President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal this week will be like many of his policy ideas so far — big on showmanship and playing to his base, short on details.
The blueprint is expected to call for taking an ax to programs and agencies that Republicans love to hate like EPA, Energy, Interior, State, HUD and Commerce; foreign aid; the federal workforce; and Education and Labor training programs, while boosting defense spending by roughly $54 billion — and that covers only so-called discretionary spending, which accounts for just a third of the federal government’s budget.
Agencies that are expected to see boosts include the FBI and Homeland Security, including Customs and Border Protection, since they will be crucial to carrying out the administration’s travel ban policy and the building of the so-far hypothetical wall with Mexico.
Other agencies will see anywhere from a 15- to 20-percent cut, said one policy expert on the transition team — with the EPA seeing a proposed cut north of 25 percent. “I am looking to see who is being protected,” said one source from Trump’s presidential transition team who worked on policy issues. “Other than that, I don’t expect to learn much more from the budget.”
Yet none of this may matter to Trump’s base, who elected him based on his promise to upend Washington and dismantle the federal government. Voters rarely want to sweat all of the details; they want action. And Trump’s budget will offer that reward by pinpointing the winners and losers within the federal bureaucracy in broad strokes, according to transition sources.
Most agency cuts are expected to lack specificity, transition sources said; they will require each Cabinet secretary to find savings by eliminating programs, cutting the workforce or both.
The exception may be swaths of the EPA, Commerce, State and Energy departments, where the budget is expected to call for the wholesale elimination of programs involving solar energy, biofuels or anything that looks like the government propping up one sector over another, an idea that’s anathema to conservatives.
“Foreign aid is a complete waste of money,” said Stephen Moore, a senior economist at the Heritage Foundation who worked on the budget draft during Trump’s presidential campaign. Moore stressed that he had not seen the final blueprint. That document is being so closely held that even political appointees at various agencies have not seen it.
The White House plans to release a fuller version of its budget sometime in May.
“The big question is whether the political system can absorb these cutbacks,” Moore added. “If this was a business, they could cut by 10 to 15 percent. Some of the agencies should be cut 100 percent. The argument that President Trump needs to make is that businesses downsize. They suck in their gut. The government has not done that.”
Yet long-time Republican budget leaders and staffers remain skeptical of Trump’s first stab at budget politics because it will lack so many key details. The “skinny budget,” as the administration calls this proposal, will not tackle mandatory spending like Medicare or Social Security — entitlement programs that are the main drivers of cost for the government over the next decade and which Republicans have long wanted to overhaul.
Nor is the plan expected to include tax proposals, as budgets typically do. It also promises to boost defense spending by billions of dollars, without taking into account the budget caps still in place from the sequester — to override those to hit the spending level Trump wants, the Senate would need 60 votes to change the law, votes that are not assured.
“That makes the budget anorexic, not skinny,” says the former Republican director of the Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Holtz-Eakin. “It will be politics as usual. Trump’s base will like it. Other Republicans won’t. He’ll divide the GOP the same way he always does.”
For policy-making, the implications will be even starker. This lack of detailed accounting in Trump’s proposal will either force Congress to make many of the hard decisions in its appropriations bills, or simply delay congressional action entirely as leadership awaits further direction from the White House — a scenario that played out with the botched roll-out of the House Republican health care bill.
“The budget is not going to be that revealing,” said G. William Hoagland, the former Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee. “We’ll have to wait until the full budget comes at end of April and in May. What the appropriators need are the account-level details.”
The possibility of wholesale elimination of departments, meanwhile, terrifies government workers, as well as the unions that represent them.
“If budgets cut require reductions in force, then federal workers will be concerned about their job and taking care of their family, but they’re also concerned about being able to care for everyone that their jobs are meant to support,” said Tim Kauffman of American Federation of Government Employees that represents roughly 700,000 workers across federal agencies.
For the past few weeks, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget has been negotiating with agency heads over proposed budget cuts behind-closed-doors. At the State Department, for instance, Secretary Rex Tillerson managed to negotiate cuts less severe cuts than the 37 percent outlined in earlier documents, POLITICO reported earlier this week.
One State Department worker, who spoke anonymously for fear of being fired, said workers had been urged not to mention climate change in conversations with OMB officials as the department sought to save programs.
Similarly, State workers tried to rebrand any foreign aid and education programs as ways to boost American or female entrepreneurship, playing into the president’s desire to promote business growth, the State employee added.
This process of negotiations has been happening across agencies for the past few weeks, as the president assembles his first budget.
It’s been a scramble this year, as is often the case in the first year of an administration, said Sandy Davis, former associate director for legislative affairs at the Congressional Budget Office. Typically, the White House sends agencies the first draft of its budget proposal around Thanksgiving, allowing the agencies to go back and forth for weeks before a blueprint is released in the winter. “It’s truncated this year, which is typical for a new administration,” Davis said.
New OMB Director Mick Mulvaney was not even confirmed until mid-February. Prior to that, much of the budget policy was being run by a former Heritage Foundation and Senate Budget Committee staffer, Paul Winfree, who now works as the White House’s Director of Budget Policy.
Winfree also wrote Heritage’s budget blueprint in 2016, which has informed much of the administration’s thinking on its budget proposal — although Trump departed from the plan by declining to broach the dismantling of entitlements, except for Medicaid which comes in for big cuts in the House Republican health care bill.
Andrew Restuccia, Shane Goldmacher, Marianne Levine, Caitlin Emma and Darius Dixon contributed to this story.
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