The White House on Thursday released what officials variously described as a “skinny budget,” a “hard power budget,” and—most memorably—an “America First” budget that begins “a New Chapter of American Greatness.” (I’m partial to the last one.)
As flattering as that sounds, the truth is President Trump’s first budget outline is far from “great.” The $54 billion defense component represents only a 3 percent increase over current spending—not 10 percent as the administration says.
Even with the wholesale elimination of programs and double-digit cuts to departments to offset the defense hikes, the plan does remarkably little to reduce the overall $7 trillion in federal spending and has nothing whatsoever to say about the towering $20 trillion national debt.
But as a way to begin chiseling away at the Leviathan State at the margins? Not a bad start.
The Left has responded with its usual irrational exuberance. Everything is vital. Nothing is extraneous. All cuts are “Draconian.” Children and old people will die.
Miles Kampf-Lassin of the hard-Left In These Times called the spending plan, “a cruel and inhumane document that would gut programs that protect the environment, fund medical research, defend workers and help the poor.”
“The administration’s proposals are heartless and prioritize building a border wall over diplomacy and housing the poor,” said U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) in a press release.
And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof must have felt mighty proud of himself when he tweeted: “Reading through the Trump budget, I feel as the Romans must have felt in 456 AD as the barbarians conquered and ushered in the dark ages.”
Uh . . . huh.
Permit a brief bit of remedial civics. Presidents may propose budgets, but they don’t actually write them. Congress does that. Or at least Congress is supposed to do that. Congress hasn’t really passed a proper spending bill in many years. Appropriations begin in the House of Representatives and are approved or amended in the Senate. The two houses work out any conflicting provisions in a conference committee. Then the president either signs or vetoes the resulting bill.
Again, that’s more or less how it’s supposed to work. Instead, we’ve had a long series of “continuing resolutions,” interrupted by the occasional shutdown, that keep the federal government running, but not in any way James Madison or the framers of the Constitution would recognize as legitimate.
Although the response from the Democratic side of the aisle was predictable, the Republicans haven’t exactly acquitted themselves well, either. Republicans, in truth, have never deserved their reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility. Certain members may boast of their consistent (safe) votes against certain spending bills, and the party’s leadership still crows about the ban on earmarks (even though the pork barreling never really stopped). But in the end, our current batch of Republicans spends as ably and profligately as any ward-heeling Democrat.
Here is just one small but telling example of how unserious congressional Republicans are about ever reining in federal spending.
The White House plan would cut $2.4 billion, or 13 percent, from the Department of Transportation. According to the White House, “The Budget reduces or eliminates programs that are either inefficient, duplicative of other Federal efforts, or that involve activities that are better delivered by States, localities, or the private sector.”
Journalists, being clever-minded folk, can clearly see that “minus $2.4 billion” is not “plus $1 trillion.” That must mean something. But what?
The story highlights the proposal to zero-out the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program. Republicans are very upset about this for some reason. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee, has vowed to protect the program at all costs. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) says the program has been vital for bridge and road repair in his state.
In case you weren’t aware, TIGER grants are of a fairly recent vintage. They first appeared in the American Recovery and Re-Investment Act of 2009—the $890 billion stimulus loaded with one-time expenditures that somehow turned into sacrosanct spending. The program has doled out around $5.1 billion since that time.
“If [TIGER grants] were to be cut, then it’s big time trouble,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told The Hill.
“Department of Transportation TIGER grants are something that are considered essential to rehabbing our infrastructure,” he added.
No, they aren’t. But we’d expect to hear that from a Democrat. It makes you wonder how on earth we built or fixed highways and bridges prior to 2009, doesn’t it? Most transportation projects are funded through a combination of federal, state, and local tax dollars and fees. Trump’s infrastructure proposal, which is still in the works, would potentially add hundreds of millions of dollars in private financing to the mix.
Anyone wishing to delve into the grim particulars of why this particular half-billion-a-year discretionary grant program is at once ineffective and perfectly dispensable may find enlightenment in a 2012 report by the libertarian Reason Foundation. There the interested reader will learn all about the program’s “vague metrics,” “inconsistent modal funding,” and “poor documentation,” as well as how—surprise, surprise—“Democratic congressional districts receive more funding than Republican congressional districts.”
The grants also fund local and regional projects that have no obvious national impact. Which sounds an awful lot like “earmarks” by another name. Except instead of legislators tucking special projects into appropriations bills they no longer pass, political appointees in the federal transportation bureaucracy exercise “discretion” to pick winning projects.
Nobody should expect President Trump’s first spending proposal to survive intact and unamended. But nobody can seriously contend that every program is essential, every agency budget is lean, every federal employee is indispensable, or that the disappearance of any them would cause irreparable harm to the republic.
Bear in mind, the TIGER grant program is a $500 million line item in a $18 billion department budget. And prominent Republicans want to go to the wall to save it.
If this is what we get from Republicans, then why bother with the GOP?