It can be hard to make the release of a federal budget sexy. Here’s a pretty good shot at it, though, from Jim Kessler of the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way: “We got it, and we started looking at it, and we thought, ‘This is a caricature of an ultra-conservative budget of absolute cruelty.”
I quote Kessler because, as those of you who follow all this too obsessively know, it was Third Way that got a leaked copy of the budget from an administration source last Wednesday night. By the next day, the group had a statement and analysis up on its Web site. The administration countered by saying that what Third Way saw did not represent the final numbers, and Third Way doesn’t dispute that what it saw was a snapshot in time of a budget-finalizing process.
But let’s put it like this: Is there any reason on Earth to think that the numbers between last Wednesday and now got any more humane? If anything, they’ve probably gone in the other direction.
It’s a challenge to get people worked up over this. Yeah, you’re thinking. Republicans cut budgets, especially domestic budgets. What’s new about that?
What’s new about this are two things. First, a number of notable programs here aren’t just cut. They’re zeroed out. Eliminated. Again, bear in mind that this may or may not be in the final document, but was in what Third Way and others have seen:
•The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) would be eliminated. Appalachia! Where Trump got umpty-nine percent of the vote! The ARC builds things—rail links, airports, highways, city parks, water systems. And it builds them for the president’s own supporters in a more concentrated fashion than any other regional project in America.
•The Global HIV-AIDS program could disappear. There was a little confusion on this point based on how the numbers were organized, but if so, this means Pepfar — yes, George W. Bush’s vaunted Pepfar program to fight AIDS in Africa. When liberals would carry on about how heartless Republicans generally and Bush specifically were, Republicans would rejoin as one: But Pepfar! Well, maybe no more.
•Low-income heating assistance would go from $3.4 billion to zero. Helps poor people pay their heating bills in winter. Known as LIHEAP in federal jargon, this program was created in Jimmy Carter’s last year in office but implemented and expanded under Ronald Reagan.
That’s three examples of straight-out elimination, though there are more. Other agencies and programs, the lucky ones, are simply cut. The Environmental Protection Agency, 31 percent. The Women-Infants-Children program, 20 percent. The National Institutes of Health, 22 percent. And so on and so on and so on.
Listing numbers and percentages doesn’t drive anything home. Stories do. So here’s a story, about the food-stamp program, called SNAP. It’s about a $75 billion a year program. The budget will reportedly propose cutting $193 billion over 10 years—so, $19.3 billion a year, on average, or 25 percent. Them’s the numbers. Here’s the story.
Food stamps were created as an optional program in 1964. But then 10 years later, under another Republican president, the one Trump says he admires—Richard Nixon—the food-stamp program went national, and Congress agreed on a bipartisan basis that food stamps had to be a wholly federal commitment on the grounds that Congress, which is to say we the American people, didn’t want to see a poor child in Alabama having less access to food than a poor child in California. The different states, they knew, would display, shall we say, variable levels of generosity.
Well, the Trump budget will reportedly ask that in the future states pony up 20 percent of the food-stamp costs. You know what that means. States will demand “flexibility.” A lot of them just won’t pay their share, just as many of them don’t pick up the costs states were supposed to pick with 1990s welfare reform, because as you know, they have to keep cutting tax rates. A 43-year-old bipartisan commitment to how we treat poor children may go poof. So just don’t be a poor child in Alabama or Louisiana or West Virginia or Oklahoma or any of those other Trump states.
On the topic of tax cuts, there are a lot of those, too, of course, around $5 trillion, and they’re not chiefly to the middle class. They’re to corporations. Now, there’s a case to be made that the current 35 percent rate for publicly held “C corporations” is too high and should be lowered provided that some loopholes are closed and the tax base is broadened. But it’s not yet clear if that’s what’s going on here. Then there are “S corporations,” which are privately held. These could be small businesses, but they also could be hedge funds. They currently pay at 39.6 percent. Trump proposes cutting both to 15 percent.
And the budget will reportedly seek to repeal estate taxes completely, according to the folks at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Be born poor in West Virginia and see your food stamps slashed. But be born Barron Trump, and things will work out fine.
Now, these are just proposals. Congress decides. Some people say well, Congress will never follow through on these things. Congress often restores funding that administrations want to cut because they serve constituencies that need them. And with Trump at or under 40 percent, it’s not like he is in any position to galvanize public opinion against Congress. So maybe Congress will stand up.
On the other hand, as Sharon Parrott of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observed to me Monday, Trump’s budget is completely in line with what House Republicans have been trying to do for years now. House Republicans have attacked the domestic budget and entitlement programs for years, and went hard after food stamps just last year (a cut that a few Republicans voted against because it wasn’t steep enough).
And remember, they went out of their way to pass that health care-bill this year, which essentially is a transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth from lower-income people who needed health coverage and now won’t have it (if the bill passes) to the top 2 percent, who’ll see massive tax cuts. Republicans have vowed more of this, passing a draconian budget of their own through the House Budget Committee recently, so the idea that they’ll take any sort of umbrage at the Trump budget is farfetched.
“If they don’t want to be tainted with the Trump budget,” Parrott told me, “they’d have to renounce these positions they took in the past and that many of them have said they want to take again in June.”
So take congressional Republican expressions of piety with a few truckloads of salt. They want essentially the same outcomes. They just know they can’t say it as bluntly because that would cost them their majority. This budget has Trump’s name on it. The ideas, though, have been many years in the making.