Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The president’s wish list for 2020 mixes massive military spending boosts with slashes to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, housing assistance, and other domestic needs.
The White House delivered its fiscal year 2020 budget to Congress on Monday. As in the past, it couples drastic cuts to domestic spending with a massive boost in military funds. How massive? In a decade, this budget—the largest in federal history—would increase the debt by $7.3 trillion, more than double the $3.2 trillion that the White House projected in its 2018 budget.
In a sense, the White House’s numbers don’t matter. Even when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, Trump couldn’t pass his wish list; now that Democrats control a majority in the House, his budget is all but dead on arrival. Still, the White House budget will serve as a crucial text as Trump prepares to vigorously engage in the Democratic Party primary to select his challenger.
So while Democratic candidates debate the benefits of varying shades of Green New Deal and universal healthcare programs, the incumbent president will be stumping on a message of savage austerity. This plan would strip aid for housing, hunger, and healthcare from the nation’s most vulnerable residents, leaving it to state and local government to meet their welfare needs.
Finer details about the budget won’t be available for another week, but the broad strokes reveal that Trump administration officials are standing firmly behind deficit-inflating policies so brazenly harmful to aging Baby Boomers and rural voters they would have embarrassed conservatives of earlier eras. And while the White House budget is at best an aspirational document, it casts extreme arguments as mainstream.
If it passed, the White House budget would:
Reimpose tighter sequester caps on domestic spending. Back in February, Russ Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, tipped his hand. In a column outlining his vision of austerity, Vought notes that Congress has at various points raised spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (better known as the sequester). The new White House budget adheres to tighter spending caps by cutting domestic spending by $55 billion for 2020, or 9 percent below 2019 levels. Aid for housing, food, medicine, research, and other programs would plummet.
“It covers the waterfront,” says Joel Friedman, vice president for federal fiscal policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The effects of such deep cuts would be wide ranging.”
Cut housing aid by double digits. The administration wants to eliminate the Community Development Block Grant and HOME Investment Partnerships programs, zero out spending on the national Housing Trust Fund, impose work requirements and triple rents for people who receive housing aid, and reduce funds by 16.4 percent across the board. The budget calls for additional funds for the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, a controversial privatization plan for public housing and maybe the single housing policy that has earned the favor of the Trump administration.
Wipe out food aid. The Trump administration’s plan to cut $219 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would dramatically alter one of the federal government’s most effective anti-poverty programs. The budget would wipe out more than 30 percent of SNAP funds. It also re-ups the call for “America’s Harvest Box,” an as-yet-undefined meal-delivery solution that one of Blue Apron’s founding funders described as “a cruel and cynical joke: like Blue Apron, but for desperate poverty.”
Skim on disability insurance: By proposing to cut $10 billion in funds from the Social Security Disability program, the Trump administration continues to make good on its threat to dissolve out aspects of the retirement security program for cuts. Last year, the Social Security Administration asked money for Congress to implement a program to monitor disability applicants’ social media feeds for alleged fraud. This is an example of how Overton-window-shifting proposals—like cutting Social Security benefits, often considered unthinkable—can end up turning into dystopian policy solutions.
Slash healthcare. There is virtually no chance—really, zero chance—that Congress will pass Trump’s proposed $845 billion in cuts to Medicare. Combined with cuts to Medicaid, the White House is proposing more than $1 trillion in cuts to healthcare programs. This budget would further convert Medicaid to a block grant system called the “Market Based Health Care Grant” program, which is unpopular among some in the GOP. Whatever the White House thinks it is doing by proposing cuts to healthcare programs beloved among the aging segments of Trump’s base—cuts that cannot clear the Congress under any circumstances anyway—is baffling.
Stall and shift funding for transit. The U.S. Department of Transportation comes in for a 22 percent decrease in its budget from 2019 enacted levels. The White House budget completely punts on the long-term problems facing the Highway Trust Fund, noting that “[a] long-term bill is necessary to provide certainty to America’s State, local, and private partners, so they can plan and invest in projects with confidence.” Further, it doesn’t seem as if the administration plans to budget on the transportation infrastructure grants that the government has so far refused to release.
Deny that climate change is a crisis. Only once in the 150-page document does the word “climate” even appear, and it’s about something else. The White House seeks to cut the budget for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent from its enacted 2019 funding level.
Take the lid off defense spending. The 2020 White House budget would authorize hundreds of billions of dollars in new defense spending through Overseas Contingency Operations, an emergency fund not subject to budget caps. Republican fiscal hawks have criticized this loophole as “an end run around the sequester.”
Fund the border wall. Not chastened after taking an L during the shutdown fight, Trump is demanding more money from Congress to build a border wall with Mexico. In addition to more than $9 billion in funds explicitly connected to the wall, the budget calls for some $2.6 billion to replenish other purses Trump diverted by declaring the border a national emergency. A footnote says that the funds for the Department of Defense are being requested as “an emergency requirement to address border security and hurricane recovery,” suggesting that money for reconstruction in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico could be diverted toward the southern border.