Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Nothing symbolises modern-day Washington DC quite like sharing plates in a dimly lit restaurant serving 417 locally-sourced craft ales, or an impending government shutdown owing to another self-enforced budget crisis. Congress is rapidly closing in on a deadline to keep the Government going, hoping to avoid the events of October 2013 when the Government shut down for 15 days. The current fiscal year began on October 1st 2016, but funding under the current continuing resolution ends on April 28th – in just seven weeks.
In his joint speech to Congress, delivered last week in an uncharacteristically assured and optimistic manner that some analysts were shocked to describe as “presidential”, Donald Trump gave only some small hints around what his Budget will entail.
Winners and losers
Defence and military spending look set to be the big winners emerging from Trump’s proposals. Having campaigned consistently on the need to strengthen the US military, the White House will seek an additional $54 billion for defence spending in fiscal year 2018, a near ten per cent increase that will take departmental spending to over $600 billion. In a meeting with the majority of state governors at the White House, Trump described his plan as a “public safety budget” that will focus on law and order. Its political philosophy appears rooted in the ‘America First’ approach that runs through the veins of this White House. It’s simple, according to Mick Mulvaney, the Office of Management and Budget Director: “We are taking his words and turning them into policies and dollars. We will be spending less overseas and more back home”.
The biggest losers set to suffer from the Trump plan will be the departments on whose backs the huge uptick in military spending will be funded. Were Congress to adopt Trump’s spending agenda from the sparse information we have, it would equate to an across the board ten per cent cut in all discretionary spending programs outside of national security. The State Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) look most vulnerable.
A dismantling of the former comes as something of a surprise, though State is responsible for large amounts of foreign aid spending, which will without fail find itself on the Trump chopping board. Rex Tillerson was drafted in as Secretary of State from his high-profile business role running ExxonMobil, but since then has reportedly been reduced to a secondary role outside the President’s closer circle of trusted advisers.
The EPA, on the contrary, seemed doomed the moment the election was called for a man who has flirted with climate change denial and at times resorted to anti-Chinese conspiracy theories. Although it may appear perverse to want a job in an agency you oppose diametrically, Scott Pruitt, the new EPA Administrator, sued the agency 13 times in his prior role as Oklahoma Attorney General. The Trump transition team previously said that the agency workforce could be shrunk by two thirds. Diverting funds away from the EPA will be deeply popular from the Trump grass roots all the way through the Freedom Caucus in Congress and up to the top of the agency itself. Steve Bannon, White House Chief Strategist, said recently that one of the key priorities of the White House was the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. The EPA looks like their natural starting point.
Navigating the congressional waters
The process for passing a budget and keeping the Government running is both complex and open to the political manoeuvring of a handful of lawmakers. The President’s budget is not written into law, but more of an opening offer in a long negotiation process established by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. House and Senate budget committees set spending levels for the various government agencies via resolutions which are influenced but not dictated by the President’s proposals.
Owing to the intensely partisan nature of some of Trump’s major budgetary goals, Congressional approval will not come easily. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said Trump’s proposed budget cuts to State Department funding would “probably not” pass in the Senate. More widely, Republicans committed to reducing the deficit will be aghast at the cost of building the border wall and military pledges running into the billions. The Democrats will continue their strategy of near blanket opposition and in this case with just cause – to pass Congress the budget will need at least 60 votes in the Senate, meaning eight Democrats would need to vote for a plan that their base will rally against, or at least refuse to filibuster.
Trump’s plan is by no means final but it is indicative of the spending plans of this White House. Instead of taking to Twitter to vent at whomever is in his cross hairs every morning, the President should focus on writing a budget that Congress can pass.