Donald Trump’s attempted coup shouldn’t draw attention away from his administration’s day-to-day corruption. His post-election firing of federal officials who have contradicted him and installation of unqualified loyalists shows that Trump will try to salvage the loss with internal sabotage of the incoming administration. With less than two months to go, things will only get worse, unless Democrats use the upcoming spending negotiations to stop him.
The government’s funding is set to expire on December 11. A package to fund the government needs to pass to keep the lights on and business running as usual. Early indications are that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will allow a clean “omnibus” funding package, which would last through next September, to pass. This approach will be lauded as responsible, avoiding a government shutdown now or early in Joe Biden’s administration. It’s actually a betrayal of the American people’s rejection of Trump at the polls in November.
This bill and the traditionally must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) represent the only vehicles for stopping the Trump administration’s lame-duck rampage in its tracks. Setting funding levels and going home will grant Trump’s people impunity through January 20. It will add new fuel to the fires that the incoming Biden administration needs to put out. Instead of this preemptive concession, Democrats should make sure to impose strict limits on what Trump can do with his last six weeks in office.
One limit needs to be on corrupt contracts and sales of government property. Trump’s plan to put politically connected contractor Rivada in charge of leasing out military-owned 5G spectrum is the kind of lame-duck giveaway that could hamstring an important policy for a generation. Meanwhile, Trump’s sale of arms to the United Arab Emirates circumvents established review procedures and threatens to leave Biden with an escalating arms race in the Middle East. Though the sale has drawn bipartisan opposition, there’s little hope of a disapproval resolution overcoming Trump’s veto.
Instead of piecemeal disapprovals that won’t move out of the Senate, much less survive a Trump veto, House Democrats should put blanket limits on contracts, sales, and leases in the omnibus. Payment should be frozen on any contract made between the election and the end of the Trump administration. The sale or lease of government property should be blocked to prevent sweetheart deals. Congress needs to give the Biden team enough time to review the contracts and undo anything corrupt before the money ends up in an offshore tax haven.
The bills should also keep Trump from vindictively damaging the civil service for its resistance to his lawless, dangerous demands. The recent Schedule F executive order could strip civil service protections from thousands of employees and replace them with his own cronies. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has reportedly designated 90 percent of its workforce as “Schedule F.” If Trump replaces the entire OMB career staff with his own people, it will pose a huge stumbling block to Biden’s ability to make new regulations. Along with this frontal attack, Trump has moved unqualified loyalists into other career positions, where they will serve as irritants to the incoming leadership.
A number of good-government groups, led by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, have called on Congress to defund the Schedule F order. These calls recognize that only an omnibus funding package will move fast enough to stop Trump from compounding the damage he’s done to the civil service. A clean funding bill would be an open invitation to terminate thousands of government employees, compounding transition chaos in crucial agencies.
Finally, the bills should block the host of deregulatory rules that the Trump administration is scrambling to release before his departure. The rules under consideration include giveaways to fossil fuel companies looking to drill in the Arctic and trucking companies seeking to exploit their workers, as well as cruel attacks on people experiencing homelessness, immigrants, and those receiving food stamps. Waiting for the Biden administration to follow the legal processes that could take a year or more to reverse these rules will harm thousands, even as it takes up time and attention that could be used to implement a positive Biden agenda.
To take effect, a rule needs to be published in the Federal Register. Congress could add a rider to the omnibus preventing the publication of any final rules until January 21. Similarly, most rules require review by the Office of Management and Budget. Congress could block using funds for the rule-review functions until the new administration takes over. Any rules that made sense would still pass on January 21, but the worst rules would be stopped.
Democrats should make sure to impose strict limits on what Trump can do with his last six weeks in office.
Defunding works because agencies can’t spend money unless they have a congressional appropriation authorizing them to do so. Congress regularly uses appropriations instructions to constrain agencies, in both good and bad ways. The Trump administration has resisted such limits in the past and will likely do so again, but it will be easier for a Biden administration to quickly abandon contracts, hires, and rules where it can assert the underlying action was illegal.
Republicans can resist limitations like these in two ways. The first is Republicans insisting on a “clean” bill and refusing to pass these conditions in the Senate. The second is by Trump, unbound by what little incentive he had to govern responsibly, vetoing a bipartisan funding bill. If Democrats don’t immediately concede to a clean bill, the result would be a government shutdown.
Democrats should not seek a shutdown. Shutdowns hurt the economy and are especially harmful to federal workers. But they should also not preemptively give up on important priorities because they fear Republican objection. Pelosi’s willingness to provide a clean continuing resolution in September eliminated the last leverage point for stimulus, a Postal Service rescue, or improved election integrity. The consequences of that choice haunt the country. Democrats shouldn’t make this mistake again.
The politics of a shutdown would favor House Democrats. The 2019 shutdown over funding a border wall drove Trump’s approval ratings to their lowest levels. A shutdown fight over corrupt contracts and hiring would be fought on even worse terrain for Republicans. Instead of supporting one of Trump’s campaign promises, they would have to fight for a series of corporate giveaways.
The Republicans also aren’t in a position to ignore the shutdown’s impact and let it fall in Biden’s lap. Georgia Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are both in close Senate races. To date, both have tried to keep Trump’s base happy by voicing agreement with his baseless allegations of voter fraud. But this support is creating tension with some of the less Trump-centered Republicans. A shutdown over Trump’s corruption would pin both on the horns of a dilemma: own the shutdown to support Trump and alienate suburban voters, or break with Trump and incur his wrath. With some hardcore Trumpists already signaling their irritation with the pair, even as both senators face their own corruption allegations, Democrats shouldn’t take Senate Republicans off the hook with a clean funding bill.
If Democrats don’t set the terms for a spending fight, Trump will. Last week, he threatened to veto the NDAA over a provision renaming bases named for Confederate generals. Now, he’s added a demand that the NDAA include a repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a provision unrelated to defense. Letting Republicans change the subject from Trump’s corruption to right-wing media talking points will not prove fruitful for Democrats.
Two years of cautiously navigating Trump and doing the responsible Washington thing left the Democrats with a reduced House majority and with the Senate hanging in the balance. Two months of aggressively fighting his corruption after he’s already defeated can save a lot of grief, give the Biden administration the runway it needs to succeed, and deliver a narrow Senate majority. Democrats shouldn’t let this last good opportunity slip away in exchange for nothing.