On Budgets and Having Them Make Sense

St. Patrick’s Day was an unusually eventful day for the months-old Trump Administration. Vice-President Pence met with Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis. President Trump celebrated the holiday with Irish PM Enda Kenny in the morning, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the afternoon.

Less discussed but most relevant, perhaps, was a press conference delivered by Director Mick Mulvaney of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, in full St. Patty’s Day garb. In it, Mulvaney detailed the Trump Administration’s first-ever budget proposal, which his office had just drafted and released. Its title? “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again”. Because of course it is.

Called a “hard-power budget” repeatedly by Mulvaney (in a gross misunderstanding of what “soft power” is) during the press conference and as he did the rounds on political Sunday morning talk shows, the proposal slashes most departments’ budgets to an unprecedented degree. Meanwhile, it expands the Department of Defense’s budget to a similarly unprecedented degree.

Budget proposals are customarily released by the White House, and are essentially considered to be the White House’s wishlist in terms of the budget they would like to design and draft with Congress. In other words, a document that really provides a sense for the workable budget priorities that the Administration intends to build a government around.

Budgets, of course, end up being documents whose implementation dictate key facets of the design of the American and global economies, foreign aid efforts around the world, and domestic priorities that shape the lives of every single American. Budgets, in a sense, represent the world this White House wants to help foster, help create.

Congress, however, was not as receptive to such a world as the Trump Administration may have liked.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Associated Press he couldn’t remember the last time Congress had been “dictated to” about a budget, by any president, of either party. Conservative GOP Rep. Hal Rogers called the cuts “draconian”, and prominent GOP Senator Lindsey Graham called the budget, along with much of the Trump agenda, “dead on arrival” in the Senate. To be clear, these are Republican leaders in Congress, all three of them voting with President Trump’s view on just about any issue that has come before them in Congress thus far, per FiveThirtyEight’s presidential-senatorial voting records numbers.

So what’s in the budget proposal, anyway?

The full extent of the budgetary changes desired by the administration is best shown by this chart, courtesy of the New York Times. The biggest cuts come to the Environmental Protection Agency, with a 31% budget decrease, followed notably only by the State Department’s 29% cuts to (mainly) foreign aid, while the Departments of Labor and Agriculture get 21% cuts, respectively. Other notable cuts include the targeted cuts to NASA, which focuses exclusively on its climate change programs, and to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which, in losing 12% of its budget, is all but guaranteed to leave many without government-subsidized housing.

Veterans’ Affairs, Homeland Security and Defense turn out to be the winners of this budgetary scramble, with a whopping total of $59.5 billion added to their Departments’ ledgers. This huge spike makes total discretionary spending only be reduced by 1.2%. The deficit and debt Trump promised to eliminate, surely, are shaking in fear.

How could the Administration produce such a lopsided budget?

Well, look no further than to how Mulvaney and the OMB built it, as reported by POLITICO: “Trump’s budget, which Mulvaney said was assembled in part by examining excerpts from the President’s speeches and media interviews…”

That’s right: the budget proposal was built from budget-related excerpts of the President’s famously disjointed and improvised campaign trail speeches, some of the most nonsensical parts of one of the most already-nonsensical campaigns of all time.

This is a terrible way to build a budget, and how Mulvaney’s team parsed those vague statements into the document produced above is a mystery, but it’s clear from interviews that the President’s input was minimal, if existent. This is notable, given the presidentially-centric nature of the budget proposal as it is supposed to be submitted to Congress.

Notable from Mulvaney’s press conference was the striking image of American politics’ most Irish Irishman, Mick Mulvaney himself, that day. A man named Mick Mulvaney, wearing a green-gray suit, a green tie, a four-leaf clover pin, and a front suit pocket full of traditional Irish greenery, talked about how Meals on Wheels was the kind of “unnecessary” program he “couldn’t ask” taxpayers to contribute to.

Presumably his likely famine-stricken Irish forefathers were doing pirouettes in their graves.

In this way, we can see that the concerns voiced by the Republican congressmen quoted were both relevant and appropriate, given the dangerously haphazard nature of the cuts’ design.

It can be expected that the budget drafted by Republicans in Congress will be strikingly different to that of the Trump Administration - this threatens to quickly turn into a battle over the President’s (or at least his relevant co-workers’, in the case of advisors like Mulvaney) agency to decide his own agenda, or perhaps lull millions into a false sense of relief by presenting an only marginally-improved bill that will nonetheless shine in comparison to the amateur “hard-power” proposal that was presented by Director Mulvaney’s OMB.