Budgets are statements: This is what “we” care about. It’s money that reveals priorities. The “we” could be, and ought to be, the country. Or the “we” could be a presidential administration that’s not really equipped to govern. So there will be lots of stories this year, like last year, about the Trump’s administration’s desire to cut federal Indian programs, wipe out public broadcasting, end student loan forgiveness, wreck Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps, housing programs, and generally just about every federal program that serves poor people.
As Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters: “This is a messaging document.”
And what a message: Rich people face tough times so they deserved a huge tax cut. Poor people are poor because of their own failures. And more money is needed for a wall that’s not needed, for the largest military in the world, and the Republicans no longer believe that deficits matter.
But Mulvaney has a different version. Here is what he says are the messages.
“Number one, you don’t have to spend all of this money, Congress. But if you do, here is how we would prefer to see you spend it,” he said. “And the other message is that we do not have to have trillion-dollar deficits forever.”
Ok. So the action is in Congress. Even Republicans on Capitol Hill know that this budget cannot be. It’s chaos as numbers.
Perhaps the best line of nonsense was written a line written by the budget director to House Speaker Paul Ryan saying domestic spending at the levels Congress has already approved would add too much to the federal deficit. That’s funny.
For this budget to become law (and override the current spending bill) the House and Senate would have to agree to a budget. That’s unlikely. As I have written before there are lots of votes against any budget but not enough votes to pass any budget. A budget resolution would allow the Senate to move forward with a spending plan with only Republican votes (and even then only one to spare). But unless the rules change (which President Trump wants) the Senate needs 60 votes for regular appropriations bills. That means a lot of compromise before federal spending.
The most popular part of the president’s budget is infrastructure spending. But most of his plan would be funding from state, local, and tribal governments. That’s a problem. Congress will not be eager to follow this approach, especially in an election year. Members of Congress love announcing new roads and other projects. It means jobs back home.
It’s telling that in the White House statement on infrastructure tribes are not mentioned (something that was routinely done in the Obama White House).
Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, wrote: “Our infrastructure is broken. The average driver spends 42 hours per year sitting in traffic, missing valuable time with family and wasting 3.1 billion gallons of fuel annually. Nearly 40 percent of our bridges predate the first moon landing. And last year, 240,000 water main breaks wasted more than 2 trillion gallons of purified drinking water—enough to supply Belgium.”
So the Trump administration’s answer is to fund this with local government dollars because, as Cohn puts it, “the federal government politically allocated funds for projects, leading to waste, mismanagement, and misplaced priorities. The answer to our nation’s infrastructure needs is not more projects selected by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C Instead, the President’s plan designates half of its $200 billion for matching funds to stimulate State, local, and private investment.”
Another thing for a broken Congress to fix. If the votes are there. In theory that should be easy. This is an area where Republicans and Democrats agree (actually anyone who looks at the crumbling state of infrastructure can figure this one out). But in this Congress? We shall see.
At the State of the Indian Nations Monday, National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said: “Native peoples are also builders and managers of roads and bridges, and other essential infrastructure. These projects are often in rural areas. They connect tribal and surrounding communities with each other, and the rest of the Nation. Tribal infrastructure is American infrastructure. In 2018, NO infrastructure bill should pass, UNLESS it includes Indian Country’s priorities.”
Back to the budget as a messaging document. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says this budget “violates the spirit of the bipartisan agreement that congressional leaders negotiated just a few days ago.” That’s going to make it much more difficult to come up with the next agreement in Congress (unless the law is ironclad, stripping the administration of some of its governing authority).
The budget assumes that Congress would repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a block grant formula. The votes are not there for that. It’s fantasy.
The current bipartisan agreement “calls for adding $2.9 billion per year over the next two years to the discretionary Child Care and Development Block Grant, boosting this key federal program to help make child care affordable for low- and modest-income parents. But the budget reneges on that and proposes essentially flat funding for the program. The Administration’s blatant dismissal of a major bipartisan agreement on which the ink is barely dry may make bipartisan agreements harder to reach in the future,” the budget center reports. “And then, in years after 2019, the budget calls for cuts of unprecedented depth in non-defense discretionary programs even though that’s the part of the budget that contains many federal investments in long-term economic growth. By 2028, funding for non-defense discretionary programs would fall 42 percent below the 2017 level, after adjusting for inflation. Indeed, by 2028, total NDD spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product, would be at its lowest level since Herbert Hoover was president.”
To me that’s the key point. Domestic spending, the programs that serve Indian Country, are already dropping and have been for a long time. All domestic discretionary programs add up to about 4.6 percent of the budget — and federal spending on Indian Country is a tiny fraction of that.
And, as the budget center points out, that means Trump budgets would actually “go below the 2019 sequestration levels, which Congress just agreed is too low to meet national needs.”
The messaging document (the budget, remember?) has another problem. It’s based on assumptions that are even more of a fantasy than repealing the Affordable Care Act. The budget assumes a 3 percent growth rate this year and 4 percent next year. So lots more people earning more and paying more income taxes (since corporations will be paying less). Not. Going. To. Happen.
Even economists think this is nonsense. The crackdown on immigration, for example, is shrinking the economy, not growing it. And the Congressional Budget Office projects a long term growth rate of just under 2 percent. Last year the economy grew at 2.6 percent, below what Trump said would happen and even below the consensus of economists.
This 2019 budget will accomplish one thing: It will serve as a mile post for the fall election. Republicans can make the case for defense spending and, I suppose, that they used to be against deficits. And Democrats will make the case for protecting health care and other domestic priorities.
Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports