We hesitate to place too much emphasis on the president’s budget because, like last year’s, it will be almost entirely ignored by a GOP-controlled Congress that frankly has no appetite for things like cutting Medicare or doing away with all foreign aid (which, as the smarter ones know, is a sliver of the budget but an important soft-power tool). While the budget won’t foretell the final product, it is revealing of the failed vision of President Trump and his party.
Trump ran on preserving entitlements and on making health care less expensive. He is delivering (or wants to deliver) hollowed-out government. We are spending more, but his base is getting less — and the debt is getting bigger.
Consider the middle class Trump voter in the Rust Belt. He might get a few hundred dollars in tax cuts (if he pays federal income tax at all) but he’s likely going to pay more to visit a national park or use an airport; more for his family’s health care purchased in the individual exchange; and more to take care of an aging relative. The cost of putting his child through college will go up too. The infrastructure around him will continue to crumble and make commuting a nightmare. Air quality and drinking water may not be as pristine as he is accustomed. And the big manufacturing plant still isn’t open and he still doesn’t have the skills for a good-paying high-tech job. Is his quality of his life any better? Does he have more disposable income and more security, or is he just getting less from government?
It used to be that Republican reformers talked about giving taxpayers their money’s worth; now they aren’t giving taxpayers much of anything they want. The government is still very big and the debt even bigger but it does less for that Trump voter, who could use some of what government has delivered. That’s a political problem — what’s in it for me? — that Republicans face after they gave a tax cut tipped heavily to the rich, and demonstrated a cavalier attitude toward running clean, effective government.
Trump’s budget also reveals his bait-and-switch on infrastructure. Democratic politicos might consider carting around a goose egg to their news conferences. That’s about what the plan is worth — a big fat goose egg. What about the $200 billion outlay? Even that’s a bit of a sham. As critics note: “In its fiscal year 2019 budget request, which was also released on Monday, Team Trump lays out a remarkably austere path for roads, bridges, and especially transit systems, with as much as $275 billion in cuts to infrastructure programs.” Democrats are also highlighting the transportation cuts. While the White House disputed his figures, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) identified more than $240 billion in proposed cuts over the coming decade to an array of existing infrastructure programs — a higher number than what Trump is proposing in ‘new’ spending.” Even if the cuts don’t gobble up all the new money, the plan essentially foists the responsibility for funding infrastructure on the states.
This is a perverse form of federalism. Republican reformers who have urged power devolve from Washington have generally recognized that the funding — or at least most of it — would still come from feds. “Block grants” have been the rage for years in conservative policy circles. Trump instead dumps the entire problem into the laps of states.
Democratic governors were not amused. “The president’s plan, unfortunately, abandons the federal government’s responsibility,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said in a written statement. “His plan would essentially throw states a few Legos when what we really need is concrete and steel. His $1.5-trillion plan expects state, local and private partners to pick up more than 85 percent of the tab. States cannot and should not bear the burden of building a 21st-century infrastructure system on our own.”
“Overall, industries appear dissatisfied with the package, given its heavy reliance on the private sector and nebulous guidance for rebuilding and repairing the nation’s infrastructure. Perhaps businesses were expecting more federal involvement; rather, Trump’s plan gives them permission — and not as much funding — to tackle the enormous infrastructure problem.”
Again, the federal government isn’t giving to states and, in turn, their residents much of anything. Corporations and high-income individuals got their tax cuts, but they aren’t going to turn around and build roads and bridges.
Despite having become the governing party, Republicans still show little interest or competence in governing with a broad-based vision of what quaintly used to be called the “public good.” The GOP no longer objects to big government but, by the same token, it is not providing a lot of services or outlays that helps a broad swath of Americans. Trump and the GOP remain adamantly opposed to building and spending in ways that would bolster wages and productivity. Voters aren’t getting the big, beautiful infrastructure plan or the fabulous health-care plan Trump promised. They are seeing however that Trump (if not his party) is willing to retreat on promises not to cut entitlements. And like plutocrats of old, the Republicans still yearn to cut social safety net spending. It’s not clear how all of this makes the country as a whole better, richer or more secure.