Chattanooga Times Free Press - - OPIN­ION -

“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,

bud­get di­rec­tor

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?

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