With big spending cuts, Trump’s budget highlights clash of values

The White House budget proposal would slash programs for the poor, including Medicaid and food stamps. Its framers say it nudges the able-bodied into jobs; critics call it ‘Robin Hood in reverse.’

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Eric Ueland, Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, hands copies of President Trump’s fiscal 2018 federal budget to a congressional staffer on Capitol Hill, on May 23.

To the Trump team, the president’s budget proposal is rooted in unassailable values: respect for the people “who are actually paying the taxes,” as White House budget director Mick Mulvaney puts it.

In President Trump’s $4.1 trillion fiscal 2018 budget plan, released Tuesday, that approach translates into deep cuts in social safety-net programs that Mr. Mulvaney suggests discourage work and hinder economic growth. To others, the values reflected in the Trump budget are no less than “Robin Hood in reverse” – take from the poor to give to the rich, in the form of tax cuts.

But is this really a clash of values, or just differing pathways toward realizing the same values? That question burns at the heart of the American debate over the role and size of government.

Leaders of both parties espouse the desire to help Americans have greater prosperity and security. Where Democrats see a strong role for the federal safety net and are girding for battle over Trump's proposed cuts, Republican budget plans seek to promote self-reliance, free markets, and a preference for state or local policies over federal ones.

“There’s a certain philosophy wrapped up in the budget, and that is that we are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs,” Mulvaney said. “We're going to measure compassion and success by the number of people we help get off of those programs, and get back in charge of their own lives.”

Mr. Trump’s budget blueprint, called “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” calls for deep cuts in health care for low-income Americans, food stamps, student loans, farm subsidies, and assistance for the disabled, while boosting spending on defense, border security, veterans’ care, and school choice. As Trump promised during the campaign, his plan doesn’t touch the Social Security retirement program or Medicare, health-care for seniors. (Details below.)

Trump’s budget also aims to get more Americans working, as an essential piece of two central goals: reaching an ambitious economic growth rate of 3 percent and a balanced budget in 10 years.

“If you're on food stamps, and you're able-bodied, we need you to go to work,” Mulvaney told reporters. “If you're not truly disabled, we need you to go back to work. We need everybody pulling in the same direction.”

To some budget experts, the proposals in Trump’s blueprint represent a stark choice that would have an immediate impact on the lives of Americans.

“It certainly makes a decision to value the elderly over children,” says Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a fiscal watchdog group. “One can be cynical and say that the elderly vote and kids don’t.”

'Abandoning many people'

As always, the president’s budget is an opening bid in a protracted legislative process, and has no chance of becoming law. But as a reflection of the administration’s priorities, it sets the stage for debate in the months to come, both between Democrats and Republicans in Congress and among factions within the parties.

Mulvaney, a former House member from South Carolina and a founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus, returned repeatedly in a press briefing to the perspective of Americans who work and pay taxes, and to making sure that the programs Americans pay for are effective.

It is a classic conservative approach rooted in a philosophy of self-reliance, but the starkness of the cuts – juxtaposed with tax cuts that disproportionately benefit upper-income Americans – may well make it politically unpalatable. The Trump plan would cut more than $1 trillion in spending on social programs over 10 years, cuts that would potentially hurt many of the rural and low-income voters who supported Trump last November.

“We fear that Tuesday’s budget will show that the president is essentially abandoning many people the economy has left behind – a large number of whom voted for him – and is pursuing policies that would make their lives more difficult than they already are,” says Robert Greenstein, president of the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

On Capitol Hill, some Republicans pushed back on Trump’s budget. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky called cuts to the social safety net “draconian.” Senate majority whip John Cornyn of Texas called the budget “dead on arrival.” But House Speaker Paul Ryan praised the projection of a balanced budget in 10 years, despite a widespread view among economists, including the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, that reaching 3 percent economic growth is unrealistic.

Polls: government should do more

Trump’s budget also faces a countervailing shift in public opinion. Just six months after voters handed control of the White House and both houses of Congress to the Republican Party, two recent polls show a significant uptick in Americans’ support for a bigger government that does more rather than a smaller government that does less.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month found that 57 percent of Americans favor government doing more to solve the nation’s problems, an all-time high for that poll, up from 50 percent two years ago. A Pew Research Center poll found a similar result. Support for government rose regardless of party affiliation, though it remained lower among Republicans. 

Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said she wasn’t sure why the change in attitudes has occurred, but she floated a theory: “Could it be the public reacting as a counterweight to Republican control of the budget?” she asked.

Another possibility is that Trump, a populist with a long history outside the Republican Party, has enhanced public expectations for what he can accomplish as president, coming to the position as an outsider. Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” by eliminating programs and shrinking the Washington bureaucracy held wide appeal with his supporters, many of whom agreed with his plans to go after the “welfare state.”

Much also depends on what voters mean by “a government that does more.” Some may interpret that as enhancing domestic security, beefing up the military, and cracking down on illegal immigration, all measures Trump has taken.

To Matt Erickson, a machine shop supervisor in Peoria, Ill., Democrats’ “social policies” keep him resistant to the party, despite his reluctance in voting for Trump last November.

Mr. Erickson objects in particular to “giving people money to not work,” and food stamps that he sees abused, hearing stories from his mother who works at an Aldi’s grocery store.

Policy experts say that many food stamp recipients already work, and the federal benefit is designed to avoid giving recipients a disincentive to work. 

One element of the Trump budget that stuck out was a provision calling for $25 billion over 10 years to provide six weeks of paid parental leave, an initiative promoted by presidential daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump.

Mulvaney noted the seeming incongruity of the proposal, and pitched it as part of his drive to get more Americans working.

“It goes right to the heart of the matter on 3 percent growth,” he said. “We try and create the environment where people are more comfortable going back to work and staying at work knowing that if they do have a child, they’ll be able to spend time with that child under the paid parental leave program.”

Details of the Trump proposal

Overall, the Trump budget would cut $3.6 trillion of projected government spending over 10 years, even as it boosts spending on some areas.

Proposed spending reductions include:

•29 percent cut to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a.k.a. food stamps.

•19 percent cut to Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

•17 percent cut to Medicaid, government health insurance for the poor.

•17 percent cut to the Centers for Disease Control.

•13 percent cut to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, formerly known as “welfare.”

•12 percent cut to unemployment insurance.

•8 percent cut to the Earned Income Tax Credit.

•3 percent cut to Supplemental Security Income.

•2 percent cut to Social Security Disability Insurance.

•Eliminating federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Some areas of increased spending:

•10 percent increase in discretionary defense spending ($469 billion).

•$200 billion over 10 years for infrastructure.

•$29 billion over 10 years for Veterans’ Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek medical care in private facilities outside the VA system.

•$19 billion over 10 years for new paid parental leave program.

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report from Peoria, Ill.

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