After President Donald Trump signed the bloated, inexcusable $1.3 trillion omnibus bill that Congress passed last week, he seemed to sense that the country has had enough of the runaway spending that has characterized the last several years.
Flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, his voice laced with scorn, Trump told the assembled press that he felt forced to sign this bill in spite of the fact that he hated it, and solemnly swore, "I'll never sign a bill like this again."
I truly hope he means it. I have all but given up hope on the dream that someday, a president — Republican or Democrat — will once again veto a spending bill because it is too large.
On Nov. 13, 2007, after approving a nonstop orgy of spending that went on for over six years, former President George W. Bush finally had enough and vetoed an appropriations bill. In his official statement explaining his veto, Bush opened with a succinct and refreshing statement: "This bill spends too much."
Of course, the political realities of this veto were themselves enough to arouse bitter cynicism even from small-government conservatives. When Republicans controlled Congress, as they largely did during Bush's first six years, he never met a spending bill he thought was too large. As soon as Democrats took control of Congress, Bush magically discovered his inner fiscal conservative. And yet, even with all that taken into account, one begins to wonder if we will ever see the likes of such a veto statement again.
It is not exactly a secret that I did not support Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary. In fact, I found virtually all the arguments advanced in his favor to be totally unpersuasive, except one: Traditional Republican presidents have proven that they cannot control Republican congresses from spending beyond their means. The only chance we have is to elect someone who is not beholden to anyone in Congress and who won't fear bucking leadership in his own party.
There's maybe something to that. I certainly can't imagine Sen. Marco Rubio or former Gov. Jeb Bush or Gov. John Kasich or the like vetoing any of the spending bills that have come down the pike so far. Maybe Sen. Ted Cruz would have, but it certainly wouldn't have been a guarantee.
I will say this, the people who voted for Trump in the primary were right about one thing: The Republican Party is broken and its leadership — including House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — have no interest in actually shrinking the size or scope of government. The diagnosis was right — the question remains whether Trump is the right medicine to fix the malady.
The time is likely running out, however, for Trump to prove that he is the anti-establishment outsider he promised to be. Republican control of the House looks increasingly certain to end this November — there are simply too many retirements, too many districts being redrawn, and too much discontent with Congress for the GOP to avoid losing a large number of seats.
If they maintain a majority, it will be a razor-thin one that is likely fractured and largely unable to function. It seems likely that soon Trump will be sent even more bloated appropriations bills that have been passed by Democrats. It will be relatively easy to veto those just to oppose Democrats. His chance to prove that he can stand up to the bloated corruption in his own party is vanishing.
Thus far, the feckless Ryan and McConnell could be forgiven for not taking Trump's threats about reining in their spending habits seriously. For instance, in May 2017, Trump found himself in a position that would become familiar over the next several months: signing a bill that spent too much money and threatening to do something about it next time a bill like that was presented to him. After signing a $1.2 trillion spending measure that did not include almost any of the cuts he asked for (and vastly increased overall spending), Trump groused aloud that the country needed a good shutdown after that funding was scheduled to end in September to stop the "mess" of government spending.
Of course, when September rolled around, Trump did no such thing. Instead, he stunned conservatives in Congress by siding with Sen. Chuck Schumer and the Democrats on a debt ceiling bill that once again raised government spending levels. Trump talked tough again in late November about runaway spending and threatened to force a shutdown with his veto pen, but a week later, he signed a another bill that yet again raised spending levels. The same scenario played out again in late December, and again in February when Congress agreed to a grotesque deal to extend the debt ceiling for a year (and add massive amounts to the national debt).
With respect to the most recent bill, Trump again threatened a veto, but his stated reason for threatening the veto was NOT that the bill spent too much, but that it a) didn't spend ENOUGH to give him a wall, and b) didn't legalize DACA recipients.
Trump's spokesmen and surrogates have been busily making the point lately that Congress has a miserable approval rating and that Ryan, McConnell, and the Democrats are the real target of public ire. There's definitely something to that, but it's long past time Trump did something about it.
It's time for him to do what he was elected to do, which was to upset the establishment of both parties and there's no surer way to do that than for him to finally put his foot down and put the brakes on his own party's profligate spending habits.
Trump's threat to "never sign a bill like this again" is perfectly nice, as a threat. But Ryan and McConnell have repeatedly called Trump's bluff on spending, and he has repeatedly caved. Sooner or later, Trump will have to follow through on this threat, no matter how much disruption it causes.
Let's hope that this time, he means it.