THE TRUMP BUDGET
“If I had sort of a subtitle for this budget, it would be the Taxpayer First Budget. This is, I think, the first time in a long time that an administration has written a budget through the eyes of the people who are actually paying the taxes. So often in Washington I think we look only on the recipient side: How does the budget affect those who either receive or don’t receive benefits? … Can I ask somebody, a family in Grand Rapids, Mich., to pay tax money to the government so that I can do X?”
— Mick Mulvaney,
President Trump’s budget is, in the words of one U.S. senator, “dead on arrival.” Why, of course. Whenever a president proposes a budget, it’s called DOA by those in Congress. That’s not surprising.
What is surprising is that this president — more populist than conservative — has proposed a budget that is being called the most conservative in decades. It’s as if this president and his fiscal hawks who put together the budget know that the national debt is approaching $20 trillion, and continued deficit spending is unsustainable and could, one day, lead to an economic crisis.
Let’s make clear that presidents never get their way on the budget. The old cliché and founding principle is that Congress holds the purse strings. But the president suggests. The president provides a direction. The president leads.
This president’s budget will not pass through Congress as is. But what a nice change for a president to start the conversation with the acknowledgement that government spends too much. For too long, whenever the apparatchiks in Washington put together the next year’s spending plan, the starting point always moved ahead a few inches. You see, if we spent X billion on such-andsuch program last year, we have to add 5 percent for the next budget because government always grows.
One trick is to assume a 5 percent growth in every program, and when conservatives suggest keeping the budget for one program static for one year, liberals cry that the deficit hawks were cutting. In Washington, not assuming and planning for government growth is actually a cut. Neat trick.
But let’s say, for academic reasons, that the Trump budget is the very first one in which a president gets everything he wants:
According to dispatches, the Department of Commerce would be cut 15.8 percent.
Another way to put it: The Department of Commerce would still have a budget of $7.8 billion.
In the 2018 fiscal budget, Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education would be cut 13.5 percent.
Another way to put it: taxpayers will still put $59 billion into education. And that’s just on the federal level.
The Department of Labor will be slashed by 20 percent.
Another way to put it: It’ll still have a budget of nearly $10 billion a year.
Nobody, not even the president’s people, think all those cuts will happen. The senators from farm states will attack the cuts to agriculture. The representatives from poor states will oppose the cuts to Medicaid. California pols will scream about the cuts to the EPA, and folks who live along the Mississippi might have second thoughts about reducing the size of the Corps of Engineers.
But there has to be a starting point. There has to be a baseline. It’s about time a president has told Congress he knows how negotiations work: I go low, you go high, and we meet somewhere in between. For too many years, presidents have told Congress: I go high, you go higher.
There’s a congressman from North Carolina, a Republican, named Mark Meadows. He’s the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, which is described as “hardline.” It’s so hardline that its chairman has a soft spot for Meals on Wheels and opposes cuts to that program. But, as Rep. Meadows put it:
“I’ve delivered meals to a lot of people that perhaps it’s their only hot meal of the day. And so I’m sure there’s going to be some give and take. But to throw out the entire budget just because you disagree with some of the principles would be inappropriate.”
What we have here is an attempt to communicate. And it’s anything but a failure. Because Congress has heard loud and clear. And one of the messages is this: The current occupant of the Oval Office is serious about the budget, and the national debt.
When was the last time anybody could say that?