Donald Trump is nothing if not a man of vision — a destructive vision, to be sure, soaked in blood-and-soil nationalism and open contempt for the poor. He’s not always so skilled at executing that vision, a failure aptly demonstrated by the fate of his first budget. The administration’s most drastic proposals, which would have zeroed out funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts in addition to cuts to entitlement programs like SNAP, mostly didn’t survive Congress. No president ever gets everything they want from a budget, but Trump’s first effort was notable for the obvious, wide gap between it and political reality.
Trump is a slow learner. His latest budget, released on Monday morning, closely resembles his inaugural attempt, as it, too, contains welfare cuts that are likely to create a public relations problem for the Republican Party. It probably won’t fare any better than its predecessor, and it sets up a costly political battle for Republicans, who will have to convince voters, again, that they’re motivated by something other than pure animus for the poor. They’ll have a difficult time making themselves heard over the president’s budget, which whittles down some of the most popular entitlement programs in the country partly to secure funding for his border fence.
Medicaid, which provides health-care coverage to low-income beneficiaries, is one of the biggest losers in this year’s budget. As reported by the Washington Post, the budget would cut Medicaid spending by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, end funding for Medicaid expansion, and allocate $1.2 trillion to a system that would allocate Medicaid funding in block grants to each state. The budget also suggests a per-person cap for Medicaid spending in addition to broad work requirements. Most experts agree that block granting Medicaid funding would, in practice, amount to spending cuts — and cuts aren’t a new priority for the Trump administration. Under Trump, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reliably grants waivers to states whose legislators want to attach work requirements to Medicaid, even though that policy cuts thousands of low-income people from the program. Seema Verma, the administrator of CMS, has praised the waivers as a way for states to “innovate” and reduce “dependency” on government aid. Similar language, promoting cuts as a path to “self-sufficiency,” appears in this year’s budget.
The budget has more bad news for the poor. Able-bodied individuals who receive housing assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development would have to contribute more toward their rents; the non-elderly and able-bodied poor would also have to work or study at least 20 hours per week. Food assistance would be reduced, too. Not only does the budget propose cutting the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program by $220 billion over the next ten years, it revives the notion of America’s Harvest Boxes, which the administration first floated in its 2019 budget proposal. Low-income families would receive boxes of government-purchased, nonperishable food items in lieu of an EBT card they can use at grocery stores. (A version of the Harvest Box program already exists: The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations operates along similar lines, and research has shown that the food provided to reservations often doesn’t meet the USDA’s established nutritional standards.)
We already knew that Trump wants to cut welfare, so by that metric, the contents of today’s budget aren’t a surprise. But they provide further confirmation that the president is committed to shrinking the size of the government, even though many of his proposed cuts are dead in the water with Democrats in control of the House. Trump’s budget won’t survive Congress unscathed, and neither will his party.
Monday’s budget is also proof that the president has learned little from his party’s recent legislative failures. Regarding Medicaid, the budget explicitly calls for “legislation modeled after the Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson bill,” a health-care bill that would have replaced the Affordable Care Act with a block grant program in 2017. Though Republicans controlled Congress, the bill was so draconian it never made it to Trump’s desk. And that was a compromise bill, designed to fulfill the GOP’s promise to repeal and replace the ACA with something more palatable than its previous attempts at legislation. The American Health Care Act, which would have replaced the ACA with legislation that didn’t include protections for people with preexisting conditions, polled so abysmally that the party abandoned it, too. According to one Quinnipiac poll, only 21 percent of Americans approved of the AHCA. Medicaid, meanwhile, tends to be very popular, and so does Medicaid expansion.
Trump has risked another government shutdown over politically unpopular provisions that won’t even get the full support of his party. It’s a bizarre blunder, and one that probably reveals the extent to which the president and members of his administration have become blinded by their own hostility to welfare.