After a considerable period of time in which other aspects of the Republican agenda held center stage, we are beginning to see some renewed attention to lurid plans to hammer federal spending programs that disproportionately benefit the poor. Politico raised the alarm over the weekend:
President Donald Trump’s refusal to overhaul Social Security and Medicare — and his pricey wish-list for infrastructure, a border wall and tax cuts — is sending House budget writers scouring for pennies in politically sensitive places: safety-net programs for the most vulnerable.
This moment comes after Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have concluded that their original idea of paying for high-end tax cuts by finding new sources of revenue — say, closing loopholes or creating new taxes — is a whole lot easier said than done. The original House GOP idea of a border-adjustment tax has all but expired after intense criticism from retailers and an at-best tepid response from the White House. Trump administration trial balloons about a value-added tax or a carbon tax were shot down before they cleared the treeline. There was never any serious interest in going after the largest tax loopholes, the charitable and mortgage interest deductions. Current talk about eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes may be more a matter of blue-state-baiting — or perhaps a hostage-taking exercise aimed at securing some unspecified Democratic concession down the road — than a practical option.
So if — and this is a very big if — Republicans really care about budget deficits, but won’t let that get in the way of treating America’s rich to a tax-cut banquet, then that just leaves one option:
Under enormous internal pressure to quickly balance the budget, Republicans are considering slashing more than $400 billion in spending through a process to evade Democratic filibusters in the Senate, multiple sources told POLITICO.
The proposal, which would be part of the House Budget Committee’s fiscal 2018 budget, won’t specify which programs would get the ax; instead it will instruct committees to figure out what to cut to reach the savings. But among the programs most likely on the chopping block, the sources say, are food stamps, welfare, income assistance for the disabled and perhaps even veterans benefits.
The most debatable premise of Politico’s analysis is that Republicans are under “enormous internal pressure to quickly balance the budget.” Yes, some House Freedom Caucus members would like to project that impression, but the more important thing to understand about today’s conservatives is that for reasons of ideology they want to cut safety-net programs whether or not it’s necessary to balance the budget or “pay for” tax cuts. So of course they will seize on any pretext to bring back the same old proposals, many of them dating all the way back to the Reagan administration. The same is true of the non-mandatory domestic-spending programs disproportionately benefiting the poor or reflecting “liberal” cultural values that are funded through the appropriations process. These were featured prominently in the Trump administration’s rough outline of a budget released back in March: deep cuts in or actual elimination of programs ranging from low-income energy assistance to the Appalachian Regional Commission to the Legal Services Corporation to AmeriCorps, all long-standing GOP targets in good times and bad, whether or not deficits were a major concern.
Raising the old battle standards and threatening an assault on poor-people programs (the largest of them all, Medicaid, is already under assault in the American Health Care Act) is of particular interest to those Republicans who are furious at Trump for declaring Medicare and Social Security off-limits for budget cutters. Perhaps provoking Democrats and progressive advocacy groups into howls of pain and rage over the programs that are still on the table could produce a reconsideration of that decision!
In any event, early talk about safety-net cuts by Republicans whispering to Politico should be taken with a large grain of salt. Yes, many of them would love to cut SNAP and what’s left of “welfare” and restrict eligibility for Social Security Disability along with Medicaid. But they aren’t being driven tragically to those extreme steps because they are obsessed with budget deficits or can’t imagine passing tax cuts without “offsets.” The one thing that Trump-era Republicans share with their predecessors of the last 35 years is a determination to pursue high-end tax cuts to hell and back, under any imaginable circumstances. If that tasty entrée comes with a side order of budget cuts affecting the poor, that’s even better, but the GOP is not going to pass up tax cuts out of concern for the country’s fiscal health.