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Trump Trolls the Welfare State

The winners and losers of his proposed budget

Don’t call it a budget. It’s really a hit list—a contract for a wave of program assassinations. As such it is as much a political provocation as an actual policy proposal. Their deficiencies aside, Trump & Co. are good at provocations. Critics will be encouraged to react in outraged defense of this or that specific program. The outrage is part of the plan. It’s the administration’s way of entertaining its base. Your tears are their balm.

The document released on Wednesday by the White House bears no resemblance to most budget documents of days gone by. It’s more like the last-minute delivery of a late term paper by some sleep-deprived undergraduate. The text has been scanned into a PDF file, rather than printed to a file, so you can’t search it. It is only sixty-two pages; complete federal budgets run to thousands of pages. There is gaping white space, blank pages, and oversized margins, devices remembered by every college student to inflate the apparent length of a submitted assignment.

But let’s not be superficial. A real budget provides a full accounting of proposed spending, and of the revenues to defray that spending. This is not that. To begin with, the spending discussed is limited to what are called “discretionary programs.” In 2017, this category covered less than 30 percent of total spending. Secondly, there is nothing about revenues. Consequently, there is no hint of the budget’s impact on the deficit or on the economy, typically important considerations in the evaluation of budgets.

It is telling that the programs named tend to be very small, but their names will resonate politically with the haters in the president’s base.

The claims in the document are much like those made by the president in his speeches—bombast unleavened by facts or logic. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney actually confirmed the document was written “using the president’s own words.” I believe him.

In his introductory message, Trump claims his defense increase in this “blueprint” is “one of the largest” but “without increasing the debt.” The reason is that defense increases are offset, dollar for dollar, by cuts in non-defense programs. This is hard to support or debunk due to the lack of detail provided, but it is in keeping with Trump’s Manichean view of the world. As in life, in the budgetary context, programs are either winners or they are losers.

In his briefing, Mulvaney acknowledged that while the proposals in the blueprint would not increase the deficit or the debt, they would not reduce it either. In fact, Mulvaney said, the budget will not reduce the projected deficit of $488 billion for Fiscal Year 2018 (which runs from October of this year through September of 2018). After all of Trump’s bloviating about the perils of the public debt (chronically exaggerated by both parties), the new acceptance of Obama’s deficit is amusing.

There is really no hint of the budget’s impact on debt in the actual document. There can’t be, because total numbers for neither spending nor revenues are provided. It’s like a contractor’s remodeling estimate without a bottom line.

What of the discretionary programs themselves? The lead-off “Highlights” section features a list of programs condemned to termination. The typical excuse for the latter in the text is usually some brief blather about duplication or about lack of evidence for a program’s effectiveness. It is telling that the programs named tend to be very small, but their names will resonate politically with the haters in the president’s base. The National Endowment for the Arts. The National Endowment for the Humanities. The Legal Services Corporation. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The African Development Foundation. Black folks and pointy-headed intellectuals, cut down to size!

An emphasis in the document and in Mulvaney’s presentation is the hit on foreign aid, in keeping with the “America First” shtick. Much larger, more politically dodgy cuts are buried in succeeding pages, such as the elimination of the Community Development Block Grant—the largest non-education grant to local governments left in the federal budget. We could also note the abolition of the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, the Community Development Financial Institutions program, and the Essential Air Service program (for rural airports), all of which serve some of Trump’s most fervent supporters. Terminations include the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, vital to people in the Northeast, and a large 20 percent cut to the Department of Agriculture.

There is more than a passing resemblance here to the first Reagan budget, in 1981.

Trump the candidate made a lot of hay out of his background as a developer (“builder” is not quite precise) and his pledge to rebuild the country’s aging infrastructure, generating many jobs in the process. President Trump is putting this dish on the back burner. Infrastructure funding comes from the discretionary portion of the budget, and in the “blueprint,” likely sources of such funding such as the Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers are slated for very large cuts (13 percent and 16 percent, respectively). In his briefing on March 16, Mulvaney said infrastructure legislation would come after health care and tax reform, which could mean not this year. The only building to go forward will be less than $2 billion to start the famous wall. This effort will depend on finding money that does not come from Mexico. We will rebuild America only after we build that wall.

There is more than a passing resemblance here to the first Reagan budget, in 1981. After decades of inveighing against the national debt, Reagan lead the Republicans to record deficits, even after gutting the remnants of Great Society anti-poverty programs from the 1970s, thanks to an expanded defense budget and massive tax cuts.

Reagan’s job approval reached a high of 68 percent, early in his first term. (The assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr., in March of 1981 was actually followed by a very small increase.) By January of 1983, however, his rating had sunk below 40 percent. This drop transpired over the course of a nasty recession.

Donald Trump enjoys a better economy, thanks to the previous eight years of the Obama administration, among other factors, but his job approval is just barely north of 40 percent. Unlike his financial status, in presidential politics he has not been born on Third Base. It could be a long way home.