The president's budget doesn't matter, and you should ignore it

  • The president’s budget seems like a big deal. But you would be wise to discard it in the trash.
  • President Donald Trump’s spending agenda is best reflected in the spending bill he just signed last Friday.

The White House on Monday released its annual budget proposal. And you should do with it the same thing that Congress will do with it: Throw it in the trash.

The president’s budget is not a law and it’s not even a bill. It’s a statement of principles. Ordinarily, you might think a statement of principles from the president is important. Maybe the budget reflects priorities that the White House will fight to ensure are included in future laws about spending.

But that is not what has happened, in practice.

The president’s spending agenda is best embodied in the spending bill he just signed on Friday, which raises spending caps on categories of spending that his budgets both last year and this year have claimed he wanted to cut.

Deficits over the next several years will likely be significantly higher than the already-high figures in the budget proposal – because of the president’s demonstrated willingness to accept higher spending levels when Congress agrees to them.

Appropriation is necessarily a bipartisan process. Annual spending bills have to get 60 votes in the Senate, so they come out of negotiations between Republicans and Democrats. And Democrats have only been willing to agree to the increases in defence spending that Republicans want if they are accompanied by similar increases in non-defence spending.

Some of the spending-cut ideas that have appeared in the president’s budget, such as the 20% cut he proposed last year to the National Institutes of Health, also face strong resistance from Republicans in Congress.

Other ideas in the budget – like proposed cuts to Medicare and a restated intention to repeal Obamacare – could theoretically be pursued through the budget reconciliation process in the Senate, meaning they could be passed with a simple majority and only Republican votes.

In practice, Republicans were unified enough on tax policy to pass a tax cut bill using this strategy, but they couldn’t come to agreement on doing so with regard to Obamacare. House Speaker Paul Ryan has expressed eagerness to pursue entitlement cuts through reconciliation this year, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked that option, saying he won’t pursue changes to entitlement programs in 2018 without Democratic support, which won’t be available.

So, these ideas are dead in Congress for at least the next year.

If Republicans were to enter 2019 with a larger Senate majority, they might pursue cuts to Medicare or take another crack at repealing Obamacare. But that’s not really new information from the budget. It’s a reflection of existing priorities of Republican congressional leaders. And the existing political problems with such cuts – they’re unpopular – would remain.

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