The budget document President Donald Trump released on Monday doesn’t really matter. It will have no effect on government spending or tax levels. It will not build bridges or defund public housing programs. Congress controls federal spending, not the president, and for the past several years lawmakers have jettisoned the formal budget process in favor of a series of backroom deals.
The president’s budget has thus become an elaborate Washington ritual in which an administration expresses its values and priorities in the technocratic jargon of modern bureaucracy. It’s an administration’s way of telling the public how it would govern if it didn’t have to work with Congress, and of demonstrating how much it cares about these proposals by working out in fine detail how much it all would cost.
Trump’s budget shows he doesn’t care very much about anything. The signature proposal, hyped ahead of the release as a $1.5 trillion program to rebuild America’s infrastructure, turns out to include just $200 billion in new spending ― offset by $240 billion in cuts to existing infrastructure programs, including the Highway Trust Fund, Amtrak and the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works initiatives.
The infrastructure plan is a good example of how Trump’s supposedly populist campaign has not translated into populist governance. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, is a former member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which rabidly opposes spending on the social safety net.
“As a nation, we face difficult times – challenged by a crumbling infrastructure, growing deficits, rogue nations, and irresponsible Washington spending,” Mulvaney said in a statement on Sunday ― even though the budget doesn’t close deficits or un-crumble infrastructure.
Another budget bullet point ― seemingly making good on Trump’s campaign promise to end the opioid crisis ravaging America ― comes to just $1 billion a year, a pathetically low number for a national public health crisis. Trump’s boost to opioid spending accounts for less than 1.5 percent of the Department of Health and Human Services budget, which Trump would also slash by about 20 percent from last year’s level. By contrast, total defense spending would increase by about 25 percent over the course of the next decade. That’s real money, but it doesn’t tell us anything important about American military objectives in places like Afghanistan, Yemen or Niger.
Public education advocates are understandably angered by Trump’s call to cut overall federal education funding by $7.1 billion, while spending $1.1 billion on vouchers that families can use to pay for private school. But even this is a half-hearted measure. Trump has said he wants to spend $20 billion a year on the vouchers.
One area where the Trump administration showed some enthusiasm for policy innovation is in cracking down on food stamp recipients and their supposedly lavish and unhealthy diets. The budget would cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ― the official program name for food stamps ― by about 25 percent, replacing a portion of beneficiaries’ monthly stipend with canned goods and other healthy food chosen by the government. The idea is almost unheard-of on Capitol Hill and has little chance of being taken seriously by the committee that oversees the program.
Trump would also eliminate all funding for public housing repairs ― a move that reflects general meanness about the lives of the poor, but only costs about $2 billion ― and eliminate $1 billion in Section 8 vouchers to help poor families pay rent.
Taken together, Trump’s budget reflects a strange bureaucratic nihilism. His budget proposal doesn’t balance ― not next year, or even over the traditional 10-year window, which would have allowed Trump to gimmick up the final years with spending cuts and various administrative fees that he had no intention of actually following through on. He’s accepting $900 billion-plus deficits every year until 2023, and substantial deficits through 2028. It’s not like he’s holding back from a big idea because he’s worried about the price tag. He just doesn’t care.