From the print edition of The New American
On Monday, February 12, the Trump administration unveiled a $1.5 trillion plan to upgrade and improve America’s sagging infrastructure. Although the term “infrastructure” dates from the 1930s, it was the Clinton administration that turned it into a household term denoting the sum of systems that allow a complex society to operate efficiently. Key elements in our infrastructure — roads, bridges, railways, telephone lines, fiber optic cables, and so forth — have become staples of political discussion ever since, with both parties vying to be the Party of Infrastructure.
In recent years, collapsing bridges, deteriorating streets and highways, and an aging, outage-prone power grid have all drawn attention to the decline of our once-robust infrastructure. Highways that once glistened with new asphalt are now overcrowded and underfunded, resulting in potholed interstates and crumbling overpasses. An electrical grid for which power outages were almost unknown now seems much more vulnerable to storms and heat waves. And the problems continue to multiply, as government funds once used to keep the infrastructure state-of-the art are diverted to other, less-essential uses in the interest of the ever-expanding welfare state.
Put simply, government is struggling to figure out how to afford infrastructure maintenance. In an age where government is also expected to take care of millions enjoying various welfare benefits and to spend vast sums maintaining a military used not merely for national defense but for “peacekeeping” missions all over the world that have more to do with defending foreign borders than our own, there simply isn’t enough left to spend on keeping the roads and communication systems in proper repair — let alone build more of them.
Then came the Trump budget plan, which, as is customary, Congress cordially ignored while preparing its own spending bill, the latest in a long series of seat-of-the-pants bills, ill-considered stopgaps that have propelled the national debt higher and higher as annual budgets and spending caps become ever-more-distant memories. Whereas Trump’s budget proposal contemplated a number of significant cuts in Big Government programs of dubious constitutional legitimacy, such as elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Community Development Block Grant Program, the omnibus spending proposal ultimately passed by Congress kept them all, and much more besides.
To the consternation of many of his supporters, President Trump, on March 23 after threatening a veto, signed the latest omnibus spending bill, a 2,232-page, $1.3 trillion monstrosity, even though it contained no funding for his proposed border wall and ran roughshod over most of his other budgetary priorities. That majorities in both parties have no appetite for border protection has become painfully obvious; that they also have no sense of fiscal restraint left, and are bent on spending the country into bankruptcy, should be of grave concern to any citizen interested in seeing America survive the 21st century.
Allowed Versus Disallowed Spending
Amid all the rancorous debate over border walls, infrastructure, military spending, and the many other bones of contention, one perspective has been conspicuous for its absence: What types of government spending are constitutional? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: All spending for government activities authorized by the Constitution are legitimate (regardless of whether or not they are deemed prudent or imprudent on other grounds). Democrats and leftists of all stripes, for example, love to vilify military spending, and to point out what a gargantuan piece of the budgetary pie is accounted for in such spending. Yet military spending per se is clearly constitutional, even if many of the activities of the U.S. military, including involvement in undeclared wars all over the world, are not. The 12th and 13th clauses in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution spell out Congress’ authority over military spending in the following terms:
Congress shall have the power ... [t]o raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years; [and] To provide and maintain a Navy.
Quite another question is: Must we maintain our military posture, with military bases all over the world, from Japan and Germany, to Qatar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, and many other countries? Much of America’s modern global military-industrial complex was erected by men and organizations hostile to America’s interests as defined by the Founding Fathers, George Washington perhaps most conspicuously. Rather than perceiving the American military as a national defense force, as the Founders all intended, and supporting America’s longstanding policy of non-intervention, elite postwar planners such as John Foster Dulles and George Marshall in effect committed America to being the guarantor of worldwide peace, stability, and economic prosperity in perpetuum. Postwar America is thus tasked with keeping Japan, Europe, the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, and, increasingly, other far-flung regions such as East Africa and Central Asia, garrisoned and secure from whatever bugbears of the day are deemed dangers to world peace. Where once the Soviet and Chinese communist menaces were used to justify a policy of containment, so now the open-ended War on Terror is used as a rationale for keeping alive Cold War alliances such as NATO and ANZUS, and for continuing to maintain bases in East Asia and Europe that were supposedly built to contain a Soviet Union that no longer exists.
