Three Takeaways from President Trump’s Budget Proposal

March 12, 2019
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Donald Trump. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Make sure you’re sitting down for this one, folks: The White House on Monday released a record-size budget plan for fiscal year 2020. Tipping the scales at $4.75 trillion, it’s the biggest budget ask in history—although it still manages to include plenty of discretionary spending cuts guaranteed to get House Democrats steamed.

“An amazing quality of life for all of our citizens is within reach,” Trump said in a statement accompanying the budget proposal. “We can make our communities safer, our families stronger, our culture richer, our faith deeper, and our middle class bigger and more prosperous than ever before.”

Since Congress controls the federal purse-strings, presidential budgets are always something of an exercise in branding—and that goes double now that Democrats have control of the House of Representatives. But the proposal nevertheless gives us a glimpse into what the Trump administration sees as its top strategic priorities as re-election season starts to ramp up in earnest. Let’s take a gander, shall we?

  1. You Will Never Escape The Wall

Perhaps you thought our latest knock-down, drag-out wall fight—the game of chicken that led to the longest government shutdown in history, followed by Trump’s breaking the glass on a national emergency declaration—would be the last battle over the border wall for a while. Well, think again: If this budget is any indication, President Trump is prepared to fight Nancy Pelosi for wall money every day until  2020.

The new budget asks Congress to allot $5 billion in new funding for border wall construction, alongside an additional $3.6 billion of military construction funds to be diverted to wall construction under the auspices of the president’s national emergency. (That roughly matches the $3.5 billion that Trump claimed already this year from the military construction budget.)

The $5 billion ask is remarkable, given it’s pretty much exactly the sum Trump spent months trying to extract from Pelosi and Co. already this year. The message is: Trump isn’t exactly prepared to take no for an answer here. Does this mean the president is tossing around the idea of forcing another government shutdown when the issue of funding the government comes up again this September? It’s still too early to say. But this budget ask is a quick and dirty way of reassuring the troops that the president isn’t ready to let funding the wall drop as a legislative matter.

  1. You Get a Tank! And You Get a Tank!

Another year, another proposed windfall for the president’s favorite part of the federal government: OUR GREAT MILITARY. Trump’s budget plan asks for an eye-popping $750 billion for national defense spending, an approximate $34 billion increase over 2019 levels and $50 billion more than Trump initially indicated he’d ask for last October.

The Pentagon, which had previously been anticipating $733 billion in funding, was thrown into uproar last year when Trump suggested in a Cabinet meeting that he planned to clip his military budget ask down to $700 billion in the interest of tightening federal spending.

“Now that we have our military taken care of, we have our law enforcement taken care of, we can do things that we really weren’t in a position to do when I first came,” he said at the time.

But it looks like the budgeteers can breathe easy: Trump’s momentary flirtation with tightening the military belt has given way again to his habitual “bigger is better” approach.

  1. Hey, is that Paul Ryan?

Trump’s number crunchers might not have been able to find it in their hearts to whittle away at military spending. But other discretionary spending is a whole different story, with the White House asking Congress to make cuts from federal agencies like the Department of Education and the  Environmental Protection Agency it says would total $1.1 trillion in savings over the next decade. The plan also asks for cuts to entitlement spending, as the New York Times reports:

The budget includes proposals that would that reduce Medicare spending on prescription drugs and payments to some hospitals through a number of policy changes. The changes to the drug program may have the effect of increasing premiums for Americans who rely on Medicare, but they would also, for the first time, limit the amount that seniors with very expensive drugs could be asked to pay each year. Some of the plans resemble proposals unsuccessfully offered by President Barack Obama in his time in the White House.

The Medicare changes would save $846 billion over a decade, in part through curbing “waste, fraud and abuse.” The administration also proposes spending $26 billion less on Social Security programs, including a $10 billion cut to the Social Security Disability Insurance program.

Mr. Trump also proposes new work requirements for working-age adult recipients of food stamps, federal housing support and Medicaid, a move the administration said would reduce spending on those programs by $327 billion over a decade.

It’s as strange as ever to see President Trump, who defied GOP orthodoxy on entitlements throughout his 2016 run, gesturing toward big cuts to Medicare and Social Security—voters didn’t punish Trump for promising not to cut entitlements in 2016, and they apparently haven’t minded much that he hasn’t done anything about them since. Yet just like last year, here are the proposed cuts.

Which leads to a weird realization about this budget ask: Sure, it asks for plenty of wall money, but by and large it’s a vanilla proposal that wouldn’t be out of place in any other deficit-ignoring GOP administration. Maybe this means the president is edging back toward GOP orthodoxy to draw a bigger preliminary distinction between himself and a potential hardcore leftist 2020 challenger.

Or maybe it just means that the nerds in the White House budget shop aren’t taking cues on such things from the president. If so, you can see where they’re coming from: running the kind of campaign that’s built on a carefully crafted budget proposal is the kind of thing low-energy establishment wretches do. Sure, Trump was always going to put out a budget—it’s what presidents do. In terms of what he’s going to campaign on, however—well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a senior writer at The Bulwark.