With the release of his first budget proposal Thursday, President Trump is aiming to make good on his promise to dramatically change how federal dollars are divided among the government’s departments and agencies.
As shown in The Washington Post’s graphic below, Trump’s budget calls for double-digit cuts to the Education, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development departments. Spending would be slashed even more steeply for the Agriculture, Labor and State departments. The Environmental Protection Agency comes under particular fire: Trump’s 31 percent cut to the EPA’s budget would bring it to its lowest level in the agency’s four-decade history.
By contrast, Trump’s budget envisions substantial shifts in federal spending toward the Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments.
Trump’s plan should sound familiar. When Republicans are in power in Washington, the share of the federal budget devoted to the military tends to grow, while allocations toward domestic programs tend to shrink. This philosophy has guided GOP fiscal policy since at least the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981. It is sustained by influential Republican Party leaders, who surveys show worry much more about national security (and high taxes) than most other problems. According to public opinion polls, rank-and-file Republican voters share these concerns.
For their part, Democratic lawmakers, elites and voters care about issues that are the mirror image of those prioritized by Republicans. These include the environment, poverty, education and health care.
These enduring priorities have become critical elements of both parties’ brands in the public’s mind, a phenomenon that political scientists call “issue ownership.” The figure below comes from my book on issue ownership, in which I looked at thousands of survey questions over the past four decades asking Americans which party is better able to “handle” or “deal with” issues.
The graph shows the relative advantage (in percentage points) held by Republicans and Democrats in these surveys over time. Since the 1970s, Republicans have consistently owned issues such as the military and domestic security while Democrats have maintained ownership over issues such as poverty, education and the environment.
A glance between this figure and the previous graphic reveals that Trump’s budget proposal is basically issue ownership on steroids. There is a nearly 1-to-1 correspondence between issues that the Democrats own and programs that Trump wants to cut. That includes federal spending on the environment, education and programs for the poor and unemployed.
Trump’s proposed spending increases on the military and domestic security are issues owned solidly by the Republican Party. The big exception is foreign affairs: Trump’s huge cut to the State Department is at odds with the fact that the GOP has owned this issue for much of recent history.
Of course, Trump’s proposal is just his opening bid in upcoming budget negotiations with the GOP-controlled Congress, which will undoubtedly make significant changes to the plan. Some congressional Republicans have expressed concern about the extent to which it cuts funding for popular domestic programs.
But they shouldn’t be surprised: After all, Trump’s plan hews closely to Republican budget orthodoxy and reflects the GOP’s brand.
It should also be noted that the Trump proposal only covers what’s known as “discretionary spending.” Most of the remainder — about two-thirds of the federal budget — is committed by law to pay for entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. During the campaign, Trump pledged not to cut these programs — an unusual move for a Republican candidate to make regarding programs long owned by Democrats. But Trump’s appointment of budget director Mick Mulvaney — who called for cuts in the growth of these programs during his confirmation hearing in January — suggests that the president’s approach on these issues may ultimately conform to the predictions of issue ownership theory, too. Ditto for Trump’s support for the GOP plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which includes cuts to Medicaid and reductions in taxes fully in line with the parties’ ownership of these issues.
Donald Trump has upended many long-established norms and expectations in American politics. But so far, his moves have done little to shift which issues are owned by Democrats and Republicans. If Trump’s budget proposal is any indication, he intends no change in the battle lines drawn between the two parties — now decades old — over federal spending priorities. As a result, we will probably see very little change in the public’s assessments of the parties’ relative strengths at handling the issues that make up America’s policy agenda.