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Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

What Trump’s budget doesn’t have: Details

President Donald J. Trump’s budget.

AP

President Donald J. Trump’s budget.

President Donald J. Trump released a budget proposal Thursday, including plans to boost military spending while slashing support for diplomacy, environmental programs, job training, and manifold programs for the poor.

So what?

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Trump’s budget isn’t law. It would have to pass Congress first, and lawmakers can’t afford to focus on next year’s budget right now. They need to finish work on health care, otherwise they’ll squander their carefully laid plan to avoid a filibuster.

Plus, what Trump actually released isn’t a complete budget proposal. Insiders are calling it a “skinny budget,” because it focuses on high-level proposals while leaving out a range of traditional details.

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Missing is any discussion of Medicare and Social Security, two of the biggest spending areas in the entire federal budget. Also absent are plans for tax reform, which Republicans are hoping to pass as part of this same budget resolution.

Perhaps the best way to think about Trump’s budget is as a concretization of his campaign proposals. That’s not meant as a critique; it’s what Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney suggested when unveiling the proposal: “If he said it on the campaign, it’s in the budget.”

Not surprisingly, then, Trump’s proposal moves money around in ways that better accord with his “America First” political worldview, cutting back on funding for the State Department, the United Nations, and the World Bank while providing additional resources for Homeland Security, defense, and the construction of a border wall.

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At the same time, Trump calls for dramatic cuts to a range of smaller programs all across the budget, including the National Institutes of Health, subsidies for Amtrak, home energy assistance, the Minority Business Development Agency, and after-school programs.

However you feel about these kinds of cuts, the key thing to recognize is that Trump can’t implement them on his own. Appropriating money is Congress’s job. So while Trump can certainly make his recommendations — even twist a few arms — what ultimately matters are the votes. And thus far lawmakers aren’t leaping to embrace Trump’s budget plans.

Worse, Congress is handcuffed in ways that this budget document doesn’t begin to address. For one thing, lawmakers have to deal with self-imposed spending caps, which will make it tricky to implement Trump’s request for increased military spending, not to mention the notorious complexity of incorporating large-scale tax reform.

Perhaps most daunting, lawmakers are already in a real budget bind. After Trump’s election, Republican leaders came up with a clever and carefully wrought plan to get two bites at a particularly juicy legislative apple. With the right timing, they figured out a way to use expedited, filibuster-proof, once-a-year budget rules two times in 2017.

Here’s how it was supposed to work. First, Republicans would repeal and replace Obamacare by linking their health care reform plans to the budget they inherited from 2016. Then, with that done, they’d pass tax reform as part of this year’s budget process.

But they’ve hit a snag: Their health care proposal is currently foundering under intense criticism from left and right.

Republicans thus face a difficult choice. If they drop health care, and move directly to tax reform, they let slip this rare opportunity for a filibuster-proof repeal of Obamacare. But if they persevere, they risk a time-consuming quagmire that prevents them from ever tackling taxes.

Pull back and you can see how many obstacles stand between Trump’s “skinny” budget and actual program cuts. There’s the question of whether Trump can find congressional support, the likelihood of democratic and popular opposition, the difficulty of passing health care reform, and also the need to build consensus on workable tax reform (still far from assured).

That’s a steep climb. And it suggests that maybe Trump’s proposals aren’t so much a first step in this budget dance but more of a warm-up move before the other participants have entered the ballroom.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.
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