Trump’s FY 2019 budget: An administration flying blind

The Trump administration delivered a $4.4 billion fiscal year 2019 federal budget to Congress yesterday. A standard journalistic cliché about presidential budgets in recent years has been “dead on arrival.” As the Associated Press reported, Trump’s second budget plan was “dead even before arrival.”

The current budget plan looks very much like what the president proposed for fiscal 2018 a year ago. That plan got nowhere.

The first thing to understand about White House budget documents is that the president can propose but it is Congress that disposes. The House and Senate write the checks, and they don’t have to buy what the administration is selling. There was a time a decade or so ago when administration budget plans bore some relationship to reality. That hasn’t been the case since the George W. Bush administration, and has become less so over the subsequent years.

The next thing to understand about the budget document is that this year’s version comes just days after the White House and a bipartisan Congress locked in overall spending for the next two years.  The New York Times noted, “Last week, Mr. Trump signed a two-year bipartisan budget deal, struck by congressional leaders largely without his involvement, to boost both domestic and military spending by $300 billion. Mr. Trump’s budget, which was drawn up before that package was completed, does not entirely embrace the law he signed just days ago, and proposes spending less on domestic programs than what Congress – and Mr. Trump – agreed to last week.”

OMB Director Mick Mulvaney

That suggests something else about the president’s budget. Looking both at his 2018 proposal and the new 2019 proposal, is appears that Trump himself played little role in developing the budget. Instead, it looks like the work of Mick Mulvaney, director of Trump’s Office of Management and Budget and a long-time budget hawk, whose wings have been clipped by the Congressional budget deal.

Also, as Vox reported, the budget plan tracks “plans put forward by House Speaker Paul Ryan when he was the House Budget Committee chair. Ryan’s previous budget proposals featured trillions in cuts to programs for the poor.” Ryan was unable to enact those plans either as budget chairman or speaker. His future plans also are hobbled by the spending deal of last week.

A year ago, the administration proposed slashing the Department of Energy’s APRA-E research and development program. Congress gave the program $15 million more than it got in the year before. The new proposed cut is unlikely to stand. Nor are plans to slash the Environmental Protection Agency spending by 25-30 percent, another consistent target of former South Carolina Republican congressman Mulvaney.

The budget also resurrects long-desired wishes by Republicans to cripple or kill federal power agencies, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Western Area Power Authority, and the Southwestern Power Administration. The White House plan would sell of the power marketing administrations’ transmission assets and increase their rates.

Federal power agencies have been a Republican target since the New Deal. The first Reagan budget in 1981 proposed selling them to private interests, and that idea or some form of it has not died in the hearts of die-hard Republicans. They have never succeeded.

At a White House briefing for reporters, Mulvaney said, “This is a messaging document.” If so, the message is incoherent. The Times said the budget constitutes a “vision statement.” If so, the White House is flying blind.

— Kennedy Maize

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