Within the thousands of pages the White House transmitted to Congress on Monday morning as part of President Trump’s second annual budget request, there is a line that pretty much sums up the whole ritual.
“Many of the eliminations and reductions in this volume reflect a continuation of policies proposed in the 2018 President’s Budget that have not yet been enacted
by the Congress,” the sentence reads. It’s included in the introduction of a 222-page document titled “Major Savings and Reforms.”
Those are all the cuts the Trump administration is proposing, and they’re going nowhere.
Trump again wants to take a meat cleaver to the Environmental Protection Agency, chopping its budget by one-third. He’s asking Congress to scrap entirely community-development block grants and heating assistance for low-income housing. And he wants to eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the national endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, and a slew of other independent agencies.
The proposals prompted an outcry from Democrats, advocacy groups, and activists. But there wasn’t much cause for alarm: Congress ignored most of them last year, and lawmakers are even more likely to ignore them again this year.
For good measure, Trump is proposing hundreds of billions in new cuts to Medicare, a program he vowed as a candidate to leave alone and which he generally laid off a year ago. But those reductions, too, aren’t going to happen.
Why the disconnect? While the Trump administration is proposing the cuts to offset big funding increases for defense and border security, Congress has already decided to just spend more on everything. In a rare moment of bipartisan accord, lawmakers last week adopted a two-year budget agreement that calls for $300 billion in additional spending. That deal supersedes both the dead-on-arrival fiscal 2018 budget proposal Trump issued last May and the similarly doomed 2019 blueprint the White House delivered on Monday.
Congress still needs to pass an omnibus spending bill that will actually appropriate money for the remainder of the fiscal year in accordance with the budget caps that the House and Senate approved last week. But the appropriations bills that House Republicans advanced last summer for fiscal year 2018 offer a clue into just how far apart the Trump administration is from its ostensible allies on Capitol Hill.
While the president called for reducing the EPA’s budget by one-third, House Republicans proposed cutting it by just 6 percent. They went for a much more modest cut to the State Department, not the sharp reductions the White House wanted. They increased funding for medical research rather than cut it as Trump proposed. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities similarly saw only small reductions in the GOP proposal. And because the House drafts did not reflect the bipartisan agreement for more spending that was reached last week, those departments and agencies might be spared altogether in the next two years.
The budget deal in Congress scrambled the administration’s plans for 2019, prompting Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to adjust Trump’s proposals to account for the higher spending lawmakers agreed to. Mulvaney is the principal author of the budget blueprint, and the most dramatic cuts reflect his ideology as a spending hawk more than the president’s own tolerance for debt. The revised, $4.4 trillion budget proposal restored some major cuts to the State Department that were not enacted last year, as well as other reductions across the government. But the administration intentionally did not increase its proposed spending as high as Congress would have allowed. “These are spending caps. They’re not spending floors,” Mulvaney said on Fox News Sunday. “So you don’t have to spend all that.”
The last-minute changes weren’t enough to assuage the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Ed Royce of California. He vowed: “A strong, bipartisan coalition in Congress has already acted once to stop deep cuts to the State Department and Agency for International Development that would have undermined our national security. This year, we will act again.”
Still, the White House blueprint is, like the budget agreement in Congress, a significant departure from the thrifty Republican proposals of the past. Those plans called for eliminating federal deficits within a decade or less—no matter what kind of fiscal austerity that would require. This year’s Trump budget would not balance in that window, and although it would cut $3 trillion in spending over a decade, it would add $7 trillion to the national debt over the same time. In that way, the plan is a nod to the new tax-less-and-spend-more reality of Trump’s Washington: After a $1.5 trillion tax cut and a $300 billion spending increase, Republicans can no longer promise a balanced budget in the foreseeable future.
Within that context, the Trump proposals that stand the better chance of winning congressional approval are those that call for more spending. He’s already succeeded, for example, in persuading lawmakers to give a big infusion of funding to the military. His budget includes an additional $10 billion to fight the opioid epidemic, following on Congress’s approval of $6 billion in new money for the crisis. Trump also wants $25 billion to construct his border wall, a sum that Democrats might accept if it accompanies a broader deal to provide a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
The biggest new proposal in the president’s budget is his long-awaited infrastructure plan, which calls for the federal government to use $200 billion as incentives to generate $1.5 trillion in new investment by state and local governments and private entities. But there again, the only way that proposal is getting through is if Congress can spend much more than the administration wants. “This proposal provides pennies to infrastructure projects while cash-strapped communities are forced to spend money they don’t have or else sell off highways and railroads to Wall Street,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said. “If the president truly wants a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, I’m all for it. Let’s repeal his giant tax giveaway to the rich and use that money to start rebuilding America.” In the closely divided Senate, Democrats will have a large say in whether an infrastructure package will pass, and what it looks like.
Trump isn’t alone in sending budget proposals to Congress that lawmakers could just as easily use as doorstops. Most of former President Barack Obama’s fiscal plans fared even worse under Republican majorities. The president’s budget is a useful statement of priorities, particularly for a president that likes to talk about ideas more than he likes to articulate them in detail. But Trump’s first-year record shows that his budget isn’t much of a road map to legislation, and the many cuts he proposes generally aren’t worth all the fuss.