CHITTENANGO, N.Y. — It would make sense that the hometown of L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Wizard of Oz, would be in a county that voted for President Donald Trump.
Trump easily carried this part of upstate New York, which contains places just as rural as Dorothy Gale’s Kansas. But despite the nearby Yellow Brick Road Casino in a converted strip mall, there’s no Emerald City. So Republican members of Congress who represent these parts have a particular challenge and have to fight for federal dollars for their districts.
That might be getting more difficult with the recent release of Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget, which proposes significant cuts to programs that provide economically stagnant places like this a helping hand.
Take Rep. Claudia Tenney, a Republican representing a central New York district that has never fully rebounded from factory shutdowns and the closure of the old Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome.
“I’m for growing the economy, but you can’t pull the rug out from my constituents in two of the poorest small-metro city regions in my district: Utica-Rome and Binghamton,” Tenney says. “We need the social services support and some of the other issues that are being cut,” she says, adding that there are several items, including Community Development Block Grant funding, “that I just couldn’t support the cuts in them.”
A press release her office sent out just after Trump unveiled his proposed budget could be viewed as a blueprint for other Republicans seeking to showcase disagreements with the White House Office of Management and Budget. It listed a series of proposals in the budget that Tenney and lawmakers with similar constituencies might find objectionable and take aim at, such as elimination of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the proposal to reduce funding for the Legal Services Corporation to the tune of $351 million.
Budget as a weapon
For Democratic incumbents in the Senate who represent similar populations, the budget proposal might be an opportunity to criticize GOP challengers whom Democratic groups say they will try to tie to Trump.
The large reductions proposed to entitlements are tied to the ongoing debate over rolling back the 2010 health care law.
Sen. Bob Casey is one of the Democratic incumbents sure to be targeted by Republicans in 2018, given that Trump carried his home state of Pennsylvania.
“This program has never been threatened like this ever,” Casey says of the proposed cuts to Medicaid through both the Trump administration’s budget request and the House-passed GOP health care reconciliation plan.
Casey did not want to speak specifically to the potential political consequences for House Republicans from his home state who might support Trump’s proposed $800 billion in cuts to Medicaid. But he did say that his GOP colleagues should discuss the policy with constituents and officials from rural hospitals.
“One thing they should find out is how many people in their district who happen to be children on Medicaid, how many are people with disabilities on Medicaid, how many are seniors getting into nursing homes because of Medicaid,” Casey says. “Get those three numbers at least, and then ask themselves: Is this the right vote for those families?”
Casey points out that in many communities, the local hospital systems and nursing homes are major employers and economic engines.
“It will lead to the closure of hospitals in rural areas,” he says. “This is even much bigger than the individuals and their families directly affected. This is ultimately a health care issue and a jobs issue.”
Democratic strategist Scott Mulhauser, whose resume includes a stint on the staff of the Senate Finance Committee, perceives the budget proposal as “the president punching himself in the face.”
“Communities that voted overwhelmingly for him are the hardest hit by his cuts to rural funds for health care and more — and they’ll certainly remember that at the ballot box. Slogans may sell bumper stickers, but consumers and families vote with their pocketbooks, and the boomerang effect of these cuts back on the very voters that elected Trump could quickly become quite real,” Mulhauser says.
Republicans part company
In West Virginia, Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins has already announced that he is running for Senate against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III. But Trump’s lopsided victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Mountain State last fall does not have Jenkins on board with the president’s budget.
“The budget … proposes eliminating programs crucial to West Virginia’s economic development and diversification — the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration. We need to do more to attract new industries to our coalfields and invest in our infrastructure, and these two programs have a track record of success in West Virginia,” Jenkins said in a statement. “As our state struggles to recover from eight years of devastating economic policies, we cannot make harsh cuts to these programs while our families are getting back on their feet.”
Rep. Harold Rogers, the past chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, represents a rural constituency in Eastern Kentucky coal country that depends on a variety of federal programs and services, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, which is one of several economic development programs targeted for elimination by Trump’s budgeteers.
“His budget proposal hits a lot of programs in poorer areas of the country, including mine, that would make it impossible for those bills to pass,” the 19-term Republican lawmaker says. “Some of us have been screaming pretty loudly.”
That’s why appropriations bills — with or without a final deal on topline spending — are sure to look much different from what the White House has suggested.
“That’s what we do on Appropriations is spending,” Rogers says. “And power of the purse is in the House, not the White House, and we’ll muddle through somehow.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also a Kentucky Republican, was quick to tell constituents back home that the Appalachian Regional Commission would not be facing an ax.
Democratic political strategists have wasted no time tying Republicans — including potentially vulnerable senators far from coal country such as Nevada’s Dean Heller and Arizona’s Jeff Flake — to the spending priorities outlined by the White House.
“From slashing support for rural airports to spiking health care costs for programs like opioid-treatment, the Republican budget would have a devastating impact on rural communities across Senate battleground states — and Senators Heller, Flake and every GOP Senate candidate will have to answer for their party’s proposals,” says David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Their budget, coupled with their toxic health care agenda, is just more evidence that Republicans are looking out for the rich and the powerful, while Americans who actually work for a living are paying the price.”
Among the programs referenced by Bergstein is Essential Air Service, which subsidizes commercial flights to smaller, rural airports. Some of those would lose air service entirely without the federal funding. That’s another of the elimination targets in the Trump budget where there has been little or no support on Capitol Hill.
Strategists on both sides of the aisle say, however, it could be difficult to gain traction against Republicans for proposed cutbacks that never take effect.
One GOP strategist said efforts by Republicans to ding Democrats over their failure to adopt a budget resolution during chunks of the presidency of Barack Obama had limited impact. The government kept running, after all, and budget arguments in the abstract can easily fail to attract attention.
But strategists say Democrats and Republicans alike may want to stay aware that they could face electoral blowback if programs critical to their constituents ultimately do get cut, and they are unable to save them from the budget ax.
With Trump in office and GOP majorities in both chambers, Republicans could argue that Democratic incumbents lack the clout to influence spending policy.
Democrats could make the broader argument, that Republican control makes the cuts inevitable, and the party in power bears ultimate responsibility.
Meanwhile, both chambers are proceeding with an appropriations process without the benefit of passing a budget resolution. For some, it’s likely the safest route for now.