It is beyond the scope of this article to examine to what degree our military spending may be allocated to functions that have nothing to do with national defense. But it is worth pointing out that, insofar as U.S. military spending is consistently higher than that of the next eight largest militaries combined, including such formidable adversaries as Russia and China, there is little doubt that the allegedly dire predicament of the U.S. military and its readiness to defeat potential enemies are greatly exaggerated for political reasons whenever it comes time to divvy up the latest budgetary pie. And it’s worth noting that few Americans nowadays are clamoring for more money to be spent on unwinnable wars and interventionism — President Trump’s “America first” rhetoric was a large part of the reason he got elected — making this an area where government spending can be cut without the sort of political resistance to be encountered in other budgetary concerns, such as trimming welfare-state spending.
War and a Wall
The latest $1.3 trillion spending package, which President Trump reluctantly signed into law, authorizes military spending to rise by another $80 billion over previous levels, and includes $144 billion on military hardware, much of which will end up being deployed to protect the Iraqi and Afghan homelands, among others, rather than our own. This in and of itself is objectionable, but the bill further refuses to fund any portion of President Trump’s border wall, a federal project clearly defensible not only on grounds of constitutionality but also prudence. Moreover, the bill sets a limit on the number of illegal immigrants ICE can have in detention by the end of September — 40,354. Unless repealed, this provision will kneecap Immigration and Customs Enforcement in its newly invigorated drive to round up illegals and deport them — exactly as Democrats intend it to do.
Photo: Gordan1/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
This article appears in the May 21, 2018, issue of The New American. To download the issue and continue reading this story, or to subscribe, click here.
In President Trump’s efforts to secure our southern border, we at last have a defense program that unambiguously seeks to safeguard the American homeland by defending our national borders, and Congress will have none of it. The spending bill does earmark $1.6 billion for border protection, but stipulates that it must be used only for such secondary enhancements as pedestrian [add: walkways and replacement fencing — not for any new wall construction. This guarantees that large portions of the U.S. border, including significant stretches of remote borderland in Arizona and Texas, will remain wide open for drug and human traffickers to continue to smuggle their products into the United States, to the consternation of the millions of law-abiding Americans, including this writer, who live within 100 miles of our border with Mexico.
What’s more, President Trump’s proposal to defund “sanctuary cities” that openly defy federal immigration laws was left out of the bill, though, in point of fact, every American city and municipality receiving illicit monies from the federal government should be defunded, and refractory “sanctuary cities” dealt with by other means — the arrest and trial of magistrates who refuse to obey federal laws, for example.
For all the obvious political gamesmanship and nefarious agendas, at least funding for the military and border protection pass constitutional muster. The same cannot be said of huge amounts of the rest of the latest spending bill, as well as — in some instances — President Trump’s original budgetary proposal. For one thing, the oft-maligned but seemingly immortal National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities — each of which President Trump proposed eliminating altogether — both see an increase in budget of $3 million, to $152.8 million apiece. Moreover, both National Public Radio and PBS will have their budgets unchanged, with the latter continuing to rake in $465 million annually. All this, despite the fairly obvious fact that none of these organizations are even remotely contemplated in the Constitution’s list of delegated powers found in Article I, Section 8. These items are important to Democrats, of course, because all of these programs — from news venues such as NPR’s All Things Considered to federally subsidized artists such as the late Robert Mapplethorpe — can be relied upon to produce material in support of the radical Left’s political and social agendas.
Another sensitive budget item in recent years has been the tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid that the U.S. government lavishes annually on the rest of the world, including many of the most corrupt governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Both Candidate and President Trump expressed strong opposition to foreign aid. The Swamp, meanwhile, has expressed indignation that Trump would dare question a cherished institution of global welfarism that has been siphoning huge sums of money from the American taxpayer since the days of the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II. And in the end, the Swamp chalked up another win. The latest stopgap spending bill included $54 billion for what Washington insiders euphemistically call “foreign affairs programs,” a figure only slightly less than traditional levels. Crowed Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, “Congress is on the record once again saying that America can’t afford to withdraw from the world.” The unconstitutional foreign aid gravy train continues unhampered.
