March 23, 2019
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Why Trump’s budget plan doesn’t really matter

J. Scott Applewhite | AP
J. Scott Applewhite | AP
Office of Management and Budget staff delivers President Donald Trump's 2020 budget outline to the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Monday. Trump's new budget calls for billions more for his border wall, with steep cuts in domestic programs but increases for military spending.

The White House released its budget proposal for 2020 this week, more than a month late. As in the past two years, it proposes big cuts in some government spending, in the name of shrinking the federal deficit, while also calling for a significant jump in defense spending.

The press releases, statements and analysis from left-leaning groups condemning the spending blueprint soon followed.

There is a lot of heartburn at the moment, for example, because the Trump budget plan calls for cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Trump, of course, said in the past that he wouldn’t touch these programs — a line nearly all politicians use to gain the support of older Americans.

Trump’s $4.7 trillion budget also touts the need for spending decreases to reduce the deficit. But budget bills and other legislation that he has actually signed into law, like the GOP’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, raise deficit spending and, often, ignore the deficit altogether.

In reality, the president’s budget doesn’t really matter all that much. Sure, it outlines his spending priorities. But none of those — such as proposals to slash funding for education, environmental programs and public health — are new. He’s proposed similar cuts in past budgets and was largely ignored by Congress. Already Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree, who sit on their respective chamber’s appropriations committees, say the president’s 2020 budget won’t pass without significant changes.

And, in uniquely Trump fashion, many of the items in the budget don’t actually reflect the president’s priorities. Or those priorities may change tomorrow.

Beyond all of this, it is Congress, not the president, that has the power to appropriate money.

The president’s two previous budgets were largely ignored by Congress, even though it was controlled by Republicans. Now, Democrats hold a majority in the House, so the president’s budget is even more meaningless.

This, of course, isn’t unique to Trump. Congress has been ignoring presidential budgets for decades, as they should.

Here’s how Stan Collender, a contributor to Forbes, described the process last year. “It’s an American political tradition for Congress to consider every president’s budget as ‘dead on arrival,’ even if that budget — like this one — is submitted to a supposedly politically friendly House and Senate. Trump’s new budget was doomed long before it ever reached Capitol Hill because it included big proposed spending cuts in very popular domestic programs the Republican-controlled Congress was never going to consider, especially in an election year,” he wrote last February.

The situation gets even more complicated because Congress rarely fulfills its budgetary duties these days.

The 1974 Congressional Budget Act set out a general timeline for the president to submit a budget proposal to Congress, Congress to develop its own budget resolution and then subsequently pass appropriations bills.

That process has been jettisoned in all but four of the past 40 years, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Yearly appropriation bills have effectively been replaced or supplemented by stop-gap measures known as continuing resolutions — or CRs — which usually extend existing funding at the same or similar levels for a set period of time, often for several weeks or months.

In addition to leaving spending essentially on autopilot, continuing resolutions raise the spectre of government shutdowns, as we saw earlier this year. When short-term spending plans are set to expire, both parties use the urgency of agreeing on a spending plan to advance their agendas — and to paint their opponents into a difficult corner.

This brinksmanship, which sometimes fails, is no way to handle decisions as complex as allocating trillions of taxpayer dollars to government operations.

There is plenty not to like in Trump’s spending plan, but there is no reason to panic. Appropriators in Congress should devote their time to writing realistic plans to fund government services, and they should do it long before the current spending plan — which narrowly avoided a second government shutdown — runs out in the fall.

 



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