The president’s 2020 Budget. Does anyone remember it? It was big news a few weeks ago, but you know how this president is. It’s something new every day, making yesterday’s priorities fade into the myst of forgetfulness. I started writing this column about the budget almost two weeks ago but got distracted by a family emergency. Now back to work. The question is, does anyone care? I think they should because it telegraphs executive intention.
Once upon a time I poured over my copy of a president’s annual budget, along with detailed summaries and analyses. They helped me anticipate what Congress might do with it, and how the people I worked for might try to influence appropriations. The appendix was a treasure trove of historical data that helped explain what was going on with federal programs. That was a long time ago. Now, like most everyone else, I rely on media summaries and what I can dig up on the web; it’s mostly out of curiosity.
Presidential budgets are wish lists stretching credulity well beyond any child’s letter to Santa, but they do announce policy direction and priorities along with executive branch assumptions about how the nation’s economy is likely to perform. Moreover, they establish a baseline from which legislators begin the process of working on appropriations.
As a reminder, the budget comes out early in the calendar year as required by statute, not the Constitution. With or without an executive budget, Congress is supposed to pass all appropriations by October 1, the start of the federal fiscal year. It’s not something they’re good at, so in 13 of the last 18 years the nation has had to operate from continuing resolutions extending appropriations at the same level as before. Every now and then Congress enacts new rules to give some discipline to the process, but they never work. Adding discipline to the legislative process of passing appropriations runs against the grain of political give and take. In any case, what comes out in the end seldom bears similarity to the president’s budget.
This year’s presidential budget is an exception. It’s not a legislative starting point because it’s so draconian and wildly exaggerated that Congress will pay it little heed, causing Trump to text fuming demands and insults – if he remembers he submitted a budget. We will likely stumble into the new fiscal year next October with all the political dexterity of a wandering toddler’s temper tantrum in a toy store. Congress, abetted by presidential meddling, may make Brexit look like a well planned maneuver.
To refresh your memory, Trump’s budget calls for federal spending of $4.7 trillion with deep cuts to domestic programs and large increases in military spending, plus $8.6 billion for his wall. Like previous administration budgets, it’s based on ten year projections for spending, revenue, and economic performance, none of which is probable. That’s especially true of his economic forecast of plus 3% GDP growth, which no reputable economist buys. Unfortunately, reputable economists have not been that good at prediction either, so the Trump gang is hanging tough.
After innumerable campaign promises to protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, he wants cuts of $1.5 trillion over ten years to Medicaid, $25 billion to Social Security, and about $50 billion in cuts to SNAP and other programs benefitting the poorest and neediest. That’s galling to for many reasons, particularly because Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are financed by dedicated revenues from payroll taxes, not income taxes.
In place of his vaunted Infrastructure promises there is –– nothing. Having demanded better forest management to stop wildfires, he would eliminate forest management research. Because global warming is a hoax, EPA funding would be cut by 31%. Various housing voucher plans providing rent subsidies for the poor would be cut to the bone. You get the idea.
Small government types, and others convinced there is nothing but waste in federal spending, may stand up and cheer, but they’ll be cheering for the end of mythological assumptions that never existed in real life. Those who believe the federal government does nothing for them will applaud cutting the only programs that do, while keeping in place those favoring the very wealthy. The holy cow of defense spending will make life good for defense industry jobs, but the sooner we can get the nation off an eternal war footing, the better.
So what will happen? Not much. The House, in which appropriations must originate, will dither, argue, and eventually pass bills to the Senate where the slim GOP majority will mangle them beyond recognition. As the year end looms, we will see a move to pass continuing resolutions and Trump threats to shut down government if he doesn’t get his way.
Could it be otherwise? Yes: it depends on McConnell, a man who’s made it clear he cares not one whit for the welfare of the nation, has no interest in good faith negotiation, and appears to favor Trump’s strong man inclinations. Is he likely to bend in a new direction? Your guess is as good as mine.
P.S. My editor and backup editor remain out of town attending to other things. My emergency go to is busy grading philosophy papers, so all errors are mine alone.