The federal budget in the age of Trump: Round up the usual suspects

The New York Times says that “Popular Domestic Programs Face Ax Under First Trump Budget.” Those listed include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). With the exception of AmeriCorps, which wasn’t yet born, the rest are the usual suspects, which have been proposed for the chopping block on and off since David Stockman* was Director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1981. I’ve seen this movie before, and I’m highly confident that, after the Congressional inquisition is over, NEH, NEA and the rest will ride off from Capitol Hill like Keyser Söze at the end of The Usual Suspects.

You might be surprised to learn that Congress last passed an actual Federal budget in 1998! Since then, Congress has used a variety of legislative tricks to “pass” non-budget budgets, including Continuing Resolutions (CRs), department budget authorization bills, and budget reconciliation bills to enable senators and representatives to avoid going on the record voting for or against an actual budget. This whole mess is tied up with the headache-inducing need to pass a bill increasing the Federal debt limit every six months or so.

In March, we’ll get to experience this exercise in political theater again, as the Trump administration will likely propose a revised FY ’17 budget (not to be confused with FY ’18 budget coming along later in the year). As reported by the NYT and others, this revised budget will likely propose a decrease in FY ’17 budget authorizations for selected discretionary domestic Federal spending agencies/programs like NEA and its pals. This is opposed to the usual practice of “budget hawks” to propose reductions in the rate of increase in Federal spending, due to the Feds using baseline budgeting (another headache-inducing concept) rather than zero-based budgeting.

My guess is that few discretionary programs will receive actual cuts and none will be eliminated (see one of our most popular posts, “Zombie Funding—Six Tana Leaves for Life, Nine for Motion,” to learn how Federal programs usually return from the dead). That’s because every Federal discretionary funding/grant program has constituencies in every Congressional District—along with an army of lobbyists.

Let’s use NEA as an example. NEA funds symphonies, theater groups, art museums, etc., everywhere. These are nonprofits, the boards and docent corps of which are composed mostly of well-off locals, who might be married to Congresspeople or their donors. They’re likely to be members of the same country clubs, churches/synagogues, and Chambers of Commerce as Congresspeople. That means Congressman Horsefeathers is not only going to be beaten up by lobbyists and donors but is going to an earful at the breakfast table.

As a young grant writer during the Reagan ascendancy, I learned that—despite the fevered rhetoric you’re going to soon hear and the attempt of the Trump administration to cut something—most grant programs will squeeze through. In contemplating Federal budget cuts, I use the Economic Development Administration (EDA) as my yardstick. EDA, the most overtly political of Federal grant-making agencies, has been around since 1965. Every so often, an administration or Congress threatens this small nimble dinosaur with a budget meteor, but EDA always dodges. I won’t take the latest budget battle seriously until EDA dies. I won’t bring up the real budget brontosauruses like HUD and the Department of Education. They’ve survived Presidents Reagan and Bush the Younger, as well Speaker Newt.


* Stockman now shows up in infomercials hawking various doomsday economic books (or gold), but he actually wrote a terrific political autobiography, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed. I read this in the mid-80s and it’s relevant once more.

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