So often these days, the news moves so fast it’s hard, if not impossible, to keep up, even for diligent readers of the papers or followers of cable news shows: political bickering as a manifestation of extreme polarization, President Trump, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Russian election hacking and assassination attempts, immigration, family separations, increasing tariff wars between the U.S. and several countries — including allies, catastrophic climate-change-induced storms, devastating gas line explosions, and on and on.
As for the first of these, if you followed the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings reviewing the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, you would have seen Republicans and Democrats simply talking past one another. Republicans claimed that the 400,000 pages of documentation were sufficient to judge whether the nominee was qualified to serve on our highest court.
The Democrats demanded to see more than the 10 percent of the documents that were released concerning his three-year service in the White House under President George W. Bush. They asked to see about another 100,000, some of which, they claimed, would reveal whether he was involved in the harsh interrogation, i.e., torture, program of Guantanamo detainees suspected of terrorism.
The Democrats argue that if the missing documents demonstrate his involvement in the program, it would prove he had not been truthful in 2006 when he testified before the same committee after President Bush nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
All this boils down to one major question: What has Congress actually achieved over the past 19 months? The answer is that except for the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Congress has accomplished pretty much whatever President Trump wants.
Congress’s only piece of major legislation was last year’s Tax Reform and Jobs Act, which, as is now as plain as day, significantly reduced taxes on the most wealthy Americans and corporations, especially their shareholders.
The law had nothing to do with the decrease in the unemployment rate, and it was unrelated to the strengthening economy: From a high of 10 percent unemployment in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession to 3.9 percent today, we can see that the economy under President Obama experienced 75 straight months of improvement, which continued uninterrupted under President Trump.
As any reputable economist will tell you, presidents have little to nothing to do with the economy. But will it last? No, not unless, the one institution that can actually do something, namely Congress, acts.
Under the Tax Reform Act, the current national debt of $21 trillion is expected to rise another $1.5 trillion. This past February, Congress passed, and President Trump signed, a bill increasing spending by $300 billion, most of which was for defense and national security.
Already the deficit for the current fiscal year stands at around $875 billion, and the projections are that beginning in 2020, and for years afterward, the annual deficit will be around $1 trillion. So where is the money to come from to make up this debt? Certainly not from the wealthiest individuals and families, nor corporate America.
It will come from you and me. Republicans used to be the party of fiscal responsibility, and loved to lambaste the Democrats as “tax and spend” politicians. Now, Congress must act by Sept. 30 to avoid another government shutdown: Chances are the result will be significant cuts to the so-called entitlement programs, especially Social Security and Medicare, neither of which would affect the wealthiest Americans.
Over the past 19 months, Congress has become an appendage of the presidency. This is not what the framers of the Constitution envisioned. For James Madison, writing in Federalist 51 in explaining the role of Congress, “in republican government the legislative [branch] must necessarily predominate.”
But President Trump has successfully cowed the Republican leadership into submission. The Senate, for example, has easily confirmed one Supreme Court nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, and will likely approve Judge Kavanaugh. It has set a record number of lower-court judicial approvals: 41 federal district and 26 circuit court judgeships.
The Republican-controlled Congress has converted from deficit hawks to big spenders, creating one of the greatest peacetime explosions in the national debt.
So watch as your tax bill remains the same or increases, and as the Social Security and Medicare safety net implodes. The only way to salvage this grim situation is for a new, fiscally responsible Congress to take control in January, a Congress willing to challenge the president and stake out its own avenues of legislative initiative.
Jack Fruchtman, a seasonal Aquinnah resident, teaches constitutional law and politics at Maryland’s Towson University.