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Trump’s Cuts: The Good, the Bad and the Bizarre

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Original Publication: Politico Magazine ,
Article Author:
March 17, 2017
Programs: Budget & Tax

The federal government oversees a slew of development programs for rural America, so it may seem odd that it also funds separate rural development agencies just for Appalachia, Alaska and the Mississippi Delta.

It may seem a bit less odd if you know that senators from West Virginia, Alaska, and Mississippi all served as chairmen of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. But it still seems wasteful, which is why President Donald Trump’s preliminary budget plan would eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Denali Commission, and the Delta Regional Authority for good.

The 62-page budget outline the White House released yesterday takes aim at quite a few similarly questionable expenditures. It would kill the Essential Air Service, a notoriously misnamed subsidy program for little-used rural airports. It would shut down Job Corps centers that don’t move many trainees into the workforce, long-distance Amtrak routes that don’t have much traffic, and Agriculture Department service centers that don’t have much to do. Presidential budgets never sail into law without significant changes—even Republicans in Congress seem leery of this one—but they do reveal presidential priorities, and Trump’s budget declares that his proposed cuts are designed “to redefine the proper role of the Federal Government.”

But these modest efforts to target duplication and dysfunction aren't likely to spark much debate about efficiency in government. That’s because the main thrust of Trump’s budget is an ideological assault on government itself, not a surgical strike on government excesses. Not even the wonkiest budget obsessive will pay much attention to Trump’s attack on those three porky rural agencies that together cost less than $200 million a year, not when he’s also pushing tens of billions of dollars in cuts to medical research, climate science, public health, international diplomacy, national service, environmental enforcement, heating aid for the poor, after-school snacks for kids, and a variety of other programs that have long enjoyed bipartisan support. Trump’s budget is already throwing liberals into a panic, sowing divisions among Republicans, and reinforcing the president’s brand as a disruptive force in Washington, but it’s hard to imagine a document less likely to provoke a serious debate about the role of government.

Trump isn’t just attacking programs with bipartisan support; he’s attacking programs with the support of his own Cabinet. Trump’s transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, testified at her confirmation hearing that she would push for more funding for an innovative grant program called TIGER, because she had been amazed by how much Republicans and Democrats all seemed to love it. Instead, Trump’s budget would scrap TIGER. Similarly, Trump’s energy secretary, Rick Perry, tweeted last week that a similarly popular cutting-edge research agency called ARPA-E was “key to advancing America’s energy economy.” Trump’s budget would kill ARPA-E, too. And Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, told Congress that climate change was a serious national security threat, a driver of global instability that “requires a broader, whole-of-government response.” Trump’s budget promptly launched a whole-of-government attack on climate and clean energy programs, including NASA climate research it dismissed as overly “Earth-centric.”

Some of Trump's budget numbers seem a lot stinger than Trump's own rhetoric, too. He promised during his campaign to preserve clean air and water, revive America's crumbling infrastructure, and oppose all Medicaid cuts, but his budget would slash EPA funding by 31 percent and includes no major infrastructure investments except for the border wall that he had promised Mexico would pay for, while the Republican legislation he is pushing to repeal Obamacare would strip $880 billion out of Medicaid over the next decade. And even though Trump himself tweeted up a storm about the Ebola virus back in 2014, his budget would slash $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health that led the global fight to contain Ebola, while zeroing out the Fogarty International Center at the NIH, which was right in the middle of that fight.

Mick Mulvaney, the director of Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, yesterday defended the administration’s priorities by suggesting the ultimate test of a government program is whether it makes sense to ask a West Virginia coal miner, an Ohio auto worker, or a single mother in Detroit to pay for it. “We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” Mulvaney said.

Mulvaney has been mocked for his single-mom argument, but it seems reasonable to make. I recently investigated the federal budget for Politico Magazine, and made the case that if Trump wanted to restore public confidence in Washington, he could shrink government by eliminating nice-to-have agencies like the CPB —along with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which Trump has also proposed to abolish--while preserving and even expanding government’s need-to-have functions. Public television and radio stations already get the vast majority of their funding from corporations, foundations, and viewers, anyway.

