Sandwich o’clock

BLAME it on the sand traps: President Donald Trump returned to work after seven straight days of golf enraged. Even by his own standards, his Twitter fury on January 2nd was extraordinary. The president boasted that he has a “much bigger” nuclear button than North Korea’s despotic ruler, Kim Jong Un; announced a mysterious “MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS” event and called, on a whim, for a political rival to be jailed.

The next day excerpts from a forthcoming book on the Trump campaign began to circulate. In one juicy nugget, Steve Bannon, the chief of that victorious campaign, described a meeting that Donald Trump junior and Jared Kushner held in Trump Tower with a Russian national offering help as “treasonous”. Don junior would “crack like an egg” under the pressure of the investigation into election meddling, Mr Bannon supposedly said. Cue fury from the president, who said Mr Bannon had “lost his mind” and “doesn’t represent my base—he’s only in it for himself.” A lawyer for Mr Trump threatened legal action. Hello 2018.

Meanwhile, the list of things left undone by the federal government is long and unpleasant for Republican leaders in Congress (one privately calls it a “shit sandwich”). It includes funding a popular health-insurance programme for children, ensuring that the upcoming census is sound, renewing a key surveillance tool and perhaps most important, striking a spending deal to keep the government open past January 19th. Because Republicans are no longer using special procedures to avoid filibusters, the fixes will need to be bipartisan.

To date, the worst casualty of congressional dysfunction has been the Children’s Health Insurance Programme, which provides coverage for poor families that make too much to qualify for Medicaid. Congress let funding for the scheme, which insures 9m children, expire in September. States, which administer the programme, were forced to resort to emergency measures. Some have already frozen enrolment. An estimated 1.9m children would have lost coverage in January had Congress not, just before going on holiday, passed a short-term fix funding the programme until March.

Operating procedure for Congress has been to practise brinkmanship and issue apocalyptic warnings right up to deadlines, fail to come to any agreement, and then pass short-term fixes that keep existing policy, no matter how ill-conceived, on autopilot. But some matters, like the census, which must be taken every ten years by constitutional mandate, cannot be so easily put off. The Census Bureau typically increases spending in the critical years before the 2020 count, which will determine new election boundaries and the annual distribution of $600bn in government funds. But Congress has not given the agency proper funding, forcing it to cancel two of its three dress rehearsals. The bureau also lacks permanent leadership, which the Trump administration appears to be in little hurry to fill.

Civil-rights groups are worried that this will dilute the political representation of minorities, who are less likely to respond to census-takers. A recent request by the Department of Justice to add a citizenship question to the census, would, if approved, probably depress response rates among immigrants. “If you have fear and non-response among large swathes of the public, you will get an inaccurate census, and that’s a failed census,” says Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Congress must also renew a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act known as Section 702, which lets spies intercept communications. Under current law intelligence agencies cannot directly target Americans. Privacy advocates worry that the agencies still sweep in too many phone calls and e-mails involving citizens. This issue scrambles the usual partisan allegiances of Congress: civil libertarians from both parties want more checks and protections; national-security hawks would like a clean reauthorisation.

Jumbled coalitions—and the sheer number of unresolved matters—make grand bargains unlikely. Congressmen may attempt horse-trading: children’s health insurance in exchange for unfettered surveillance; Obamacare funds for military spending. Such efforts could well fail, leaving Congress to pass another short-term reprieve and repeat the same struggle in a month’s time.