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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

Three Thoughts on the Special Olympics Fiasco

By Rick Hess — April 01, 2019 2 min read
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Last week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified to Congress on her department’s proposed budget, including its call to zero out Washington’s $17.6 million annual contribution to the Special Olympics. A furious backlash quickly ensued—one that, within days, prompted Trump to reverse course and announce, “I have overridden my people. We’re funding the Special Olympics.”

Now, for good or ill, the Special Olympics cut was an oft-offered, oft-ignored, dead-on-arrival Republican staple. And any number of Trump proposals engender heated pushback, especially in a polarized era of constant online outrage. But the reasons that this particular proposal played out this way on this particular occasion can also illustrate a few useful points about why principle matters in policymaking.

One, as much as I admire the Special Olympics, there is a principled case to be made about the perils of deficits and the need for fiscal discipline. However, one can’t credibly make that case when a president has been blasé about enormous and growing deficits, championed a huge tax cut that dramatically increased the debt, promised not to lay a finger on entitlements, and just shut down the government to seek $5 billion in new spending on a “wall.” I mean, we’re talking about a tiny appropriation that’s 1/300th of what the president sought for the wall. Against such a backdrop, it’s ridiculous to ask observers to see this proposal as anything other than an attempt to pick on the Special Olympics and its inspiring participants.

Two, there is a principled case to be made that the federal government should not be in the business of doing things which are more properly the province of civil society. However, it’s impossible to make a high-minded case that Washington has become too entangled with civil society when the president of the United States is routinely obliterating the line between government and civil society by personally attacking his critics, threatening the press, attacking and threatening individual corporations, promoting his brands, and weighing in on the conduct of NFL players.

Three, there’s a principled case that government officials ought to be making hard decisions for the good of the country. When it comes to the budget, this can entail unpleasant calls on programs and spending. However, doing that productively requires some degree of public confidence in the president’s judgment and a sense that the administration has a coherent, consistent governing vision. Absent those things, the proposed cuts inevitably come across as callous and capricious. And that was on display in the disjointed defense offered for the Special Olympics cut, as well as the offhand way that Trump changed course and threw DeVos under the bus.

Look, zeroing out a tiny appropriation for the Special Olympics was always a non-starter. But, on occasion, policymakers have won through on once-unpopular proposals—or at least won points for seriousness. When policymakers do things the right way, they can sharpen the public’s understanding of their case going forward, whatever the outcome today. This requires, though, a high degree of diligence, constancy, and principle. Needless to say, that’s not usually the way the Trump administration does business.

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