President Trump’s original budget proposal contemplated defunding Planned Parenthood, but the omnibus spending bill awarded a whopping $500 million to the nation’s largest abortion provider. Unless Republicans in Congress and President Trump miraculously grow spines, the murder of the unborn will continue to be subsidized by U.S. taxpayers for the foreseeable future.
The Spending Road to Reelection
One of President Trump’s major initiatives since the hustings has been the need to rebuild America’s sagging infrastructure. Those of us in the over-40 crowd remember an America of decades past that featured gleaming new freeways. That included a then-new interstate highway system with thousands of miles of smooth, four-lane highways that, except around the largest cities, allowed drivers both commercial and private to whiz across the country unhampered by the construction zones, traffic lights, and congested traffic that made mid-century cross-country travel along old two-lane highways a grueling ordeal. But today’s interstates have become, in large swaths of the country, as crowded as city boulevards, and are crippled by constant construction and aging surfaces that are turning interstate driving into a dreaded prospect. Interstate 80, northern America’s greatest east-west freeway, once permitted almost effortless driving west of the Delaware River. Today, the interstate is under constant construction in much of Pennsylvania and the Midwest, and traffic is almost bumper to bumper, especially in the summertime and during holiday travel season, from New York City to the Mississippi River.
And it isn’t only the freeways that are aging. The electrical grid is becoming more and more vulnerable to outages, many railroad and highway bridges are in varying states of dilapidation, and once-sturdy railroads are beginning to show their age.
It is worth asking whether infrastructure spending passes constitutional muster at all. The answer would be: It depends on what type of infrastructure. A plausible case might be made for federal spending on the maintenance of interstate highways and railroads under the interstate commerce clause (the third clause in Article I, Section 8). But the use of federal funds for state and local infrastructure — as was done under the Obama stimulus bill, which spent billions of dollars subsidizing “shovel-ready” road and bridge repair all across the country — is not countenanced by the Constitution. Yet the 2018 omnibus spending bill continues this noxious legacy of Great Recession-era stimulus by tripling the budget of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) from $500 million to $1.5 billion! In fairness to President Trump, his original budget proposal would have terminated this outdated boondoggle. But in the end, the president chose to sign a spending bill that perpetuated yet another Obama-era program that has contributed mightily to our towering national debt and to the expansion of federal government involvement in almost every aspect of state and local government.
Meanwhile, the nation’s airports also received a hefty boost in spending thanks to a 30-percent increase in funding for the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), from $2.35 billion to $3.35 billion. As with interstate highways and railroads, an interstate commerce-based argument might justify the constitutionality of at least some federal government spending on hub airports. But the AIP has traditionally been heavily skewed in favor of small, local airports, furnishing yet another dubious pretext for federal involvement in what should be state and local concerns, and under the all-encompassing justification of infrastructure. As was pointed out in a recent article published by the Heritage Foundation:
Though the 60 largest airports carry 88 percent of taxpaying passengers, they receive only 27 percent of AIP funding. The lion’s share of federal AIP funding is directed to airports that serve few people. The omnibus will likely exacerbate this inequity as it requires the Secretary of Transportation to prioritize non-primary airports (small airports) in rural areas when considering how to allocate the additional $1 billion. This is hugely counterproductive given that the largest airports are those with the greatest capital needs.
In addition, the omnibus spending bill maintains or expands a number of other programs designed to inject federal monies and oversight into local transportation issues of every conceivable stripe. The little-known Capital Investment Grants program, which provides funding and oversight for projects as diverse as commuter rail lines, street cars, and city bus lines (all of them, and many others besides, local, not interstate), received a 10-percent increase in funding, to $2.4 billion. The Federal Transit Administration received a nine-percent increase in funding, to $9.7 billion — this, for formula grants that are directed exclusively to local transportation, including city bus and trolley lines, ferry services, light and commuter rail systems, and subways, none of which are remotely related to interstate commerce.
