The initial response to President Donald Trump’s budget has rightfully focused on the outrageousness of its worst spending cuts, such as huge reductions in affordable housing, medical research, infrastructure, and even Meals on Wheels. But even if Congress rejects some of these extreme cuts, President Trump’s budget may still set the stage for working families to get a raw deal.
The president’s budget doesn’t have the final say on how much money is spent on each agency and program—that’s Congress’s job. But it does frame the debate around government spending for the year. By putting out a budget that includes draconian cuts to the programs that Americans rely on, President Trump is trying to lower the standards for an acceptable outcome from Congress—and shift the entire conversation about federal spending to the right.
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Even without the Trump budget’s $54 billion in cuts, next year’s spending levels are already too low due to the sequestration caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Congress actually designed these caps to be terrible; the threat of sequestration was meant to force Republicans and Democrats to compromise on a “grand bargain” to reduce deficits. They never made that compromise, so lawmakers have been using short-term budget deals to mitigate sequestration’s worst impacts—but now Trump’s budget could make sequestration look reasonable by comparison.
As a reminder—because memories can be painfully short in politics—sequestration is not reasonable. In fiscal year 2018, it will limit nondefense discretionary spending—the same part of the budget targeted for cuts by President Trump—to roughly match its lowest level ever as a share of the economy since the federal government began tracking this category of spending in 1962.
The only way to get a good deal for working families is to increase the spending caps above sequestration levels. Otherwise, Congress will continue to underfund programs that support basic living standards and invest in the middle-class, while rigging the system even further for wealthy and corporate elites.
Two years ago, Congress demonstrated what sequestration would mean for jobs and working families when they tried to use those caps to write spending bills for FY 2016. Like President Trump’s budget, these bills took money out of the Pell grants that help students afford college. The House of Representatives proposed huge cuts that nearly eliminated infrastructure grants funded by the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program—which President Trump’s budget proposed eliminating completely. Similarly, huge cuts in a Senate spending bill would have nearly eliminated the HOME investment partnerships program to support affordable housing—another program targeted for elimination by the Trump budget.
In FY 2018, the sequestration caps in current law would cut nondefense discretionary spending by $3 billion. A $3 billion cut may seem insignificant next to the Trump budget, but even flat funding would be grossly inadequate for many nondefense discretionary programs. Lawmakers have already provided a $3.1 billion increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs in FY 2018, since they fund veterans’ medical programs a year in advance. Accommodating this increase will require deeper cuts to other programs, where funding requirements are also generally increasing because of inflation and population growth. For example, flat funding for rental assistance programs could cause 100,000 families to lose their housing vouchers.
Sequestration doesn’t just cut programs that are essential to average Americans—it actively hollows out safeguards that are meant to level the playing field, giving even more power to corporations and helping the rich get richer. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) were targeted for cuts in both the Trump budget and the FY 2016 sequestration spending bills. Preventing the EPA and other agencies from enforcing environmental laws is great news for big polluters who can increase profits by cutting corners without getting caught, but it leaves ordinary Americans to live with the consequences of unsafe water, toxic air, and catastrophes such as chemical explosions. And cutting the IRS budget makes its customer service even worse for ordinary Americans, as seen with the particularly “abysmal” problems caused by lack of funding in 2015. At the same time, IRS budget cuts also make it easier for wealthy households and big corporations to use complex accounting maneuvers to overwhelm the IRS and avoid paying their fair share.
The Trump budget provides a stark illustration of what steep cuts to domestic programs mean for working families. But it should not lower the standards for an acceptable budget deal. To the contrary, after seeing President Trump’s plans to attack programs that help maintain basic living standards and create ladders into the middle-class, it is more important than ever for Congress to support a budget that adequately funds these programs.
Failing to lift the sequestration caps would mean starting down the same path outlined in the Trump budget, and working families deserve better than that.