Today, the president’s proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2019 (which begins next October 1) will be released, and you can expect to hear much wailing and gnashing of teeth from advocates for this or that program that is being theoretically gored by the document.
In reality, presidential budgets have been mostly symbolic for a long time. Before the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, congressional committees with jurisdiction over spending and revenues might or might not use the presidential document as a benchmark, and after 1974, Congress had its own process for putting together a budget that really didn’t involve the president at all. There have been rare occasions where Congress deferred to an administration’s budget preferences (most famously in 1981 when Ronald Reagan’s budget director David Stockman temporarily rode herd over lawmakers). But for the most part, the documents are hortatory, much as they routinely discomfit bureaucrats who become aware that the politicians running the executive branch disdain their work enough to suggest their funding be reduced or eliminated.
Much as nearly every presidential budget should be taken with a shaker of salt, Trump’s latest offering should be imbibed with a salt lick the size of the White House, for four main reasons.
1. Congress just enacted a two-year budget deal. The ink is barely dry on a 600-page bill that sets overall budget parameters and even some specific spending levels for individual programs. It was prepared with, at most, minimal executive-branch input (and that was mostly from the Pentagon). And it was certainly too recent to have been incorporated into the president’s budget, even though it changed all of the spending baselines.
The honest thing for Trump to have done after signing the budget deal on Friday morning would have been to delay the release of his own budget. It’s a sign of its irrelevance that he didn’t bother to do so.
2. An omnibus appropriations bill for the current fiscal year has not yet been completed. The president’s budget is for the next fiscal year (FY 2019). Specific-program appropriations for the current fiscal year (FY 2018) are in the process of being shaped by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, who can now proceed to wrap their handiwork into a giant “omnibus” bill between now and the time the latest stopgap spending bill expires in March. So in terms of funding levels, the ground is literally shifting every day, and there’s no reason to think that the appropriators will put aside their decisions in order to defer to the wisdom of Mick Mulvaney and his Office of Management and Budget.
To put it another way: If the people in Congress (members of the president’s own party, mind you) to whom the president’s budget is addressed are not paying any attention to it, why should you?
3. Congress isn’t even planning to adopt a budget resolution this year. The way the budget process works, on paper, is that the president proposes a budget in February, Congress adopts its own “budget resolution” by May, and then congressional committees implement the budget resolution through appropriations bills and, when necessary, a “budget reconciliation” bill forcing spending levels into line. That’s actually the mechanism whereby Congress enacted tax cuts and tried to repeal Obamacare last year.
Mitch McConnell has made it extremely clear that he doesn’t want any more high-stakes reconciliation bills (which, when unsuccessful, expose the disunity in the majority party) between now and the midterm elections. And at the recent GOP congressional retreat, the chairman of the House Budget Committee “let it be known that he and his committee had much better things to do than a 2019 budget resolution.” With Republicans standing pat going into November and hoping that the tasty treat of tax cuts is what voters remember of their legislative product, the idea that they’d undertake the kind of effort required to implement the wildly unpopular domestic budget cuts that Trump’s budget outlines is, well, crazy. Sure, Paul Ryan would like to go after “welfare” or “entitlements” this year, but other than whatever the administration can do by regulations or executive orders, it just ain’t happening.
4. It’s all for show anyway. Even within the administration, there’s not much pretense of interest in trying to reshape the federal government through budget decisions this year. Axios has the inside skinny:
With the House in danger in November’s midterms, a Republican close to the White House tells me this is a year for pumping Trump’s base on taxes, economic growth and the wall (or the fight for the wall), “while the Dems help with focus on immigrants. For Rs, this is a year to avoid losing.”
So ignore the documents and blather today.
If you want an idea of the kind of initiative the administration is really interested in promoting this year, think of deep, substantive issues like the NFL’s policy on kneeling during the national anthem. Everything else, to quote Third Way’s Matt Bennett, are “Potemkin legislative efforts” — e.g., phony-baloney “proposals” like Mulvaney’s budget.
It’s worth knowing what priorities the president and his people would set if they had unlimited power. But for now, they don’t, and this budget is like a bad nightmare that fades in the morning light.