Over at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the 44-year-old Community Development Block Grant Program, also dedicated to city and local building and other development projects, had its budget almost doubled — from $2.8 billion to $5.2 billion, even though President Trump’s earlier budget proposal had targeted the program for elimination.
In a word, a very large part of the much-touted infrastructure component of the new omnibus spending bill is allocated to grants and make-work projects that should be paid for by state and local tax monies, if at all.
When President Trump was elected alongside a GOP-controlled Congress, hopes ran high that America’s foray into full-blown socialized medicine, ObamaCare, would soon be terminated, per Candidate Trump’s vociferous campaign promises. President Trump has been no less a critic of the grotesquely misnamed Affordable Care Act, but Republicans in Congress have so far refused to repeal it, despite years of campaign promises. Yet ironically, one area in which the otherwise deplorable spending bill is a significant improvement over the Trump budget proposal is in its treatment of ObamaCare. Whereas President Trump, in an inexplicable betrayal of one of his most important campaign promises, proposed an $11.5 billion bailout for insurance companies participating in ObamaCare exchanges, the omnibus spending bill does nothing at all. As a result, the demise of ObamaCare will be hastened rather than averted, as the expected government bailout failed to materialize.
The reason for this unexpected and atypical GOP adherence to a major campaign promise is that Democrats and Republicans could not agree on how the bailouts would apply to abortions. As slate.com ruefully explained:
There will … be no section shoring up Obamacare’s individual insurance markets, and members on both sides are mad about that. The dispute that precluded an agreement revolved, in large part, around abortion. Republicans demanded an expansion of the Hyde amendment — which prohibits federal money being spent on abortion — to cover individual insurance markets. Such an expansion is a non-starter for Democrats, but it’s a must-have for Republicans, in order to provide cover for members skittish about voting to “prop up” Obamacare. In a press conference Wednesday morning, Republicans raged over Democrats’ opposition to the Hyde language, claiming they were overstating its effects to maintain the election-year narrative that Republicans are “sabotaging” health insurance markets and causing higher premiums.
There can be little question that most congressional Republicans were as eager as the Democrats to ensure the survival of ObamaCare. Yet because of irreconcilable differences over abortion funding, they ended up doing the right thing despite striving mightily to perpetuate the ObamaCare betrayal. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, furious at the Democrats for obstructing the ObamaCare bailout, sputtered, “This is phony. I hope you lose votes, I hope you lose seats, you’re not worthy of governing this place!”
Spending Here, There, Everywhere
Another fortuitous casualty of partisan bickering was President Obama’s illicit Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), a program created not by legislation but by executive fiat, in solemn defiance of the constitutional separation of powers. President Trump, to the consternation of many of his supporters, had proposed “fixing” DACA by providing a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million “Dreamers,” in exchange for border-wall funding. That proposal was deep-sixed by Congressional Democrats unwilling to deal with the president on any terms, leaving the Dreamers in limbo. Rhetoric to the contrary, the new spending bill provides no fix for the Dreamers’ predicament, decreasing the likelihood that amnesty will be extended to them anytime soon. Regardless of the humanitarian dimensions of the DACA issue, the federal government is under no constitutional obligation to grant amnesty to illegal residents. And common sense, as well as recent historical experience, shows that amnesty extended to illegal immigrants, whatever the circumstances of their arrival in the United States, inevitably incentivizes more people to enter the United States or reside here illegally, in the expectation that, sooner or later, they will be the beneficiaries of yet another round of amnesty.
It is worth noting, as an aside, an aspect of the immigration debate that is generally ignored, namely, that America well into the last century imposed few to no restrictions on immigration. There were at least two reasons for this. One was that America then did not face the prospect of large numbers of immigrants from cultures that are hostile to our entire system to such a degree that they resist assimilation. Another is that, before the creation of the modern welfare state, immigrants had to sink or swim, that is, work very hard to make it — or go hungry. This meant that, for the most part, those who chose to immigrate to the United States were willing to work very hard, to learn the English language, save their earnings, and, in general, do whatever it took to forge a better life for themselves and their children with no expectation of government handouts. Under such conditions, the system self-selected for talented, hardworking immigrants. And although America still attracts many talented and hardworking immigrants from all over the world, because of state and federal welfare benefits (including automatic citizenship for anyone born on U.S. soil, a relatively recent legal innovation), large numbers of immigrants now come to the United States with their hands out, bringing with them the welfarist mentality typical of many of their countries of origin. Leftist radicals understand this perfectly, which is why they favor both open borders and the welfare system that incentivizes large numbers of ideological fellow-travelers to immigrate.
