Updated on March 16 at 9:53 a.m. ET
If Americans were taken aback by the restrained, highly scripted President Trump that addressed Congress last month, they should recognize a lot more of the blustery, law-and-order candidate they elected in the budget blueprint the White House released on Thursday.
“If he said it on the campaign, it’s in the budget,” the president’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, told reporters in a Wednesday briefing previewing the proposal’s release.
That means more money—some $54 billion in extra defense spending—for the military generals Trump loves to quote so much, and a lot less for the diplomatic niceties and programs combatting climate change that he so often dismissed. The State Department sees a 28 percent cut in the administration’s budget request, with a chunk of it coming from foreign aid. “It is not a soft-power budget,” Mulvaney explained. “This is a hard-power budget, and that was done intentionally. The president very clearly wants to send a message to our allies and to our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration.”
Trump is asking Congress for a down payment of more than $4 billion to fund his border wall, part of a $30 billion supplemental appropriations request to bolster national security. The Department of Homeland Security would see a 6 percent boost in the president’s first budget, which would also direct more money toward law enforcement and education programs promoting school choice.
Those increases, however, would be offset by what the administration is acknowledging are substantial cuts to domestic agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (31 percent), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (13 percent), and the Department of Agriculture (21 percent), among others. “There’s a lot of programs that simply cannot justify their existence and that’s where we zeroed in,” Mulvaney said. One of those programs, apparently, is Sesame Street: Mulvaney confirmed that the administration will seek to eliminate the federal government’s involvement with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which directs funds to public radio and TV stations. The CPB receives $445 million annually in federal funding, which Trump wants to drop to nearly zero in the coming years.
The proposed cuts don’t stop there. The Trump administration wants to eliminate federal funding of 19 agencies and commissions, including the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the Legal Services Corporation, the Institute of Peace, and an interagency council on homelessness. Some of those have long been targets of conservatives in Congress, but Democrats are expected to fight aggressively for their preservation, and it’s likely they retain majority support to continue.
Beyond the programs targeted for elimination, the Trump budget puts nearly every domestic Cabinet department on the chopping block. In the Department of Education, dozens of school and teacher grant programs would go, and the popular college work-study program would see significant cuts. In the Department of Commerce, NOAA gets slashed by billions, including the complete elimination of $250 million in grants for coastal and marine management. Funding for the National Institutes of Health—an agency with some of the most bipartisan support in Congress—would drop by nearly $6 billion, a cut 18 percent.
While DHS would see an overall boost in funding, support for the Federal Emergency Management Agency within the department would drop by $667 million. And despite Trump’s promise of significant investment in infrastructure, he would cut the Department of Transportation’s budget by 13 percent, including a significant reduction in the federal government’s support for Amtrak. Mulvaney said the initial cuts to transportation programs were designed to free up money that would later be used in the administration’s infrastructure proposal, which Trump has said could total more than $1 trillion in public and private spending.
Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the minority leader, vowed that Democrats would “emphatically” oppose the cuts. “Once again the Trump administration is showing its true colors: talk like a populist but govern like a special interests zealot,” he said in a statement. “This budget shifts the burden off of the wealthy and special interests and puts it squarely on the backs of the middle class and those struggling to get there.” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont called the proposal “morally obscene.”
Mulvaney said his office crafted the budget by going back and translating Trump’s actual words as a candidate into numbers. That makes sense—few responsibilities in presidential governing more closely resemble a campaign platform than the submission of a budget. It’s primarily a wish list of priorities that Congress is free to accept or ignore, and unlike traditional legislation, the final product is not something Trump will sign or veto. Republicans in the House and Senate will draft their own budget proposals, and it is the one they pass that will form the basis of the appropriation bills that actually fund the government’s departments and agencies.
The Trump blueprint, known in Washington as the “skinny budget,” has more detail than his campaign proposals, but not as much as a full budget; that won’t come until May. The document released Thursday will have top-line numbers requested for each agency, but not a line-item breakdown of every individual program the administration wants to cut. Mulvaney said that Cabinet secretaries will have more flexibility than they have had in the past to move money around where they see fit. And because of Trump’s desire to boost military spending without increasing the deficit, not all of his domestic priorities will see increases in funding. The president would trim NASA’s budget by about 1 percent, for example, despite his call before Congress to see “American footprints on distant worlds.” Trump’s repeated vow to revitalize the nation’s inner cities also is not translating into more money for HUD.
If enacted, Trump’s domestic cuts would likely result in a historic reduction in the size of the federal workforce, a development that would have significant ramifications for the economy of Washington, D.C., and surrounding suburbs in Maryland and northern Virginia. When a reporter at the White House asked about that prospect, Mulvaney was unapologetic. “We did not write this budget with an eye toward what it would do to the value of your condo,” he replied.
GOP lawmakers have already given a chilly response to Trump’s desire to finance a $54 billion increase in Pentagon spending solely with dramatic cuts to discretionary domestic programs. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina declared his slashing of foreign aid “dead on arrival,” and many other Republicans signaled uneasiness with cutting from the EPA and other agencies as much as the administration wants. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear that the Senate was unlikely to adopt Trump’s budget. (With just a 52-48 majority, it’s unclear whether Senate Republicans will be able to agree on their own budget proposal.)
Trump is not proposing a budget that increases the government’s projected $488 billion deficit in 2018, but nor is he calling for a budget that balances anytime soon, much to the consternation of conservatives. For that, he’d need to either raise taxes—a non-starter for Republicans—or tackle long-term mandatory spending by making cuts to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which he promised to protect during his campaign. “The president is going to keep the promises he made regarding those programs,” Mulvaney said. By supporting the House Republican health-care bill, however, Trump is already going after Medicaid, another entitlement program he at one time pledged not to chop.
The real fiscal battle in Congress will come not on Trump’s budget blueprint but on the appropriations bills, where Democrats will regain leverage because these measures require 60 votes to pass in the Senate. And that fight will begin with the administration’s $30 billion request for supplemental spending, which it wants lawmakers to approve as part of legislation to fund the government beyond April 29. Senate Democrats want to deny Trump the initial $1.5 billion he is seeking in the current fiscal year to get started on the border wall, and their refusal could spark a government-shutdown fight. Only once Congress figures out funding for the rest of 2017 can it begin debating appropriations for 2018.
Trump’s budget blueprint is more than symbolic, and certainly more consequential than the proposals former President Barack Obama sent for swift rejection by Republicans in his last years in office. GOP lawmakers won’t take his requests literally, but they will take them seriously (to borrow a line that’s back in the headlines). Trump has put specific dollar figures behind his priorities for the first time. The next big test, however, will be which ones he fights for when Congress decides how the money is spent.