When Donald Trump released his latest budget proposal on Monday, it landed with a whimper. Congress has long been in the habit of mostly or entirely ignoring presidential budgets, and the timing of this one was especially awkward, since lawmakers just passed a contentious budget deal, after the new White House blueprint was finalized but before it was released. (In response, the White House released a 26-page addendum to its 160-page original document.) Even Republicans in Congress who might be ideological allies of the president were openly dismissive of the whole exercise. "I am not investing much time critiquing the budget when it has little to do with what Congress actually spends," arch-conservative Mark Meadows said Monday.
But the president's budget is important, even though it has little bearing on reality. It shows us what Trump—or his administration, at least—would do if unrestrained by Congress. As the old saw goes, budgets are "moral documents" that show us how the authors would choose to allocate finite national resources. And this budget, like his last one, shows that Trump wants to increase spending on the military and cut almost everything else. To take a few examples:
- Food stamps, a.k.a. SNAP, would lose $213.5 billion over the next ten years.
- The State Department would lose 26 percent of its funding this year.
- Low-income renters would get less help from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to "provide an incentive to increase their earnings."
- The EPA would lose 34 percent of its funding this year.
- The National Endowment for the Arts would end.
- Subsidized student loans would end, and a loan forgiveness program would be wiped out.
- Medicaid, which provides health insurance to the poor, would lose $250 billion over a decade.
- Even Medicare, the popular government health insurance program for seniors, would get a $236 billion (over a decade) cut in a line item marked "eliminate wasteful spending in Medicare and improve drug pricing and payment policies."
Progressives and advocacy groups were naturally outraged by these proposals, but what was equally striking is how thin the justification for the budget's priorities is. "Washington has a spending problem. Debt and deficits are not only a problem in and of themselves, but they are also the symptoms of something much larger—little appetite in the Congress to restrain spending," declares the document at the outset. What follows is a document that makes no effort whatsoever to restrain military spending. There's $23 billion set aside for border security, mostly consisting of that wall Mexico was supposed to pay for. (Last month, White House chief of staff John Kelly admitted the plan for the wall no longer included extracting cash from the Mexican government.) And thanks to the massive tax cut handed out late last year, the plan doesn't even balance the budget, which is often a stated goal of austerity. (Last year's budget proposal featured the same sort of draconian cuts, but at least promised to wipe out the deficit by 2027.)
The budget does ask for $13 billion to help fight the opioid crisis, and finally rolled out the administration long-awaited infrastructure plan. But that plan is relatively small, at $200 billion, and it's not clear where the money for that will come from and how it would ever get passed through Congress.
It's not exactly breaking news at this point that the president loves to talk in big numbers, but hates to get specific. So there's value in a budget document that puts exact amounts on what he cares about. He wants to combat opioids, he wants to incentivize a small amount of investment in infrastructure, and he wants to devastate the social safety net, the Department of Education, and the State Department. Oh, and he wants to make the military even more expensive.
Trump won't put it in those terms, of course. He likely won't talk much about that budget—the White House is reportedly looking to highlight "unexpected cultural flashpoints," this year, a.k.a. culture war BS like NFL players not standing for the national anthem, rather than substantive issues. That's because Trump got elected at least in part because he could play up his image as a populist who, unlike those out-of-touch establishment Republicans, would leave popular social safety net programs intact. But as president, he is devoting a large amount of energy to making it harder to be poor in America. That may sound harsh, but it's all right there on the page.
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