Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mr. Trump’s Tear-Down Budget

Photo
CreditAJ Dungo
The White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, defended the president’s budget proposal for 2018 by saying it puts numbers on Mr. Trump’s campaign promises.
That it does, but in so doing, it shows that many of those promises simply cannot be kept. As he pledged, Mr. Trump would spend heavily on the military and border security — but only, as it turns out, by spending far less in areas like education and infrastructure that he had once deemed important.
This is, of course, very much a political document, full of bluster and preposterous cuts that Mr. Trump must know that Congress, including many Republicans, will not accept. But the spirit behind the “budget blueprint” is clear enough: With a few big exceptions, Mr. Trump is in full tear-down mode.
He would cut the State Department by 29 percent, enfeebling diplomacy and international aid, while relying more on military might to protect national interests. He would cut the Department of Health and Human Services by 16 percent, undermining vital research by the National Institutes of Health. Smaller agencies that promote justice, arts and letters would be eliminated entirely, including the Legal Services Corporation, which finances legal aid groups; the National Endowment for the Arts; the National Endowment for the Humanities; and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The budget would raise spending in only three of 17 major categories — Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs — while slashing it in most of the rest. Hardest hit would be the Environmental Protection Agency, with a cut of 31 percent. These cuts would end climate change research — a global setback. They would eliminate money to carry out President Obama’s plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants — the centerpiece of his strategy to combat global warming. They also would disadvantage states that went for Mr. Trump. For Wisconsin and Michigan, for example, the budget would zero out initiatives to restore the Great Lakes. For Virginia, it would end restoration of Chesapeake Bay, whose watershed affects Pennsylvania also. Farm states, which largely supported Mr. Trump, would face a 21 percent reduction in the Department of Agriculture. Rural Americans would also be hurt by the elimination of federal aid to rural airports and reductions in subsidies for long-distance Amtrak services, while low-income Americans in general would see the end of $3 billion in block grants to states and localities for Meals on Wheels, housing aid and other community assistance.
And yet, for all the pain it proposes, the budget summary is pathetically weak on substance and analysis. It deals only with discretionary spending, the roughly one-third of the budget for which Congress is supposed to appropriate money annually. Unlike the first-year, so-called skinny budgets offered by presidents going back to Ronald Reagan, it omits any figures on mandatory programs, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as estimates of tax revenues, interest payments or deficits, and any explanation of the document’s underlying economic assumptions.
The excuse being floated in Washington for these omissions is that Mr. Mulvaney’s confirmation hearing in the Senate was drawn out. But the Trump team had as much or more time between confirmation of a budget director and release of the budget as Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton. In any event, if it needed more time to do a good job, it could have taken it.
One possible, even plausible, reason for the substance-lite nature of the document, which makes meaningful debate about it impossible, is incompetence. Or the administration could be deploying a piecemeal strategy to make it harder for the public to follow its thinking.
If the document had dealt with taxes, for instance, as previous skinny budgets have, it would have been clear that Mr. Trump could avoid deep spending cuts if he were willing to forgo tax cuts for the wealthy. If it had included robust numbers on Social Security and Medicare — which Mr. Trump has pledged not to cut — he would signal to budget hawks that he means it when he says the programs should not be touched. As it is, his proposed cuts in discretionary programs give members of Congress who have Social Security and Medicare in their sights an opening to argue for cutting them instead of the programs targeted by Mr. Trump.
This document is at once scary and uninformative. Taken at face value, it would impose pain for pain’s sake. Looked at more broadly, it tees up spending cuts that will be needlessly deep in order to accommodate tax cuts.

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