Every year, Congress affixes the same toe tag to the White House budget within minutes of its delivery: “Dead on Arrival.”
The phrase is such a cliche, and so often repeated by members of Congress who dislike the president’s numbers, that it’s hard to find a news story about each year’s budget that doesn’t include those three words. It’s also discounted as just a “blueprint,” “a political document” or a “proposal” written for disposal. When I was a budget reporter for CQ, and at other publications, these were my watchwords.
And they reflect the way the establishment wants to treat President Donald Trump’s first budget submission, which would boost Pentagon spending by $54 billion — 10 percent — by short-selling diplomacy, environmental protection and a host of federal programs that serve the needs of children, the poor, the elderly and the disabled. It’s easy — and comforting — for the political class to write those plans off as the unrealized fantasies of an objectivist-survivalist brand of bean counter.
Make no mistake, Trump makes Ayn Rand look like Mother Teresa, and the members of Congress will be more responsive to heartfelt appeals for relief from their constituents than the president. If anything, he’s spent the early part of his presidency delivering and backing proposals that disproportionately hurt his own voters. The health care bill is an unnatural disaster for the low-income rural Republican voters who form his base. And, Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley had this to say about a budget that cuts the Agriculture Department’s discretionary spending by more than one-fifth: “Trump ran as a champion of rural America, but now, he is punching rural Americans in the gut.”
And yet it would be a grave error to think that these numbers will disappear.
The practical truth is that the president’s budget sets the tone, direction and parameters of the debate over government operations each year. While members of Congress have a stake in making the public and press think that they are in charge of their own constitutional authority to make spending decisions, they tend to follow the course of the president if he is in the same party as the majorities in the House and Senate.
Conservative spending hawks are hailing this budget because they know it is consequential in changing the nature of the debate over the government’s role in American life.
“The people in Washington have mortgages, car payments and bills to pay that depend on government not shrinking,” said Sheila Cole, a former executive director of the Republican Study Committee under then-Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. “Much of America is tired of their sky-is-falling, big-spending mentality. President Trump is tapping into that sentiment.”
Even as Speaker Paul D. Ryan used the magic “blueprint” word — and took pains to show that it’s Congress that ultimately writes spending bills — his praise for Trump’s shift in priorities showed that the White House budget is the starting point for real discussion over spending choices.
“I welcome the president’s blueprint for next year’s budget, which turns the page from the last eight years,” Ryan said in a very light endorsement for a plan that will cause heartburn for many Republicans in the House. “We are determined to work with the administration to shrink the size of government, grow our economy, secure our borders, and ensure our troops have the tools necessary to complete their missions. I look forward to reviewing this with the Appropriations Committee and our entire conference.”
Ryan and House Republicans have already ensured that it’s just a matter of which domestic programs get slashed, as former Obama Office of Management and Budget aide Kate Eltrich of Sixkiller Consulting, points out.
“No matter who was president this year, FY18 is consequential because the budget caps are back in full effect — the request is one take on how to go forward,” Eltrich said. “Whether Congress accepts or rejects cuts will be viewed against what Trump proposed, much like Ryan’s first budget in 2011. The problem this year is that Republicans have already embraced the defense spending increase — it’s going to come from somewhere.”
And a timid Congress, afraid of electoral backlash and more partisan than institutional in nature, already has ceded ever more of its power to the president over the years, right down to legislators’ right to earmark public funds and tax breaks to specific entities.
What the appropriators know all too well is that every table they produce will place their own spending levels for next year alongside the current year outlays and the president’s proposed budget. If they fund high-profile agencies and programs above his targets, he will be able to present himself as a budget-cutter and congressional Republicans as profligate spenders.
In most cases, they will try to avoid a fight with the president of their own party — none of them win for that — and that means coming close enough to Trump’s goals on big-ticket items to allow him to declare victory.
For critics of the president, Trump’s budget not only exposes a wound but dumps generous amounts of salt in it. There’s no reason for any Democrat to help Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell win cloture on appropriations bills that cut near as much as Trump envisions, and they will loudly denounce each and every trim.
Cole notes that the chorus of opposition sounds the same whether cuts are big or small — so, from the perspective of conservatives, you might as well go huuuge.
“Nibbling around the edges still allows the opposition to write ads that you hate Big Bird,” she said. “Someone has to rip off the Band-Aid on overspending, and to the extent this budget does that, it is refreshing.”
This particular budget doesn’t just set the terms of a debate, it draws the lines of battle between the parties. And that means that for everyone on Capitol Hill, and around the country, it is anything but dead on arrival.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Hillary Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.