The budget outline released by the president’s Office of Management and Budget yesterday was indeed a hair-raising document reflecting the hard-core conservative ideology of the Trump administration despite its populist trappings. It deserved the opprobrium it drew from Republicans and Democrats alike.
But let’s be clear: Mick Mulvaney’s handiwork is largely an illusion. At the end of the day, Big Bird’s goose will not be cooked; Meals on Wheels will still roll; and the Pentagon may well have to get by with the mere half-trillion-dollars plus it was already slated to receive for the upcoming fiscal year.
There are four reasons “the Trump Budget” is far less than meets the eye:
1. The “Trump Budget” isn’t really a budget.
Stan Collender explains:
Trump’s so-called “skinny” budget includes proposals for just one-third of all federal spending, doesn’t mention revenues, doesn’t include any forecasts about the economy and doesn’t include a summary table showing what the federal deficit and debt will be because of his proposals.
To say the least, it’s fiscally incomplete.
Why is this document so sparse? Could be because Mulvaney was confirmed just a month ago and is operating with a skeleton staff like everybody else in this administration. And perhaps Collender is right that the whole thing is just a “Trump campaign press release masquerading as a government document.”
But the likeliest reason for the massive omissions is that the administration is dealing with entitlements (at least those related to Obamacare) in the budget-reconciliation bill that’s already well down the pike, and with taxes in a later reconciliation bill this spring or summer. This “budget” document deals with the leftovers, and was apparently motivated by the need to show which domestic discretionary programs would provide the savings for the big $54 billion defense increase Trump promised. As Mulvaney put it:
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.
So it’s about sending messages, not providing a real “budget.”
2. When it comes to discretionary spending, presidents propose but appropriators dispose. And appropriators don’t like to cut.
In the best of circumstances presidential budgets are recommended wish lists, particularly at the level of detail that involves individual programs and specific funding for them. The actual “budget,” to the extent there is any such thing, is the congressional budget resolution that sets out spending limits by category of programs. The real decisions for non-entitlement items, a.k.a. “discretionary” spending, are made via annual appropriations bills (lately big omnibus bills and temporary “continuing resolutions,” given the difficulty Congress has in passing the 13 individual bills they are supposed to enact).
The Appropriations Committees that supervise spending at the programmatic level tend to attract, even among Republicans, lawmakers who like government spending or at least parceling out government spending. And they famously don’t like “zeroing out” or eliminating funding. Like mama birds, they may have more or fewer worms available for any given meal, but they want to feed all the baby birds.
That is why the “Trump Budget” has so many targets on its kill list that have been on Republican kill lists quite literally since the famous Reagan Budget of 1981. The chairmen of the various Appropriations subcommittees are often called “the College of Cardinals.” Like their Vatican counterparts, they don’t like radical change.
3. Trump’s proposed defense-budget hikes break the “caps” on spending imposed by Congress and Obama in 2011. That’s a no-no.
If there’s anything real in the “Trump Budget,” it’s the $54 billion shift in funding from nondefense to defense accounts. Unfortunately, that’s $54 billion over the “caps” that the famous 2011 budget agreement between Congress and the Obama administration set up to limit spending for the foreseeable future. And that agreement is a matter of law, not custom or regulation, so the administration cannot just push it aside to shower more money on the Pentagon. It is enforced, moreover, by a process of automatic spending cuts for excess dollars called a “sequester” (or “sequesture,” as Donald Trump pronounces it).
The only way around the “sequester” is to ask for money in emergency “war” appropriations, but that’s a clumsy and politically perilous way to do it. And more importantly, all these appropriations measures are subject to Senate filibusters. Which leads us to the fourth reason the “Trump Budget” is an illusion:
4. You can’t boost defense spending as much as Trump wants without Democratic votes. And Democrats will insist on more, not less, domestic discretionary spending.
The only practical way to get a defense-spending increase that busts the caps set in 2011 yet avoids triggering a sequester is with Democratic votes. You can do anything with 60 Senate votes. But as happened in 2015 when Republicans (with support from the Obama administration) wanted to bust the defense cap, Democrats not surprisingly asked for a waiver of the caps limiting nondefense discretionary spending, too. And so they cut a deal.
Nothing in that basic dynamic has changed: If Trump and congressional Republicans are serious about getting a waiver of the defense-spending cap, they won’t be able to get it without the votes of Democrats who will insist on more, not less, of the spending that got hammered so notably in Mulvaney’s toxic little document. And if Team Trump decides the Pentagon can do without all that extra money after all, then there’s no reason to make all those domestic cuts to pay for it, right?
Any way you look at it, OMB’s drastic cuts ain’t happening, and in that respect as in others, the “Trump Budget” isn’t remotely as terrifying as it purports to be. There is a whole separate line of questions that can be asked about why the new administration chose to rattle hobgoblins at all the supporters and beneficiaries of the programs it pretends it is going to kill. Maybe, as Mulvaney’s own statement suggests, it’s all about conveying extreme “hard-power” masculine disdain for the squishy liberal priorities reflected in things like taking care of children and old folks. But the nursing homes and neonatal centers won’t be emptied just yet.