A key element in the Left’s relentless drive to bring about a cultural makeover in the United States has been federal ascendancy over and funding of education. President Trump’s initial budget proposal requested a 10.5-percent decrease in education funding amounting to $7.1 billion in spending cuts, down to just under $60 billion — not enough by a long shot, but better than nothing. In the end, though, Trump got worse than nothing; the omnibus spending bill hiked the education budget across a wide spectrum of programs, to the tune of billions in new spending. The hikes included a $300 million increase in Title I funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act, $299 million under the Individuals With Disabilities Act, a $700 million increase for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, and many other goodies amounting to a total of $2.3 billion in new education-related spending.
Federal government spending on education has been an unmitigated disaster, even aside from its unconstitutional character. As the Heritage Foundation observed:
More spending — and with it, more federal intervention in local school policy — is not the answer to improving educational outcomes. Inflation-adjusted public school spending per pupil has almost tripled in the last half-century. Since 1985, real federal spending on K-12 education has increased 138 percent, and since the 1960s, inflation-adjusted per-pupil federal education expenditures have nearly tripled. Meanwhile, academic achievement has languished. Since the 1970s, math and reading achievement have flat-lined, and graduation rates have stagnated for disadvantaged students.
President Trump attempted in his budget proposals to rein in some of the budgetary insanity regarding the Department of Energy, proposing to terminate grant monies and other subsidies to politically correct but inefficient forms of energy such as solar and wind. But Congress had other ideas, opting to fund the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to the tune of a $353.3 million increase over 2017. ARPA-E awards research grants to high-risk, often quixotic energy-related research projects that the private sector is reluctant to fund. ARPA-E’s mission — “to reduce energy imports, increase energy efficiency, and reduce energy-related emissions, including greenhouse gases” — speaks for itself.
The omnibus bill also authorizes $2 billion in loan guarantees encouraging carbon-capture technology, among other ecologically correct goals.
In sum, the omnibus spending bill has been business as usual in Washington. While President Trump’s original budget proposal contained some welcome cuts, nearly all of them were lost in the stopgap spending measure actually passed by Congress. The president has promised never to sign another bill like it, but time will tell. For one thing, the next budget tussle will take place in the heart of September’s election season, when the rhetoric will be more bitter and the political stakes even higher.
But President Trump and some Republicans in Congress have shown a willingness to combat the regulatory juggernaut, and President Trump has already done a great deal, in his limited capacity as chief executive, to rein in the regulatory insanity. The Trump administration claimed in January of this year that it had repealed 22 regulations for every one new regulation instituted. Politico.com reluctantly averred that President Trump’s war on regulations is working; after one year in office, only 156 new regulations had been approved — still too many, but a very steep decline from the two previous administrations. During the first year in office of President George W. Bush, 445 new regulations were issued, and during President Obama’s first 365 days, 510. Small wonder that official Washington is still in a deep state of shock at the Trump presidency!
In the end, of course, the fight always comes back to Congress. We have come a long way from the not-too-distant past when Congressman Ron Paul was the only consistent voice for constitutionalism and limited government on Capitol Hill. Nowadays, there are several senators and a number of representatives who approach or equal Congressman Paul’s standard. With more work at the grassroots, dozens more could be elected this fall, and in election cycles to come. The Deep State did not take control of Washington overnight, and it will take time and effort to strip it of its power. But Americans show every sign of waking up to the severity of the crisis, and with perseverance, pork-laden obscenities such as the latest budget omnibus may become a thing of the past.
Photo: Gordan1/ iStock / Getty Images Plus