Newt Gingrich lives in President Trump’s first pass at a federal budget.
The purpose of a budget – government, corporate or household – is to put vision in numbers. First identify the goals, the strategies to execute them and their projected costs, then set income to a level required to act on whatever priorities are realistic.
When Gingrich became House speaker in 1995, he inverted the formula. Said the speaker, the budget is first a number, then strategies to meet whatever goals can be addressed within that number. He argued that families and businesses operated the same way – apportioning fixed income to needs and desires.
Noble as that may sound, that’s not how households or businesses operate. Families borrow – mortgages, car loans, credit cards – to fulfill a vision. Corporations meet a plan by borrowing from banks, selling stock and issuing bonds.
This week Trump followed Gingrich’s notion in releasing a 53-page outline of the one-fourth of federal spending devoted to discretionary spending: The first principle is the number. The president said he would increase defense spending $54 billion and cut non-defense discretionary spending by the same amount, maintaining a total discretionary budget of $1.065 trillion. (Discretionary is the part of the budget that Congress sets each year covering the goods and services government buys; mandatory, which constitutes nearly two-thirds of the current $3.9 trillion budget, is transfer payments based on criteria: Social Security, Medicare, federal pensions, other income-security programs.)
Perhaps sometime later the administration will outline a vision, but so far Trump’s has only a slogan, to make us great again. How these choices do that he has not articulated. We are left with a number: $54 billion switched from non-defense to defense.
About Trump’s increase for the Pentagon, the budget “blueprint” has 11 bullet points: “accelerate the defeat of ISIS”; address “pressing shortfalls”; build a “more lethal joint force, driven by a new National Defense Strategy.” The defense secretary has released no strategy. That will come later.
The corresponding cut in non-defense programs has even less justification. Budget director Mick Mulvaney, while denying the link between school lunch subsidies and student performance, said agencies would be deciding on the specific cuts. His bullets were illustrative, I suppose.
For example, the Agriculture budget “Provides $6.2 billion to serve all projected participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).” The amount is a projection of grants to states, which administer the program according to eligibility criteria. Maybe it’s enough to serve “all projected participants.” The House and Senate Appropriations committees last spring allocated $6.35 billion, the same as the year before, asserting that an improved economy led to declining expenditures. This year? We can’t tell, because the blueprint doesn’t include the usual detail, such as underlying macroeconomic assumptions. The White House has hired no economists, the Agriculture Department has no secretary (nominee Sonny Perdue submitted his required ethics paperwork a few days ago), and it’s unclear whether the department, with no political appointees at the helm, participated in Mulvaney’s projection. So $6.2 billion is just a number. Which takes us back to the Gingrich paradigm: set the number, then see what it buys.
It’s not entirely the Trump administration’s doing. The federal budget process has long been broken. Congress used to pass one annual bill covering all mandatory programs – statutory provisions that specified changes in law affecting spending – and 13 appropriations bills covering more or less logically grouped areas of discretionary spending. For years, though, Congress has failed to do so, because it could not square the popularity of programs against an arbitrary number to assemble voting majorities. Instead it has bundled the appropriations that didn’t pass by the start of the fiscal year into a “continuing resolution.” It has passed two CRs for fiscal 2017; the latest expires April 28, leaving five months to go in the fiscal year. If Congress had done its job, the White House could have focused on other issues, perhaps putting a team in place and submitting a supplemental appropriation. But it didn’t, so we have a half-baked proposal out of an amateur White House with no articulated policy behind it.
The unveiling of the president’s budget has always been a pageant, a day of drama for Congress, reporters, and affected interests. The real work came before, when the agencies assembled their requests according to directives from the White House, and after, when Congress got to the business of modifying the previous year’s appropriation according to its priorities.
For this year’s show, the White House’s role was to generate headlines – “NEA to be abolished! EPA budget slashed!” But it only means what Congress decides it means. In the best case, that will be determined as the Appropriations committees weigh the value of programs against a number. The vision of a more or less perfect union will be revealed in the results.