Last Friday, President Donald Trump was forced, grumbling all the while, to sign an omnibus spending bill he most definitely didn’t want to sign (expressions of displeasure, pouting and reiterations of disappointment while pouting, lasted into and well after his pen hit the paper). While its passage was no victory for Trump or his nativist following, the bill certainly didn’t make a bad day for the congressional Democrats — or, funny enough, Congressional Republicans.
On the one hand, the Democrats made individual gains — the bill certainly included enough pork for everyone, Republicans included — but on the other, Democrats demonstrated once more the ability to stand their ground on the issues that count. No funding for the border wall or the feverish hiring of thousands more border agents — only repairs for existing infrastructure; no cuts to foreign aid, environmental protection programs or the diplomatic corps; no school vouchers; and the National Education Association and the Environmental Protection Agency are still standing. Poisonous riders were removed from the bill by Democratic leaders, even at the expense of incurring powerful interest group ire. Republican Senator from Alaska Lisa Murkowski was rebuffed when she tried to attach a rider dismantling protections for Alaskan forests. Republican Senator from Mississippi Thad Cochran tried to drain Mississippi’s vital wetlands to make room for territorial expansion by soybean corporations, also to no avail.
Let us all rejoice that, even in some of the poorest of circumstances, Democrats have grown a backbone, and seem to be gaining energy as 2018 nears. Our Congressional minority has rallied to solve its collective action problem — managing to keep together a coalition of resistance that, though it falters, never fractures. Thus, it has been up to the Republicans to maintain the near-entirety of their slim Senate majority to achieve key points of the agenda — most of which is a wishlist Trump determined in 2016.
Trump’s demands have been the party’s commands for much of the year; if in the second term of former President Barack Obama, Republicans bowed to Tea Party pressure, our first (and hopefully only) Trump term has seen them brought to the heel of nativism and populism. (Its existence and potency in general is also their doing, but, of course, that’s for another column.) The key with the omnibus package was that Trump detested it, yet Congressional Republicans tacked on as much pork as they could and passed it anyway. Why?
Trump isn’t up for reelection in 2018; the Republican Congressional majority, however, is. Perhaps this is where the almighty Consent of the Governed crosses paths with Trumpism. Certainly many Senate Republicans would like to satisfy much of Trump’s laundry list — but they love reelection more. It would be tragic indeed to lose one’s seat by stymying the government over a lost opportunity to kill the EPA. And as all politicians know too well, it’s difficult to get credit for what you only “tried” to accomplish — especially when dysfunction and government shutdown is the result.
Trump’s reaction, of course, is exactly what you would expect: The bill is “ridiculous,” he is “unhappy” about much of the bill, “we were forced” to sign it and his great sacrifice, of course, is for — only for — our military. Next steps include: stomping down to Mar-a-Lago and slamming the door. So, this might be the lesson congressional Democrats could learn about resistance — Trump and his popularity survive based on different standards than do the seats of his congressional majority. Trump can puff up his chest, tweet and bluster to the general delight of his base. Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s soothing equivocations and Senator Mitch McConnell’s melancholic disavowals of Democrats and their wily ways are generally, for voters, insufficient when action is absent. In certain advantageous situations, damaging Trumpian legislation can only be passed as far as it is immediately achievable. If the Democratic coalition remains strong, if the free press continues to doggedly report and if we maintain our promise to hold our representatives accountable in 2018, the worst aspects of the Trump administration’s platform could be avoided.
The final lesson of the omnibus package isn’t a new one: When midterms come around, vote.
Lily Vaughan is a junior majoring in history and political science. Her column,“Playing Politics,” runs Fridays.