Trump's impossible budget
President Trump released his latest proposed budget for the U.S. government on Monday. No sooner was the news announced than reminders that these annual proposals are "political documents," not actual governing policy began proliferating. And while that is of course true, Trump's budgets are especially striking: Not just for the gap between the proposals and what is realistically achievable, but for the gap between the proposals and what Trump himself seems to actually give a flip about.
The first thing to grasp about Trump's budget proposal is how absolutely insane its priorities are. The problem here is pretty straightforward: The Republican Party has long been obsessed with eliminating America's federal deficit — the shortfall between how much annual tax revenue it brings in and how much it spends. But Trump and his party want to protect military spending, and Trump himself has repeatedly promised to hold Social Security and Medicare harmless. Those three commitments rule out reductions to almost two-thirds of annual spending.
Throw in the fact that Republicans are hell-bent against raising taxes — Trump's budget would make permanent the massive tax cuts they passed in 2017 — and their only remaining option is to cut the remaining third of the budget: Medicaid, other welfare state programs like food stamps, plus basically everything the federal government does that isn't either military or social insurance for old people. And to meet Trump's goal of balancing the federal budget in 15 years, these cuts have to be massive.
If Trump's budget were enacted, the Departments of Agriculture, Education, and Energy would be cut by 8 percent a piece. The Small Business Administration and the Labor Department would get cut 11 percent, Transportation and Interior would be slashed by 13 percent. The Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Commerce Department would get some of the biggest axes — at 27 percent, 21 percent, 22 percent, and 37 percent, respectively.
These are comparable cuts to what Trump's White House has proposed in previous years, but that doesn't make them any less insane. These would be catastrophic reductions; they would absolutely gut American society's ability to function. They would never ever pass Congress. And it's pretty clear that Trump himself, and probably all but the most diehard members of the Republican Party, don't really mean them.
In his time in office, Trump has signed two major budget deals — negotiated between the Democrats in the House and the Republicans in the Senate — that increased spending on both the military and on all those other domestic functions. To give a very concrete example: around this time last year, President Trump promised at a rally to protect full funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, even though the budget his White House had just released called for a 90 percent reduction to the program.
No less morally monstrous, but at least somewhat closer to the realm of reality, are Trump's proposals to limit spending on welfare programs like food stamps and Medicaid by imposing work requirements on them. If Republicans still held both houses of Congress, it's at least conceivable such a thing could pass, though it's worth noting that more moderate Republicans ultimately balked at slashing Medicaid spending when Trump and the GOP tried to undo Obamacare in 2017. Ultimately, the pain such reductions would've caused to their constituents was too much for the less ideologically extreme members of Trump's party to stomach. In the meantime, the White House can and already is trying to implement those work requirements through executive actions that bypass Congress. This strategy, however, relies on the cooperation of state governments, and many of them, even if controlled by Republicans, may be unwilling to ultimately bite the bullet.
There are some other interesting bits in the new budget. In particular, it includes proposed efforts to bargain down drug prices — an unusual instance in which Trump would help out average Americans while forcing powerful pharmaceutical companies to eat the cost of the budget savings. But for the most part, the basic math of the budget emerges from the Republicans' determination to protect their constituencies and primary ideological commitments — i.e. older voters, the wealthy, and the Pentagon — while foisting the costs of their extraordinarily ambitious deficit-reduction goals on everyone else.
Admittedly, this is not exactly new terrain for the Republicans. The impossibility of fitting these different goals together has dogged the party at least since Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan held sway during Obama's tenure. Even President George W. Bush basically defaulted to cutting taxes, upping military spending, adding to Medicare, and just accepting the big deficit increases that resulted.
But two things stand out about life under Trump: The first is that the Republicans' ostensible ideological commitments — and the utter impossibility of making them fit together — are finally getting expressed in the actual annual White House budgets. The second is how obviously Trump himself simply does not care.
The president seems to grasp at some instinctive level that even his own right-wing base does not want to see major entitlement programs cut. And he obviously loves tax cuts and military spending. Beyond that, he doesn't really seem to have any hard opinions — as already noted, his actual behavior certainly gives no evidence that he is at all committed to the goals laid forth in his own budget. Trump will occasionally make noise about how he will reduce the deficit or cut back on big programs like Social Security. But it seems obvious these are products of the president's intrinsic flightiness: He grasps that certain people want to hear him say that in the moment, but it's a passing and commitmentless thing.
For the most part, the annual White House budgets under Trump seem to be the product of the hard-right ideologues in the administration, particularly Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney. There are rumors that Mulvaney may be on the outs with Trump for unrelated reasons, but thus far he remains in place. And for the time being, the president appears happy to let Mulvaney and his ideological co-travelers use the platform of his administration to indulge their budget fantasies, while also more or less ignoring them in practice.
One wonders what the point of the whole charade is, beyond throwing a few purely symbolic crumbs to certain parts of the GOP coalition.
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