An Unconventional President Takes Aim at the Bureaucracy

While administration officials released President Trump's 2018 budget in Washington on Tuesday, he was in the Middle East on his first foreign trip as president. While administration officials released President Trump's 2018 budget in Washington on Tuesday, he was in the Middle East on his first foreign trip as president. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Tuesday’s release of the Trump administration’s $4.1 trillion spending blueprint for fiscal 2018 shows that dozens of agencies and programs remain in the crosshairs of White House budget cutters. Unsurprisingly, the White House proposes to substantially shift government’s resources from anti-poverty, diplomacy and environmental programs toward the president’s priorities of tax cuts and enhanced defense and border security.

Congress, however, has its own.

Titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” the document marks “the first time a budget has been written through eyes of people paying the taxes,” Trump Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters while praising the work of 500 staffers at the Office of Management and Budget.

Boosting the Pentagon by $52 billion (to $639.1 billion) and proposing $4.5 billion to help the Homeland Security Department implement executive orders, the plan calls for $1.4 trillion in cuts to domestic agencies over 10 years and killing at least five dozen programs while aiming to balance the budget. It also offers $200 billion for infrastructure projects.

As announced in March with what was called “the skinny budget,” this fuller budget would slice the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent and the State Department by 29 percent, as well as impose dramatic cuts in education, labor and arts programs.

“We can finally turn the page on the Obama era of bloated budgets that never balance,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “President Trump has proven his commitment to fiscal responsibility with a budget that will grow the economy. It prioritizes American taxpayers over bureaucrats in Washington, while making our military stronger so we can face the threats of a modern world.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Trump’s plan “builds on progress made earlier this month on defense, prioritizing more of the resources our servicemembers need. It builds on progress made earlier this month on border security, calling for investing in more of the infrastructure and technology our law enforcement officers need. And, unlike any of President Obama’s budget blueprints, this one actually achieves balance.”

But other Republicans were less enthused. “Dead on arrival,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., speaking at a fiscal summit sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. “It’s only a 3 percent defense hike, not 10 percent” at a time when “we are ramping up and have to do more in Afghanistan.” He mentioned Air Force fighter jets not flying for lack of parts and a shortage of 1,000 pilots.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., said, “The president is right to take a close look at spending,” but “Congress has the power of the purse strings. I’ve never seen a president’s budget proposal not revised substantially.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., also speaking at the summit, said the budget was dead because of its cuts in food stamps and welfare programs, which would affect “an America I don’t think the president has any idea of.”

Mulvaney told reporters on Monday the targeted programs were chosen after evaluation showed “they help only one in 15 people, or there’s no good research in 10 years, or they’re not paid for.” He cited $300 billion in unauthorized programs that Congress didn’t think “were important enough to take up.” For example, the Education Department’s McNair Scholars Program under the TRIO grants for higher education aid had “only a 6 percent effectiveness rate the last time it was evaluated,” he said, and the 21st century Community Learning Centers grants (for K-12) are less than 20 percent effective. “20 percent doesn’t cut it anymore,” Mulvaney said.

Cuts in food stamps and disability payments, he said, are aimed at encouraging able-bodied people to end their dependency on government. “We need everybody pulling in the same direction.”

Much of the savings would come from outright elimination of such agencies as the national endowments for the arts and humanities, the Legal Services Corp., the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Delta Regional Authority, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the U.S. Institute for Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The budget’s justification for killing the independent Chemical Safety Board said the agency’s recommendations have been “focused on the need for greater regulation of industry, which has frustrated both regulators and industry. The pressure to tie investigations to management priorities culminated in whistleblower complaints that led to critical reports issued by both the Environmental Protection Agency Office of the Inspector General” and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “While CSB's new leadership is making progress on the previous management challenges, due to the duplicative nature of its work, the budget recommends eliminating the agency,” the document said.

Other cuts, such as those at State, are policy choices. “The budget . . . renews attention on the appropriate U.S. share of international spending at the United Nations, at the World Bank, and for many other global issues where the U.S. currently pays more than its fair share,” the document said. “Additionally, this budget request focuses on making the Department of State and USAID leaner, more efficient, and more effective, and streamlines international affairs agencies more broadly through the elimination of federal funding to several smaller agencies.”

The programs offered for elimination mostly due to alleged duplication include the Agriculture Department’s Rural Economic Development  program and McGovern-Dole International Food for Education program; the Army Corps of Engineers’ involvement in the Washington Aqueduct providing water to the nation’s capital and Northern Virginia; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s grant and education programs; the Labor Department’s Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Training Program; the Health and Human Services Department’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; the Transportation Department’s post-recession economic development TIGER Grant program; and the EPA’s Energy Star appliance certification program.

More broadly, the administration counts on ambitious savings by cutting in half the estimated $144 billion that various agencies mistakenly pay out in improper payments, and eliminating redundant spending on Pentagon service contracts. The budget would also save, it argues, by enacting a current House proposal to privatize air traffic control, “restructuring” the leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and cutting the Broadcasting Board of Governors by 12.9 percent. It would give the Census Bureau a $51 million increase.

The Internal Revenue Service would be cut by $239 million, or 2.1 percent, which would eliminate 5,800 full time employees, according to the National Treasury Employees Union. This is “another example of short-sightedness,” said National President Tony Reardon. “How can we consider further hamstringing the agency responsible for collecting 93 percent of the money that keeps our country running? This only makes our country’s financial situation worse” while also causing taxpayer services to further decline, he told reporters.

The Trump budget is designed foremost to produce economic growth with a target of 3 percent, the White House stressed. The anti-debt advocacy group called the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said, “The president’s budget includes significant spending-side deficit reduction, but it also relies on unrealistic growth assumptions to make its numbers look better. Without that added growth, debt in the budget would total 72 to 83 percent of GDP by 2027 instead of the 60 percent estimated by OMB,” it said. “The deficit in 2027 would total $480 billion to $1.1 trillion rather than the budget being in balance.”

Douglas Criscitello, a former Housing and Urban Department chief financial officer and now managing director for public sector at Grant Thornton LLP, sees a “new voodoo” in the administration and Congress’s assumption that “the path to fiscal sustainability is through spending cuts and growth. There’s something to be said for reducing unnecessary tax burdens. But the whole notion of achieving fiscal sustainability with no pain, and some spending cuts, that generates so much growth that the budget balances within a decade is audacious,” he told Government Executive. Pointing to the budget’s title phase “a new foundation,” he said, “Today’s platforms are built on science, data and technology, but the budget makes major cuts in scientific infrastructure.”

Correction: This initial version of this story misstated the budget increase for the Census Bureau. 

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