This week the Trump administration put out a budget blueprint – or more accurately, a “budget” blueprint. After all, real budgets detail where the money comes from and where it goes; this proclamation covers only around a third of federal spending while saying nothing about revenues or projected deficits.
As fiscal expert Stan Collender put it: “This is not a budget. It’s a Trump campaign press release masquerading as a government document.”
So what’s the point of the document? The administration presumably hopes that it will distract the public and the press from the ongoing debacle over health care. But it probably won’t. And in any case, this pseudo-budget embodies the same combination of mean-spiritedness and fiscal fantasy that has turned the Republican effort to replace Obamacare into a train wreck.
Think for a minute about the vision of government and its role that the right has been peddling for decades.
In this vision, much if not most government spending is a complete waste, doing nobody any good. The same is true of government regulations. And to the extent to which spending does help anyone, it’s Those People – lazy, undeserving types who just so happen to be a bit, well, darker than Real Americans.
This was the kind of thinking – or, perhaps, “thinking” – that underlay President Donald Trump’s promise to replace Obamacare with something “far less expensive and far better.” After all, it’s a government program, so he assumed that it must be full of waste that a tough leader like him could eliminate.
Strange to say, however, Republicans turn out to have no ideas about how to make the program cheaper other than eliminating health insurance for 24 million people (and making coverage worse, with higher out-of-pocket spending, for those who remain).
And basically the same story applies at a broader level. Consider federal spending as a whole: Outside defense it’s dominated by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – all programs that are crucial to tens of millions of Americans, many of them the white working-class voters who are the core of Trump support. Furthermore, most other government spending also serves purposes that are popular, important or (usually) both.
Given this reality, why are so many people opposed to “big government”?
Many have a distorted view of the numbers. For example, people have a vastly exaggerated view of how much we spend on foreign aid. Many also fail to connect their personal experience with public policy: Large numbers of Social Security and Medicare recipients believe that they make no use of any government social program.
Thanks to these misperceptions, carefully nurtured by right-wing media, politicians can often get away with running on promises of drastic spending cuts: Many, perhaps most voters don’t see how such cuts would affect their lives.
But what will happen if anti-big-government politicians find themselves in a position to put their agenda into practice? Voters will quickly get a lesson in what slashing spending really means – and they won’t be happy.
That’s basically the wall Obamacare repeal has just smashed into. And the same thing will happen if this Trump whatever-it-is turns into an actual budget.
Trump himself gives every indication of having no idea what the federal government does; his vaguely budget-like document isn’t much more than a roughly scribbled list of numbers, with no clear picture of what those numbers would mean. (In fairness, one could have said the same about Paul Ryan’s budgets in the past. In fact, I did.)
But the reality is that the proposed cuts would have ugly, highly visible effects. Zeroing out the Community Development Block Grant program may sound good if you have no idea what it does (which Trump surely doesn’t); eliminating Meals on Wheels, an immediate consequence, not so much. Nor would coal country, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, like the consequences if he eliminates the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Wait, there’s more. Effectively disemboweling the Environmental Protection Agency may sound smart if you imagine that it’s just a bunch of meddling bureaucrats. But the public wants stronger, not weaker, environmental protection and would not be pleased to see a sharp deterioration in air and water quality.
The point is that Trump’s attempt to change the subject away from his party’s health care quagmire isn’t going to work, and not just because this supposed budget literally isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. At a more fundamental level, it doesn’t even change the subject.
Republicans’ budget promises, like their health care promises, have been based on an essentially fraudulent picture of what’s really going on. And now the bill for these lies is coming due.