Skinny on the Budget (Mar. 16)

Update 170: Skinny on the Budget
Hard-Lite Turn for Fiscal Policy
This morning’s budget release leaves little doubt as to the Trump Administration’s aim to honor campaign promises through major redistributions of discretionary funding.  The document, the “skinny” budget, addresses discretionary funding issues for FY 18 only, as the mandatory funding budget is promised.  And it’s destined never to become law.
But it sets out a vision of federal priorities and mission that departs markedly from a kind of cultural consensus obtaining for the past 50-60 years that is worth a look, for coming attractions.

For starters, for federal employees, the writing is on the wall.  If enacted, this budget would mean government layoffs, attrition in budget space for departmental trainings and materials, and possibly buyouts (you get paid up to $25k to quit, on the condition that you don’t return to federal employ for the next 5 years). Mulvaney may have summarized the budget when he said, “You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it.”

And for the public, we’d see the end of Sesame Street to buy more big jets and pay for a border wall.

While the president’s budget gives us a good understanding of what kind of government the Trump administration want’s to run, note that it’s largely symbolic and a message piece that has little chance of becoming law. Congressional Republicans will proceed to do as they please. In regard to the president’s budget, one top Republican aide called the process “a joke… we’ve learned not to listen to anything [Trump] says or does. We’re on our own.”

Meaning of the Document

The scope of the fiscal vision? Per Newt Gingrich, “the budget is the first step toward what will be, three or four years from now, a dramatically different federal government… We have never had anybody like him.  He’s one-third Andrew Jackson for disruption, one-third Theodore Roosevelt for energy, one third P.T. Barnum for salesmanship.  If you weave those together you understand what Trump is.”

The budget calls for major increases in defense spending and cuts in every major agency involved in “soft power.”  The proposals were all specifically requested based on “the words of Trump himself, according to OMB Director Mulvaney, who said he and his staff pored over the president’s speeches and news articles and had multiple conversations with him during the process.  Mulvaney added that “if he said it in the campaign, it’s in the budget.”

What To Expect

Given that President Obama’s FY 17 budget received little recognition in the actual final budget passed in committee after it was proposed — it did not even receive the hitherto ritualistic Hill hearing — Congress could ignore this with impunity.

Such a significantly different set of priorities, of an order of magnitude unseen since the days of Reagan, is unlikely to receive serious consideration by Democrats and moderate Republicans alike. And the lack of specificity could be a boon if the budget gets pushed through intact. The Atlantic noted that, “Mulvaney said that Cabinet secretaries will have more flexibility than they have had in the past to move money around.”

Constituent outrage at cuts of funding (well-aware of the cold future promised to them by this budget) for agencies such as the State Department, NIH, NASA, and the NEA, as well as total elimination of other agencies (the EPA), will likely deter moderates from supporting the proposal.  The  administration knows its budget is unlikely to pass, so it has decided to use this opportunity to make a symbolic gesture of what Democrats should expect from this administration. Trump has only made a political statement by proposing to eliminate funding for 19 iconic programs, including

  • PBS
  • U.S. Institute of Peace
  • National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Shutdown, Sequester, Filibuster

A two-part battle in Congress over the budget seems inevitable: they seek to finish spending bills for FY 17 before sorting out the top-line numbers for FY 18 based on Trump’s proposed budget. Spending bills can be filibustered, and it would make sense for Dems to play defense in this manner to block the military spending bill from being passed before the other ones get through.

Key Democrats don’t seem to be afraid of the possibility of a shutdown as these details get hammered out. Even if a shutdown is avoided, the budget as is would require serious adjusting of the sequester caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act.

The president’s budget is more or less dead on arrival, mainly because if the lack of votes don’t kill it, the sequester will. Trump proposed a $54 billion increase to defense spending, but because of the Budget Control Act, the budget, as is, cannot pass. The document, if adopted, would fundamentally alter a bipartisan set of spending rules, known as the sequester, brokered in a 2011 deal between President Obama and Congress.

The increase in defense spending, coupled with the cuts of non-defense spending programs violates the Budget Control Act, which caps the amount of money Congress can spend on these programs through 2021.

The law also prevents the budget from passing through reconciliation.  That is, it cannot pass without clearing the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, which means that it needs to earn Democratic support, which it simply does not do.  To the contrary, it is seems calculated to get under Democrats’ skin by targeting many programs that they admire, as noted above.


The budget document may be devoid of legislative value — it would be dead on arrival if it were expected to arrive at all — it outlines the president’s agenda in more concrete terms than ever before. Big issues lie ahead for the real budget process on the Hill: legislators will decide what to do about the sequester caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act and if Trump’s proposed $54 billion defense is supplemental. This is not to say that the budget is meaningless, but it is to say that the budget proposal does not — for the time being — have the prospect for any tangible policy impact.

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