The Republican budget fantasy is about to meet reality
Hey, President Trump: Where's the waste, fraud, and abuse?
President Trump recently submitted his first budget document. It's eye-popping.
In his so-called "skinny budget" — which just deals with discretionary spending (meaning it doesn't handle tax rates, Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid) — Trump proposes a $54 billion increase in military spending, to be compensated by large cuts to federal agencies.
It's terrible policy — but it's also a good window into a problem Republicans are going to have now that they have full control of the federal government. They have brainwashed themselves into believing their preferred policies can be enacted with zero downside — in this case, believing that the federal government is loaded up with wasteful, useless spending. Or as they like to say: "waste, fraud, and abuse."
The reality is the precise opposite.
Now, the various federal agencies are by no means without problems. But those problems are far more about excessive numbers of tiny federal agencies with overlapping and sometimes contradictory mandates implementing over-complicated policies than they are about over-spending as such. There is no reason to have the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (and that's only a partial list) all dealing with separate little sub-areas of financial regulation, instead of one big agency dealing with it all under the same roof.
Combining and rationalizing all those might conceivably save a couple bucks here and there. But on the other hand, federal agencies have been struggling badly to implement their legal mandates because austerity doesn't allow them to staff up properly (see the IRS), and skinflint salary requirements scare away top talent (see the financial regulatory agencies again). A competent government would have a smaller number of more logically-structured agencies, but they would be bigger and funded more generously.
Now, there is one area of federal spending that is absolutely riddled with waste and fraud: military spending. Just in December The Washington Post revealed that an internal wasteful spending study commissioned in 2015 by the Pentagon found such a jaw-dropping number — $125 billion in potential savings over five years, without any layoffs of troops or civil servants — that the top brass buried the results, panicked that Congress would use it as an excuse to cut the military budget.
But Trump's budget isn't remotely concerned with any of these problems. Not only would it increase the most wasteful part of federal spending, it would take aim at some of the federal government's best parts. The EPA would get slashed by a quarter, with serious cuts to or total abolition of programs for lead abatement, water pollution, climate change, and many others. (By way of reference, the entire EPA budget could be covered more than three times over with the military savings outlined above.)
Every one of those programs are proved beyond question to be net positives for the economy and U.S. society in general. Lead contamination and general pollution aren't as bad as they once were (the direct result of federal regulation) but they are still quiet emergencies in many places. It's an economic waste and a human tragedy when people's brains are damaged or ruined by heavy metals, or when they get sick and die slowly and horribly from toxic air or water pollution.
The diplomatic budget would also get slashed by something like 30-37 percent. As Ilan Goldenberg (a former staffer both for the Pentagon and the State Department) explains, U.S. diplomats are already pinching their pennies until their fingers bleed, while generals already get every imaginable luxury. It's all the more telling given the military's recent track record of failure at virtually everything it has tried, from full-blown wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to smaller-scale interventions in Libya, Somalia, and Yemen — while diplomats racked up reasonably impressive victories with the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords.
The only significant fat in the federal discretionary budget to fund more weapons for the troops is contained within military spending itself. Luckily, several Senate Republicans have already raised a stink about the cuts to diplomatic efforts, likely killing this extreme version of the budget. But some kind of cuts are probably coming soon, especially to environmental protection.
Today's congressional Republicans have been raised since birth on agitprop about the EPA's "job-killing regulations," and probably not even their own constituents hacking up cancer could convince them otherwise.