On March 16, the Trump administration’s first budget proposal landed, and all hell broke loose.
Inboxes flooded with prophecies of fire and brimstone, of decimation, of Big Bird blindfolded before the firing squad while Elmo took his final smoke in preparation.
The document, known as “the skinny” budget, calls for vast cuts to domestic discretionary spending, first slicing $18 billion from domestic programs immediately in 2017, and then taking the fiscal chainsaw to them in 2018 with the removal of $54 billion.
Those savings, plus an additional $13 billion in 2017, would go to defense spending, which at least makes sense through circular logic: with a 28.7 percent cut to the State Department, the diplomatic arm of the Executive branch, the U.S. would “need to buy more ammunition,” according to Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis.
The list continues: Almost a third removed from the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, 16 percent from Health and Human Services, roughly 13 percent each from the departments of Education and Transportation.
The budget reads thin on detail, lacking many of the outlay and revenue charts common to past presidential proposals, including former President Barack Obama’s first budget in fiscal year 2010. It’s a mishmash of specific funding for programs the administration likes, eliminating those it doesn’t and vague promises of cuts to the rest.
“We are taking his words and turning them into policies and dollars,” said Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Budget and Management in a February press conference.
The proposal amounts to a massive devolution of responsibility over the standards for and funding of social programs to the state and local level, which will leave governments scrambling to fill in the holes.
The reaction in Washington state, King County and Seattle was swift.
Federal grants make up one-third of the state budget, according to the Washington State Budget & Policy Center. The grants pay for education, human services, the environment and emergency response services. The proposed cuts would reduce Washington’s funding by $458.6 million over the two-year budget, and would be “incredibly harmful” to the state, Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement.
“This undercuts our ability to keep our people safe and healthy,” Inslee said. “The president’s proposal trades away the support needed to build a prosperous economy for working families to instead pay for tax cuts to the wealthy.”
County Executive Dow Constantine pointed to multiple voter-approved transit projects that relied on federal help and the elimination of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program (TIGER) to fund infrastructure (a stated priority of the president). Between these and other changes, King County could see resources taken from seven transit projects that would operate in the county and city of Seattle.
The reduction of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) in King County would eliminate $4.8 million that helps with housing and community projects. Sound Generations, the organization that administers programs for aging adults, says it will mostly impact winter weatherization and small home repair funds. CDBG funds are used elsewhere for Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to homebound seniors.
Those “jobs, jobs, jobs” mentioned so often on the campaign trail and more recently by tweet? The federal government doesn’t want to pay as much for job training anymore either, according to the budget.
Food for needy children, disease prevention, infectious disease control and family planning services — which saved $9 million in health care costs in 2016 by preventing 1,380 unintended pregnancies and 470 abortions in Seattle and King County — would also be at risk.
And, funds that help with disaster preparedness and relief would be reduced. So here’s to hoping that subduction earthquake doesn’t happen any time soon.
“This is what happens when rhetoric becomes reality,” Constantine said. “Given the hateful and wrongheaded ideas of this President, it’s no real surprise that his first proposed budget is an assault on the environment, economy and mobility of King County, and on the most vulnerable among us.
“Nonetheless, the depravity of this proposal is shocking,” he said.
The cuts are also worrisome for folks because of the lack of specificity.
Half the cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are not explained, according to the Seattle Department of Housing, and others would reduce Seattle’s ability to produce units and help people with costs like weatherization.
What did HUD, now under the direction of former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, say about the budget?
First, in a statement, it acknowledged that the president’s budget reflected his commitment to hud’s “critical functions” that help work-eligible families achieve self-sufficiency.
“It also recognizes a greater role for State and local governments, and the private sector to address community economic development needs,” according to a statement.
If the CDBG grants get axed, as proposed, that will mean $9 million at risk in the city of Seattle alone, $5 million of which goes to the Human Services Department (HSD). HSD uses those funds for emergency shelters, day centers and community facilities.
“… [a] loss of this funding would obviously necessitate a reduction in services,” wrote Meg Olberding, director of external affairs for HSD.
These cuts represent cash cut to local government. That doesn’t begin to touch the money flowing from the federal government directly to institutions and businesses, usually in the form of grants.
In 2017, the National Endowment for the Arts granted $1 million to organizations across Washington. The administration proposed cutting that program entirely.
The National Institute of Health, the organization that spearheaded the government’s fight against cancer, distributed almost $320 million in grants to organizations and businesses in 2017 alone. One-third of that, $107 million, went to the University of Washington. It’s also on the block.
The poison pill
One date looms large over the budget process: April 28.
That’s the day that the plug gets pulled on the life support system of the federal government, the current funding bill that keeps money flowing and prevents a government shutdown. That deadline falls after a two-week congressional recess, giving the parties little time to come to consensus on thorny budgetary issues such as the above programmatic cuts and spending on projects, including Trump’s wall.
The proposed changes to defense allocations also violate spending caps laid down by the Budget Control Act of 2011, a poison pill of a law that put constraints on discretionary spending between 2013 and 2021. The Republican-controlled Senate would need 60 votes to get the change through; they have 52.
The government has operated on continuing resolutions, the device by which the government currently pays its bills, which maintains funding at existing levels if Congress cannot come to consensus on a budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
If neither occurs, the government could shut down, as it did in 2013.
For some, that resulted in inconvenience, delayed vacations or being cut off from the San Diego Zoo panda cam.
For some government employees, it meant lost wages.
“It’s never good to do this type of budgeting by crisis,” said Joel Friedman, vice president for federal fiscal policy with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a D.C.-based, left-leaning think tank.
If it happens, it won’t be good for those who need government services, he said.
“Disruptions manifest themselves in different ways,” Friedman said.