If real life resembled apocalyptic 1950s movies, the triggering of the nuclear option would have left a radioactive cloud all over North America and Europe. And the remnants of humanity would be hunkering down in Australia, calculating how long it would take for the deadly wind currents to reach that far south.
Instead, when the Senate went nuclear, Neil Gorsuch was elevated to the Supreme Court and Congress went home for recess without needing Geiger counters or fallout shelters. In fact, amid the thrill-a-minute gyrations of the Donald Trump White House, the nuclear option is already half-forgotten as all punditry is now raining down on the cruise missile strike in Syria.
During the Cold War, a nuclear attack was considered to be unthinkable by virtually all strategists. A rare exception, Herman Kahn, an inspiration for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie, actually wrote a book entitled “Thinking about the Unthinkable.”
Similarly, a decade ago eliminating the judicial filibuster was considered as unthinkable as Americans electing the self-promoting host of a TV reality series as president. Now few in Washington would be shocked if the legislative filibuster disappeared sometime during the Trump presidency.
How scared should congressional Republicans feel as they measure the political currents during recess?
They are, after all, wedded to a president whose approval rating is hovering around 40 percent during what should be his honeymoon period. And while special elections can be erratic barometers, panic will be the operative GOP mood if the Democrats run well in Tuesday’s House election in Kansas’ 4th District and then follow up on April 18 with Jon Ossoff winning or coming close to avoiding a runoff in Georgia’s 6th.
In fact, it is plausible that Gorsuch’s confirmation will turn out to be the only significant legislative legacy of the first two years of the Trump presidency.
Sure, there are House GOP fantasies about concocting a flim-flammed health care bill that would remove so many benefits that the legislation could pass muster with the Freedom Caucus. After all, premiums could be affordable for everyone if Trumpcare only covered being treated for wounds from an attack by a saber-tooth tiger.
Good luck in getting such a parsimonious bill through the Senate where no Republican on the ballot in 2018 is unduly worried about being blamed for the failure to repeal Obamacare. The only two vulnerable GOP senators (Nevada’s Dean Heller and Jeff Flake of Arizona) hail from states that have expanded Medicaid under Obamacare.
The Republican response to all emergencies — including the arrival of little green men on the White House lawn — is to vote for a tax cut. But without the Congressional Budget Office’s initial estimate of $337 billion in budgetary savings from the passage of Trumpcare, the GOP faces the knotty problem of how to pay for their hoped-for tax cuts.
So far, all the proposals for raising revenue to pay for rate reductions threaten to trigger a Republican civil war. Both a border adjustment tax and the elimination of the business deduction for carried interest would divide the GOP majority by pitting one super PAC billionaire against another. Remember that a major reason for the Trumpcare fiasco was the offer by the Koch Brothers and their allies to raise money for any Freedom Caucus member threatened by the White House.
If Paul Ryan goes to bed dreaming about tax cuts, Trump’s sleep aid is probably counting buildings with his name on them. The president’s obsession with infrastructure comes out in odd ways. During a recent interview with Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush of The New York Times, Trump began to talk expansively about the sorry state of the median dividers on the Van Wyck Expressway en route to Kennedy Airport.
But any effort to sign new buildings with an oversized “President Trump” will be stymied by those pesky congressional budget rules. That is, unless the president can somehow convince Mexico to pay for a $1 trillion investment in upgrading America’s infrastructure, including those now famous median dividers on the Van Wyck.
All this leads to the obvious solution for Trump and his legislative enablers on Capitol Hill — nuke the congressional budget rules. Or to update a line from Barry Goldwater: Lob an H-bomb into the men’s room at the Congressional Budget Office.
Yes, overturning congressional budget reforms, some dating back to 1974, seems implausible. But until recently, so did permanently eliminating the judicial filibuster.
You can imagine a Trump tweet: “Dumb CBO says we can’t have a world-class infrastructure. More 3rd World airports. America loses and China wins. Sad!”
Math is hard
No president in modern history has been more contemptuous of green-eyeshade arithmetic than Trump. His entire business career was based on one question: “How much can I borrow?”
So does anyone believe that Trump really cares about the size of the national debt? Giving lip service to the pipe dream of a balanced budget was one of those insincere gestures that Trump had to make to prove that he was a Republican.
But now that Trump has proved his fidelity to GOP orthodoxy by successfully replacing Antonin Scalia with a conservative jurist, the president may feel that he has the credibility to shatter the Republican consensus on budgetary issues.
The current budget rules were created in an era of bipartisan cooperation in Congress. Now, at a time when all unwritten rules of civility have collapsed on Capitol Hill, it seems folly to assume that the era of semi-responsible budgeting will continue forever. Especially when Donald Trump has so much riding legislatively on numbers that cannot ever add up.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.