White House

Trump rolls out conservative dream budget

The president penned another fiscally conservative dream document lawmakers will largely disregard.

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump sent another fantasy budget to Congress on Monday, thumbing his nose at the very spending levels he signed into law last summer and setting a potential agenda for a second term when he might have better luck with lawmakers.

Since Trump and congressional leaders already settled on new funding caps for the fiscal year ahead, this budget was the president’s big chance to give realistic feedback on how he wants Congress to divvy up that cash. Instead, he burned that opportunity in favor of penning another fiscally conservative dream document lawmakers will largely disregard, though its cuts could please his base in November and get recycled should he win another four-year term.

“It’s merely a political stunt to gratify extremists in his party,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leader in the Senate on budget issues.

With his name scrawled across the text of last summer’s budget deal, the president made it the law of the land that the military will be allowed $740.5 billion for the upcoming fiscal year and non-defense programs will get up to $634.5 billion. But his new budget request only honors the defense part of the deal, undercutting non-defense funding caps by $44.5 billion, or 7 percent.

White House officials note the budget deal sets “ceilings, not floors.”

“Our hope would be that Congress would spend at a lower level on the non-defense side,” said a senior administration official speaking on background. “That's not our expectation, but we certainly want to continue to propose where we think the funding levels should be.”

Indeed, Congress is sure to spend every penny allowed under the budget deal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brokered with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in July. And while every presidential budget is “just a list of suggestions,” as Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) noted Monday, those recommendations don't hold weight if they are well beyond the bounds of political reality.

Even for some fiscal hawks, Trump’s new budget request rings hollow.

“You might call a president’s budget aspirational. In a less charitable way, it’s really delusional,” said Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The president’s fiscal 2021 suggestions are a mismatch with what lawmakers would accept, Ellis said, as well as with the Trump administration’s willingness to spend federal cash and forgo revenue through tax cuts like the 2017 overhaul.

“So now the idea that they’re all of a sudden going to turn around and do things differently is not believable,” Ellis said, accusing the Trump administration of paying “lip service” to fiscal restraint while watching the federal deficit cruise to $1 trillion under the president’s leadership. “It’s a lather-rinse-repeat sort of budget.”

Over the next few months, Cabinet secretaries and agency heads will testify before Congress’ spending panels, forced to explain how the State Department and international programs would operate in fiscal 2021 under the 21 percent cut Trump has proposed, or how the Department of Housing and Urban Development would handle a 15 percent trim.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security spending panel, suggested that Trump’s budget is more conciliatory than past budgets, especially when it comes to border wall funding.

“They can see what has gone on in the past with the wall. $2 billion is a reasonable ask. If they come for $8 billion, they’re not going to get that. I think this shows a great maturation process on the part of the administration,"he said. “Now, will the pay-fors be implemented? Probably not.”

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), whose panel will be holding those hearings in the House, said it’s “unfortunate that instead of using his budget to build on the historic investments in last year’s budget deal, the president doubled down on partisan talking points that have no chance of becoming law.”

Trump’s budget is “a disastrous repeat of the misplaced priorities and callous cuts he has pursued unsuccessfully in past requests,” Lowey said, noting that the same departments and agencies that got the shaft in Trump’s first three budgets are the aim of his ax again this year.

The president proposes a 37 percent reduction for the Commerce Department, a 27 percent cut for the EPA and a 13 percent trimming at the Department of Transportation. Also on the chopping block in Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget vision: the departments of Education, Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, Labor and Justice.

Trump proposes to slow the growth of Medicaid as well, calling for restraints that would limit spending increases to 3 percent for the program that provides health care coverage to 1 in 5 Americans.

While the current Congress will never oblige restricting the safety net like that, there have been some hints that the president could be positioning himself for a more fiscally minded second term, during which he could welcome the idea of scaling back the entitlement programs he often vows to protect.

A senior administration official said on background that the end of the two-year budget deal could be an opportune time to look for savings in mandatory programs like Medicaid, since Congress and the president will be negotiating new funding levels once the caps expire in September 2021.

During an interview with CNBC last month, Trump said cuts to entitlement programs would be on his plate “at some point” amid the “tremendous growth” of the U.S. economy. “This next year …” he said. “It’ll be toward the end of the year.”