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Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

What’s in Trump’s budget (hint: not populism)

President Trump’s budget provides a window into his domestic priorities.
President Trump’s budget provides a window into his domestic priorities.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Imagine sitting down with your spouse to organize next year’s family budget, and deciding to make things work by assuming you’re about to get a big raise — and that some family members probably don’t need insurance.

That’s a little like how President Trump’s federal budget proposal works. In order to eliminate the deficit — on paper at least — Trump’s plan assumes a sudden jump in US economic growth. And because even that isn’t enough to clear away the red ink, he also cuts hundreds of billions from core social programs like food stamps and Medicaid.

Now, it’s perfectly fair to respond with “so what.” After all, Congress decides how to spend taxpayer dollars — not the White House. Which means few of Trump’s proposals are likely to become law.

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Still, Trump’s budget provides a window into his domestic priorities: tax cuts tilted toward the rich, the end of President Obama’s health program, and shrinking support for the poor. Even if the plan never makes headway among lawmakers, it should kill any lingering notion of Trump as populist.

What’s in Trump’s budget?

When you pore over all of Trump’s spending plans and revenue projections, a few elements really stand out.

Supercharged economic growth

Trump’s budget is held together by the largely groundless assumption that US economic growth will reach 3 percent over the next decade. That’s a fantastically high rate, well above the 1.9 percent rate assumed by the Congressional Budget Office.

Faster growth would mean rising incomes — and fattened government coffers. So with this one assumption, Trump mightily increases the amount of assumed tax revenue he can use to pay for programs or pare down the deficit, to the tune of $2.7 trillion over 10 years.

Multitrillion-dollar tax cuts

Also in Trump’s budget proposal are the tax cuts he outlined in a one-page summary document last month, including substantial reductions in both corporate and individual income tax rates.

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These cuts are extremely expensive, costing more money than would be required for tuition-free college, universal preschool, and nationwide lead remediation combined. And while Trump’s team has championed those cuts as a boon for the middle class, the bulk of benefits would actually go to the nations’s highest earners.

Cuts to social services

Trump is proposing well over a trillion dollars in cuts to key strands of the social safety net. That includes reduced spending on food stamps, along with disability insurance, the children’s health insurance program (CHIP), and cuts to Medicaid that reach beyond the already substantial reductions in the Obamacare repeal bill.

The governing idea behind these cuts is to encourage able-bodied Americans to seek work, instead of government handouts — part of a longstanding conservative effort to reduce dependence and increase self-reliance. But the inclusion of CHIP points to the limit of this approach. Roughly 60 percent of all Americans living in poverty are kids, seniors, students, or people with disabilities.

One potential boon for working families is a proposal for paid family leave spearheaded by Trump’s daughter Ivanka. Though even here, there is a potential trade-off, with the necessary money likely drawn from a pool currently dedicated to unemployment insurance.

More money for defense, sharp cuts to many agencies

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The Department of Defense counts among the few clear beneficiaries in Trump’s budget, garnering an additional $54 billion in 2018. Homeland Security, too, would see a funding increase, as would Veterans Affairs.

Some government agencies, however, would face drastic funding reductions. That includes a 29 percent cut at the State Department, 31 percent at the Environmental Protection Agency, and 18 percent for the National Institutes of Health. Looking across the budget as a whole, cuts like these could have massive implications for scientific research, job training, even iconic programs like Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America.

Will this budget become law?

There is basically zero chance that Trump’s budget will be embraced by Congress and turned into an actual spending plan. Several Republicans have already distanced themselves from the document, and even if they hadn’t, any specific appropriations bill would need to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

This isn’t exactly unusual. Presidents just don’t have a lot of power over spending. They can make recommendations, appeal to the public, maybe lobby key lawmakers, but that’s about it. President Obama’s last few budgets passed more or less directly from his Democratic hands into the wastebins of a Republican-controlled Congress.

And while Trump should have an advantage here — since his party controls Congress — he’s still in a pretty weak position. Not only is he too unpopular to claim a mandate for his vision, but between his scandal-prone leadership and inexperienced staff, he doesn’t seem to have the insider authority he’d need to twist arms on Capitol Hill and finagle backroom deals.

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Perhaps the more basic problem is that passing a federal budget is extremely hard. Congress has only managed to do it once since 2010. Most years it settles for continuing resolutions, which effectively maintain the spending status quo.

But don’t take that to mean Trump’s plans are irrelevant. Not at all. It’s just that they are likely to be enacted in other ways — outside the traditional budget process.

Right now, the two efforts with the greatest chance of generating real, conservative change are the push to replace Obamacare and the quest for far-reaching tax reform. That’s the more likely path for enacting some of the key tax and entitlement changes envisioned in Trump’s budget proposal.


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