But it’s hard to see Trump’s budget priorities as an effort to separate bureaucratic wheat from chaff when he’s proposing to cut just about everything government does except national defense and immigration enforcement. And many of his biggest cuts are reserved for the kind of vital activities where markets tend to fail and government is most needed to step into the breach—preventing air and water pollution, building relationships with foreign nations, protecting consumers, investing in public schools and basic research, preparing for disasters, and ensuring a decent standard of living for poor kids and their families. Global warming is as serious a threat to humanity as Secretary Mattis has suggested, but Mulvaney, a leader of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus before joining Trump, flatly said the administration will no longer spend tax dollars on climate.

“We consider that to be a waste of your money,” Mulvaney said.

Trump’s see-no-evil approach to climate is in step with his party, his donors, and his supporters, but many of his rollbacks can’t be explained away as political pandering. His fervent support in rural America didn’t stop him from trying to whack subsidies for rural development, rural airports, and rural water and sewer plants. His electoral victories in the Rust Belt didn’t prevent him from trying to axe the restoration of the Great Lakes and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership. And while his cuts included familiar conservative targets like legal services and rental aid for the poor, it also included broadly popular programs like TIGER, a grant competition that aims to limit funding to projects with significant and measurable economic and environmental benefits. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence both wrote letters to the Obama Administration supporting TIGER projects in their states, and in her Senate hearing, Secretary Chao described the program’s $250 million budget for this year as “very modest.”

Chao’s new boss wants to cut that to zero, but Congress seems to like TIGER too much to comply. It is just as unlikely to wipe out ARPA-E, the Energy Department research agency modeled on DARPA, the Pentagon incubator that helped develop the Internet and GPS technology. Staffed by high-powered technologists from academia and private industry, ARPA-E has gained a worldwide reputation as a kind of Manhattan Project for energy innovation, providing seed money to American startups that have gone on to raise $1.8 billion in private capital since the agency launched in 2009. It’s not just Secretary Perry who says nice things about it; the Heritage Foundation, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, and countless Republicans on the Hill have cited it as the kind of early-stage research government ought to fund, as opposed to later-stage subsidies that pick winners and losers.

In other words, ARPA-E is not the kind of agency you go after if you’re trying to attack government waste. It’s the kind of agency you go after if you’re trying to attack government.

The Trump administration deserves genuine credit for targeting boondoggles like the Essential Air Service, a relic of airline deregulation from the 1970s. “The outrageous subsidies had outlived their purpose,” says Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. And there shouldn’t be anything sacrosanct about current funding levels for Forest Service land acquisition, Superfund hazardous waste cleanups, or even the minimal federal support for Meals on Wheels—although Mulvaney’s complaint that the program is “not showing any results” seems not only a bit churlish, since at a minimum giving meals to seniors presumably produces the result of making them less hungry, but wrong. Mulvaney has a point that we shouldn’t keep pouring money into Striving Readers or the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program just because they sound worthy and cutting them sounds mean.

“A lot of those programs we target, they sound great, don’t they?” Mulvaney said. “They always do…A lot of them simply don’t work.”

The Trump budget does target programs that don’t work, but it also seems to target programs that work great, and all kinds of programs in between, except for military programs and border security programs. So far, the White House has just released the “skinny budget,” so it’s possible its more comprehensive document later this spring will make a more thorough case for what Trump wants to stay and go. But Congress is going to write its own budget, and Americans probably shouldn't expect a great national debate about what Washington should and shouldn’t do. Trump's budget suggests that there's nothing to debate, that Washington should throw more money at the Pentagon and do much less of just about everything else. It will be tough to have a measured conversation about distinctions between baby and bathwater when the president is talking about throwing out so much of the tub.

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