It’s easy to see why President Donald Trump was 6,000 miles away when his first budget was unveiled: It’s politically perilous for his Republican Party and would be a policy disaster.
Although the Trump budget is dead well before its arrival in Congress, a few of its elements could start useful conversations. For example, its proposals for modest infrastructure spending could lead to something more ambitious, and there’s a provision for mandating some paid family leave.
Fiscally and socially, the Trump proposal is a reverse Robin Hood. Draconian cuts in domestic programs to fund big military-spending hikes would disproportionately hit the poor. Tax cuts would primarily benefit the affluent. And then there’s that $1.6 trillion for the president’s proposed wall along the Mexican border.
“It’s not a serious budget,” said Stan Collender, a leading budget expert who used to work for the congressional budget committees. “This one has all the gimmicks,” he said, noting that the document is full of dubious assumptions, unsubstantiated claims and fiscal games.
The Trump budget assumes there will be continuous economic growth of 3 percent a year with no downturn, which would eventually produce a balanced budget. That’s a scenario few economists consider plausible. It promises a massive tax cut that wouldn’t increase the federal deficit. And it assumes there will be spending cuts but doesn’t specify which ones.
Steve Bell, a Republican who was staff director of the Senate Budget Committee in the 1980s, indicated that the Trump budget is so unrealistic that it endangers Republican priorities like tax reform. That’s because Congress has to pass a budget resolution before it could approve a tax plan without support from Democrats, which is highly unlikely to materialize.
It also breaks Trump’s campaign commitments to spare Social Security and Medicaid from budget cuts. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney explained this problem away by asserting in a Monday night briefing that proposals in the plan to cut Social Security disability benefits don’t count because they’re not retirement payments.
“If you ask 999 people out of a thousand, they’d tell you Social Security disability is not part of Social Security,” Mulvaney said. Actually, of course, it is.
The budget would slash programs for rural and small-town America. There are massive proposed cuts in food stamps, along with deep reductions in agricultural subsidies and water and sewage improvements.
The proposed cuts, while unlikely to see the light of legislative day, are a political concern for Republicans. A Quinnipiac national survey in March showed that the public opposed cuts in the federal Medicaid program by a margin of 74 percent to 22 percent. A majority of Republicans agreed.
That’s worrisome to House Republicans already nervous about whether the growing Trump scandals will endanger their majority in the 2018 midterm elections.
Even with this flawed document and the poisonous atmosphere, the administration’s proposed $200 billion for infrastructure projects over 10 years could pave the way for some congressional accord. Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer has called for $1 trillion in public investments over that period, a level Trump has at times embraced.
But it could be the start of real bargaining that goes something like this: Trump doubles his offer, uses some money from a tax on foreign income of U.S. companies, gets Saudi Arabia and other countries to chip in for energy-related projects and some public-private deals.
Likewise, the proposal for a $25 billion paid family-leave initiative, which many Republicans have opposed, could produce a bipartisan agreement if the administration is willing to make it more expansive.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.