In his State of the Union address, President Trump laid out his priorities for the upcoming year, as presidents normally do. But a year from now, Trump could be addressing Congress with the same list of unfinished business.
Trump’s first year in office, 2017, featured some bruising political battles and culminated in a big win for Trump’s Republican party—tax legislation that slashed rates on businesses. Trump’s second year is likely to be less consequential, especially with midterm elections providing an incentive for nobody to rock the boat. Examining the top priorities outlined in Trump’s State of the Union speech helps explain why.
Immigration. Trump is still chasing $25 billion in funding for his “big, beautiful” border wall. But this could be harder to get than the tax cuts, because it would take 60 votes in the Senate, requiring Democratic support. The tax-cut legislation fell under special rules requiring only 51 votes in the Senate, allowing it to pass without any Democratic votes.
Trump also wants to rework immigration laws to place more emphasis on newcomers with the skills and resources to contribute to economic growth, and less emphasis on family connections. If Democrats go along with all that, Trump will agree to a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants already here, including 700,000 so-called “dreamers” brought as young kids.
In his State of the Union speech, Trump ticked off these “pillars” of a plan as if they’re the outline of a compromise. But these are essentially the same divisions that have paralyzed immigration policy for more than a decade. And the two political parties are farther apart than they’ve been in years—not closer together. Dems seem unwilling to appease immigration hard-liners, who, in turn, aren’t about to go soft now. The outlook: continued gridlock.
Infrastructure. Trump’s opening bid last year was $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending over a decade. He has now raised that to $1.5 trillion. It will supposedly come from new partnerships with states and cities, and private money meant to compound the value of taxpayer funds.
But don’t get out the picks and shovels just yet. Any private investment in public projects requires tolls and other fees, to generate cash flow for the private investors. That can work on some projects, such as airports, where fees can be rolled into ticket prices. But fees and tolls are not popular when drivers and other end users pay them directly, which is why there are hardly any roads in the United States financed by private money. There are murmurs of raising the federal gas tax to pay for new projects, but this is simply not plausible in an election year, which is to say it’s not really plausible at all, absent some sort of crisis. Bottom line: There is precious little money for new spending on roads and bridges.
Lowering prescription drug prices. This was supposed to be a top priority back in the summer of 2017, but Trump shelved it. He brought it up again in his State of the Union, saying “prices will come down.” But he didn’t say how. As Trump surely knows by now, Big Pharma is one of the most effective lobbying blocs in Washington. Their job is to keep prices high. They’ll probably be as successful in 2018 as they’ve been each of the last 20 years.
More defense spending. The big battle here is whether to scrap spending limits set several years ago. And if Congress does that, Democrats insist they must also scrap caps on non-defense spending, and match that dollar-for-dollar with new funds for the military. This is another longstanding dispute that keeps getting kicked down the road, and there’s no reason to expect anything different now.
Congress does face some important work in the weeks ahead—simply keeping the government in business. A temporary spending measure will expire in early February, leading to more convoluted negotiations involving immigration, spending caps and a possible government shutdown. After that, Congress will have to approve another increase in the government’s borrowing limit, which always draws small-government zealots out of the shadows as they threaten to block an increase and impose fiscal discipline on Uncle Sam.
Congress normally finds a way to muddle through, after flirting with fiscal disaster and infuriating the electorate. That will happen in 2018, as it has before. But that could be the highlight in Washington this year, rather than a sideshow. Then we’ll see what the November midterms portend for 2019.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman