Readers here will remember that I was often critical of Donald Trump during the campaign (see, for example, here and here). However, I have no doubt that he will do far better by the American people than his opponent would have. Admittedly, this is a very low bar. So I wish to welcome the new President and his team, and wish them the very best in governing the country over the next four years.
There are certainly many who disagree with me, but I have been growing increasingly optimistic over the past several weeks as cabinet nominees and plans for the new administration have been announced. To me, the most important subject is the overall level of government spending and regulation. Less is better, more is worse.
After George W. Bush's election in 2000, I was modestly optimistic that he would start to attack the ongoing autopilot growth of useless government spending and programs and regulations that were becoming an increasing drag on the American economy. I say "modestly optimistic" because there were also reasons at the time to be pessimistic about "W," particularly his expressed desire to be known as the "education President" (why is education a proper function of the federal government at all?) and his use of the label "compassionate conservative." What kind of delusional Republican buys into the idea that giving a growing bureaucracy oodles of taxpayer money to pass around constitutes "compassion"?
But it didn't take me long to lose my optimism. In those days, some friends of mine knew a guy with a mid-level job in the White House, and from time to time this guy would come to New York and have dinner with us. We got a chance to ask him some questions about what was going on in D.C. And on the three or four occasions when this occurred, my question was always essentially the same: "When are you guys going to start cutting spending and programs?" The answer was always something like, "You know that we could never get something like that through Congress. And besides, there are so many other pressing priorities right now, so we just can't spend our political capital on that."
In W's defense, there was more than nothing to what this guy was telling us. Even though Congress was controlled for much of his eight years by Republicans, the situation was very different from today. In the Senate, the margin of the majority was mostly extremely narrow (the Senate was actually 50-50 from 2001-2003, although VP Cheney could theoretically break a tie if every Republican held the line and there was no filibuster), and the filibuster was more widely usable than it is now. In the House, the Republicans under Hastert were a very different crowd from today's bunch. Mostly they regarded being in the majority as only an opportunity to give some of the money to their own friends, rather than the other side's friends. And then, of course, there was 9/11, followed by the Iraq War, to provide plenty of distraction. Bottom line: In W's eight years, nobody ever focused on cutting spending or regulation, not even a little.
So will Trump actually go for major reductions in any spending, programs or regulations. It remains to be seen, but the early indications are very strong:
- Multiple sources have reported in the weeks leading up to the inauguration that Trump is planning cuts of up to 20% in federal employee headcount in at least some areas. Washington Examiner on January 17: "Insiders said that the spending reductions in some departments could go as high as 10 percent and staff cuts to 20 percent, numbers that would rock Washington if he follows through." Fox News had the same story on the same day, again attributing it to those mysterious "insiders."
- How about cutting regulation? Trump has repeated since the election his campaign promise to require the bureaucracy to rescind two regulations for every new one. That was reported, among other places, in the Washington Post here on November 21.
- And some other things to make the job of federal bureaucrat far less cushy. From the same Washington Post article: "Hiring freezes, an end to automatic raises, a green light to fire poor performers, a ban on union business on the government’s dime and less generous pensions — these are the contours of the blueprint emerging under Republican control of Washington in January."
I'll believe it when I see it, but it sure sounds like a good start.