It should come as no surprise that the $4.7 trillion spending plan released Monday by the Office of Management and Budget is a mess. It expects ordinary Americans to make dramatic sacrifices while the wealthiest among us live high on the hog. It leaves unscathed politically popular programs like Social Security and military spending (which actually gets a 5 percent boost) but cuts deeply into the social safety net. What sacrifices it does expect in terms of spending cuts in discretionary programs are so offset by this kind favoritism to the Trump base that a balanced budget has now been made a 15-year goal instead of the usual 10.
And that’s not even mentioning that there is, of course, an extra $8.6 billion to build a wall along the nation’s southern border, a project that Congress just weeks ago voted to dial down in favor of a more rational approach to border security. Even as the White House budget was coming off the printing press, Congress is in the process of rejecting the wall for a second time by voting to rescind President Trump’s use of emergency authority later this week. The wall may be a boondoggle and a punch line at political rallies but it’s a punch line over which this administration is obsessed.
In short, this is not a serious budget by a serious administration. This is a political document and, as has become commonplace with this administration, it is mostly a signal to far-right conservatives that Mr. Trump stands by their priorities — tax cuts that skew toward the wealthy and spending cuts that skew toward the 99 percent. It particularly hits those who rely on Medicare and Medicaid (both of which get squeezed for hundreds of billions) or those who expect a modicum of environmental protection out of the EPA (which gets cut by one-third) or well-maintained national parks out of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Impose work requirements on food stamp recipients? That’s just red meat for supporters, and a particularly cruel butcher’s cut at that. Leave Social Security alone? That’s just an acknowledgement that entitlement spending remains too much a third-rail to be touched — at least not with the 2020 election now looming. That the budget does so little about debt that now totals more than $22 trillion is just another indicator that Republicans have largely abandoned the old “fiscal restraint” mantra that served them so well when there was a Democrat in the White House.
Granted, there was little chance that Congress was not going to heavily rewrite whatever the Trump OMB offered anyway. Congress isn’t in the business of passing budgets anymore; they’re in the business of continuing resolutions and stop-gap spending bills and possibly government shutdowns. There are all kinds of more pressing deadlines than passing a Fiscal 2020 budget (which doesn’t actually have to be approved until Oct. 1) including deciding what to do about the caps on discretionary spending left over from the 2011 budget agreement and raising the debt ceiling.
What this proposal does not represent, however, is any effort to work with Democrats in Congress who now not only control the House but, given the modest 53-seat GOP majority in the Senate, will have a lot to say about spending decisions in that chamber, too. That lack of outreach is also no surprise. But it certainly sets the tone for the partisan back-and-forth to come as the budget committees parse the Trump blueprint and set their own priorities. If only this president took as hard a line on foreign dictators as he does on Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, if there are any true fiscal conservatives left in the Republican establishment, they ought to be reminded that Social Security and defense and health care programs represent the majority of federal spending. Safety net programs? That’s 9 percent. Transportation infrastructure? Just 2 percent. The federal government spends more on interest on the debt (7 percent) than it does on medical and scientific research (2 percent) and education (3 percent) combined. That’s why leaving the majority of the budget untouched while doing nothing to raise revenue translates into such a difficult exercise. That’s not a product of politics, it’s just basic accounting. And did we mention that the OMB assumes no recession for the next decade?
How anyone could set aside extra spending for a “Space Force” while adding trillions of dollars in new debt to be inherited by the next generation is extraordinary. No doubt it will give the crowded field of Democrats running for president plenty to talk about in the coming months.