
But not really on the first day. Under the law, Trump has until Feb. 6 to submit a budget to Congress. He can ask for an extension but not an exemption.
A new president’s first speech to a joint session of Congress is less a State of the Union address than a statement of budget priorities. And if the president’s party controls both houses of Congress (as Barack Obama did at the start of his presidency), many of the proposals we hear on that night will become laws. Rather than being dead on arrival, the Trump budget will be alive and taking a Zumba class.
Finishing the budget will require a series of major decisions, beginning with what “replace” means in the “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act. Anything involving a sufficient, refundable tax credit to buy private insurance (a feature of many Republican plans) is not cheap. The primary goal of most Republican health care policy wonks is not to save money. It is to retain the gains of Obamacare – including insurance coverage for an additional 20 million people – without overregulating the health care sector and destabilizing insurance markets. And to make the purchase of health insurance by younger people attractive rather than compulsory.
Members of Congress looking for leadership from the new administration have (at least) two problems.
First, the congealing organization chart of the Trump administration is flat and (so far) dysfunctional. A number of people have been given the highest level of White House jobs without a clear indication of who is in charge. By some accounts, Trump likes this sort of management chaos around him. But it is not conducive to policy creation.
Some senior Trump advisers have gone public to influence the policy process – or perhaps to create the impression that a process actually exists. Kellyanne Conway, for example, recently stated, “We don’t want anyone who currently has insurance to not have insurance.” That type of assurance is difficult to make because Trumpcare doesn’t seem to exist.
Second, Trump himself is unfocused and erratic. He is dismissively impatient with policy meetings. He wants others to sweat the details, allowing him to focus on bigger things. Like Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe remarks. This looks less like delegation than a vacuum. How do you build a decision-making structure around a vacuum, without inviting a constant, bitter staff struggle to fill it? Is incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus capable of taking control of access to Trump and building an orderly policy process?
To some extent, every presidential transition is chaotic. But not every incoming administration fires its initial transition team after winning and essentially starts over. Or has a president-elect who seems to view public policy as a distraction from his social media calling. It is not too late for a structure to emerge that is capable of making sound decisions and choices. But it would take a president-elect who wants it to happen.
Michael Gerson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.