Budgets are about priorities. A budget proposal released by the White House on Thursday would dramatically alter America’s priorities away from environmental stewardship and caring for the poor and elderly and toward building up the military and constructing an imposing barrier to entry along the southern border.
The question for members of Congress, who ultimately determine where federal dollars are spent, is whether they share the president’s priorities and values. They shouldn’t. All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation have expressed concerns about the budget plan.
President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint for fiscal year 2018, which begins in October, represents a wholesale remaking of America. From items with small price tags but huge impact, such as the complete elimination of Meals on Wheels and the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program, to the big-ticket items — a 30 percent cut to the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance — it would shift the U.S. from a country of compassion and innovation to one focused on security and military might.
Trump’s budget plan does not reduce federal spending, it just reprioritizes it.
The biggest winners in the Trump plan are the military, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Veterans Affairs. Military spending would increase by $54 billion, one of the largest increases in U.S. history. The money would go to the Pentagon, which uncovered $125 billion in wasteful spending in 2015, before quickly burying the internal report. Here’s an idea: Let’s ensure the Pentagon can account for all the taxpayer money it already receives, which accounts for about half of the federal government’s discretionary spending, before giving it more.
Long on conservatives’ wish list, the Trump budget would also eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The budget plan also includes many contradictions. Trump, for example, has pledged to rebuild America’s infrastructure. Yet, his spending plan eliminates a $500 million Department of Transportation road building program. He has pledged to eliminate diseases but his plan cuts funding for the National Institutes of Health by nearly 20 percent.
Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said Thursday that Trump’s plan was dead on arrival. That doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. His spending plan, of course, won’t be adopted as written. However, it will become a starting point for negotiations. As such it moves the discussion far to the right in terms of spending cuts and priorities. Lawmakers will now spend their time deciding how much to cut NASA’s Earth observation budget and whether to restore the Sea Grant Program, which helps fund research at schools like the University of Maine. They will look for money to restore the Meals on Wheels program and arts funding.
The president’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, made the absurd claim that it was “ compassionate” to cut programs for the poor and elderly. He said it wasn’t fair to ask a single mother in Detroit or a coal miner in West Virginia to pay for programs, like Meals on Wheels and after-school programs, that aren’t showing results.
He is wrong about lack of results. Studies have found that Meals on Wheels reduces Medicaid spending and the institutionalization of the elderly. In addition, program participants are less lonely and report fewer falls. After-school programs improve academic performance and physical well being while reducing classroom behavior problems and student drug use, according to numerous studies.
Beyond this, Mulvaney didn’t explain how it was compassionate to ask these same taxpayers to fund a military that can’t account for billions of dollars in spending, or Trump’s weekly trips to Florida or the $1 million-a-day price tag for security at Trump Tower.
Congress must avoid falling into the trap of believing that the only way to balance the federal budget is to further turn their backs on the poor, sick and elderly. The Republican-backed replacement for the Affordable Care Act has already been shown by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to have dire consequences for the poor and middle-aged, particularly those who live in rural states, like Maine.
A budget that eliminates or shrinks programs that help the elderly and working families would be a further blow to working-class and rural Americans. Members of Congress must focus on drafting a truly compassionate budget.