Trump Seeks ‘Historic’ Federal Spending Cuts to Boost Defense and Border Wall

Office of Management and Budget staff delivers President Donald Trump's 2020 budget outline to the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 11. Office of Management and Budget staff delivers President Donald Trump's 2020 budget outline to the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 11. J.Scott Applewhite/AP

Touting spending cuts “higher than any other administration in history,” the White House on Monday released documents describing its proposed $4.7 trillion budget for 2020, making good on its promise to slice funding by at least 5 percent for most agencies but boost investment in favored projects.

The budget materials released by the administration did not include the appendices, analytical perspectives and numerical breakdowns used by Congress, so many details of the administration's proposal are not yet known. Those documents are expected next Monday, an official with the Office of Management and Budget said.

But the broad outlines are clear: Winners in the document, titled “A Budget for a Better America: Promises Kept. Taxpayers First,” include multi-agency programs to build a wall along the border with Mexico (a requested $8.6 billion hike), veterans health care (a 10 percent hike) and opioid addiction research and prevention, including $44 million in distance learning and telemedicine grants, and $60 million in community facilities grants for treatment centers.

The defense budget—which in fiscal 2019 was given its largest hike in years, to $715 billion—would rise to $750 billion, mostly through the controversial shifting of some core budget items to the overseas contingency operations fund that is supposed to be reserved for active combat missions.

The National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—both part of the Health and Human Services Department—would receive $291 million for AIDS testing and medications.

In contrast, the budget calls for major cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency (31 percent); the State Department (23 percent); the Transportation Department (22 percent); the Interior Department (15 percent); and the Health and Human Services Department (12 percent).

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Federal employees, mostly future ones, would see their retirement benefits cut, in part through increased employee contributions and elimination of supplemental retirement benefits, to bring the benefits “more in line with the private sector.”

Also, the proposed budget anticipates $327 billion in savings associated with welfare reforms—work requirements would be expanded in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Medicaid and housing subsidy programs, a senior administration official told reporters Monday morning, with a “hardship exemption.” The programs should provide “a ladder of opportunity,” the official added. “Individuals age 19-65 are expected to work, or engage in job training or community engagement.”

The budget contains “more reduction than any president in history has ever proposed, in concert with the first two budgets,” the official said. With the national debt at $22 trillion, interest is costing $400 billion in the current year, the official added in justifying the need for $1.9 trillion in savings and reforms over 10 years in mandatory spending outside the discretionary budget. The White House arranged the 5 percent cuts in discretionary accounts (which includes cancellations and rescissions that Congress is likely to reject) “as a total level, which allows us to make investments where we think is necessary, and greater reductions in other areas,” the official said.

An example of what the administration views as waste is in the area of foreign aid, the official said. The State Department has “85 cultural and exchange programs that have doubled since 2004” to $600 million. One million students a year come from across the world, “but only 1 percent come through this program,” the official said. “So it’s not unreasonable to ask Congress to go back to spending $300 million.”

A second example of inefficient spending cited is the Labor Department’s Job Corps, which, the official said, is “actually an unsafe program,” given reports of 14,000 security incidents at its 123 centers, 4,000 of them drug-related, including two homicides.

As part of the president’s management agenda, the budget promises $150 million in new information technology modernization to remedy continued reliance on “outdated technology and antiquated processes, which frustrates the American people and the federal workforce,” according to an Office of Management and Budget summary, which stressed a bipartisan strategy.

And, as it has in the past, the administration proposed $200 million in infrastructure spending on highways and other projects—declaring itself open to working with Congress on specifics “to get a package [the president] could sign."

At the macro-level, the administration projects a balanced budget in 15 years, rather than the usual 10, by ending “runaway spending,” a change the official justified by saying, “Unfortunately, Congress did not accept” many of its proposed cuts over the past two years, “so we have to do it in 15.”

The official said that shifting core defense funds to the overseas contingency operations fund was justified in the context of Congress continuing to enforce the budget caps from the 2011 Budget Control Act, which requires parity between defense and non-defense spending. “We think it’s important that the administration not be bound, and are signaling that the paradigm of 1 dollar for 1 dollar hasn’t for some time been affordable for this country.”

Asked to justify the steep cuts at EPA, the official said, “We believe that at $6 billion at a time of trillion-dollar deficits is affordable for the country. It allows us to protect the environment and fulfill our statutory responsibility for clear air and clean water.” The plan “does ask the states to step up,” he added, noting that the budget would eliminate many EPA regional programs.

Asked about the rising deficit that many link to the Trump administration’s tax cuts codified in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the official said, “We don’t think tax cuts will lead to anything other than economic growth over 10 years. They will be paid for with our policies, and we will be proven right.”

Democrats in Congress were quick to pounce. “President Trump’s new budget would make children, seniors, and people with disabilities pay for his massive tax giveaways to billionaires and big corporations,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committees. “As he slashes funding to help working families, he includes billions of dollars more for his wall—on the heels of blowing up our deficit with the Republican tax law. This budget makes it clearer than ever where his priorities lie—in protecting millionaires and billionaires while cutting investments in health care, education, and the environment.”

Many critics on Capitol Hill commonly dismiss the president’s budget as “dead on arrival,” particularly now that Democrats hold the House majority. But Robert Greenstein, president of the liberal-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, told reporters on Friday that “would be a mistake. The budget is always important because it reflects the president and his administration’s vision of where they want to take the country,” he said. “It usually provides a road map of the types of policies they will put into effect through various tools, including executive orders and regulations.”

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