I’ve but a few points to add to the reams of analysis I’ve read on the Trump administration’s first budget (if I may put in a plug for the home team, the most comprehensive coverage I’ve seen is right here at WaPo).
1) A new administration’s first budget is typically “skinny” as it is still getting staffed up. But, as Richard Kogan of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, this one is downright emaciated (that’s why, in the title, I call this a “budget” rather than a budget). It covers only the 30 percent of the federal spending that’s discretionary (funds that must be appropriated each year vs. the mandatory programs, such as Social Security), leaves out any tax plans (so no information on revenue), and thus provides no grand totals on either spending, revenue and their difference: the deficit. That’s one reason I stand strongly by point No. 8 below (while it’s still very important to grok its implications, this budget ain’t going anywhere as is).
2) The most widely reported point about the overall thrust of the budget is its ploughshares-to-swords theme: President Trump proposes to raise defense spending by $54 billion and, to maintain revenue neutrality, cut non-defense discretionary (NDD) spending to make up the difference.
3) Since much NDD spending helps less-advantaged families and communities, that makes this budget a close cousin of the Republicans’ Obamacare replacement. While that benighted plan proposes to transfer almost a trillion dollars out of Medicaid and tax subsidies (that make insurance more affordable for low-income, moderate-income and older people) to the wealthiest households in tax cuts, this one pays for its defense plus-up by cutting job training, worker protections, student aid and college assistance, housing assistance for low-income renters, heating-bill assistance for low-income elders, Meals on Wheels and more.
4) Sticking with this theme of reverse-Robin-Hoodism, under the auspices of “recogniz[ing] a greater role for State and local governments and the private sector to address community and economic development needs,” the administration would also eliminate a number of programs designed to help disadvantaged places, including the Community Development Block Grant, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, the Economic Development Administration, Choice Neighborhoods, the Self-help Homeownership Opportunity Program and the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. The claim is that these programs do not have successful track records. That is, of course, a relevant budgeting criterion, and improving the effectiveness of federal funds targeted at high-need communities is a worthy goal. But just pulling federal support from those communities — which this budget proposes — is not an attempt to accomplish that goal. Instead, language about “devolv[ing] … activities to the State and local level” is code for Trump’s intent to abandon the very places he once promised to revitalize.
5) While I hate to remind you of a nasty, unfortunate word, it’s important to recall that because of “sequestration,” wherein Congress agreed to cap discretionary spending at fixed amounts, NDD spending is already at a historic low (see figure).
6) “But wait,” you ask (if you’re still with me). How can Trump plus-up defense given sequestration rules? I’ll get to that in point No. 8, but it’s one reason I don’t think this budget is going anywhere. To be fair, that alone does not distinguish it from far more thoughtful, detailed budgets. This process has been thoroughly broken for many years.
7) While analysis of this budget proposal has been extensive, there is one point on which I’ve seen too little analysis: Does the Defense Department really require an extra $54 billion to meet its mission? Lawrence Korb, who has street cred in this space, emphatically says no here. “Just as the sequester is a non-strategic and unwise way to limit a budget, increased funding that is not connected to a sound defensive strategy for the demands we face today will be non-strategic, wasteful, and do more harm than good.”
8) I’m confident this budget isn’t going anywhere legislatively. Depending on some arcane Senate rules, raising the defense cap is likely to invoke a filibuster, meaning the Republicans would need at least eight Democrats to sign on. Of course, it’s possible that some Senate Democrats would be uncomfortable filibustering defense appropriations, but that’s a heavy lift. Moreover, once you start dinging this many programs, you’re bound to hit stuff to which even constituents of hard-right tea party lawmakers object. A small but pointed example: I’ve already heard Republican blowback to cuts of subsidized air travel to rural areas. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) has raised concerns regarding further domestic spending cuts, as has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) regarding the historically large 29 percent cut to the State Department’s budget. From 30,000 feet up, aggregated spending cuts often look a lot more attractive than on the ground level.
Like I said, this won’t be the first budget by a long shot to meet with congressional resistance, but remember, this is a Republican Congress, so you’d expect it to be much more welcoming. From where I sit, part of what’s going on here is that as good as it is at PR and riling up the base, team Trump is extremely challenged when it comes to governing (see Ron Klain’s excellent analysis of this point). The president can sign his name, so some — thanks to the courts, not all — of his executive orders are in play. But beyond that, it hasn’t passed one piece of legislation, including the main things Trump ran on, such as health-care reform, tax cuts, the wall or trade negotiations.
Sure, it’s still early days. But the Trump administration is learning that governing is hard. At least, that’s what I hope it is learning.