17 March 2017

Trump’s bankrupt budget hasn’t got a chance


The President proposes, but Congress disposes. That vital fact about the American constitution may have eluded Donald Trump in his career as a tycoon and reality TV star. But it is shaping his presidency now, as the latest snafu unfolds, surrounding an ill-designed and unpopular draft budget.

Wise presidents work with Congress—not just with their own side, but with the others. Congressmen are easy for presidents to schmooze: you invite them to the White House (perhaps along with their most important donors). You invite them to play golf. You built personal ties across the partisan divide. And you do hard-nosed deals with them.

President Bill Clinton was especially good at this; Barack Obama was notoriously bad, especially where the Congressional Republicans were concerned. A naturally chilly and aloof character, he simply didn’t like hanging out with people he disagreed with—and in some cases despised.

But Mr Trump has taken this to a whole new level. Not only does he arouse his political opponents to a spitting frenzy; he also annoys his own side.

In one sense that’s not surprising. Mr Trump is a Republican by convenience, not conviction. He has nothing in common with the austere, gritty, patriotic traditions of people such as  Senator John McCain.

The battle lines were already drawn over Russia: some Republicans are willing to flip-flop loyally and ignore the Kremlin’s mischief-making in American politics, but many aren’t. But that row was, at least for now, mostly political theatre—who will investigate what, and how.

But Mr Trump’s “skinny budget” goes to the heart of America’s political machine: the big questions of who gets what.

It’s not actually that skinny. For all his talk of radical deal-making, the president has not used his political capital to make the big changes that the country really needs.

The Social Security (retirement pension) system continues to trundle towards a demographic abyss. Of the $3.9 trillion federal budget, about $2.4 trillion goes on “entitlement” programmes: pensions, and health-care for elderly, poor and disabled people. Those in work need to pay more to finance the big rise in payments which is looming in the next decades: a liability which dwarfs the nominal $20 trillion national debt.

But just like the mainstream politicians he despises, Mr Trump has kicked the can down the road.

Mr Trump promised to spend more money at home and less on foreigners. That went down well as a campaign slogan. But it doesn’t add up.

He wants to boost spending on defence by a tenth, build the border wall with Mexico, and cut a $54 billion swathe through discretionary programmes: diplomacy, the environment, housing and the arts.  There is no sign of money for the promised infrastructure blitz, only the promise of an up-coming “package”.

The plan is to cut the budget for the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development from $36.7 billion to $25.6 billion. That is enough to cripple American diplomacy, and make huge dents in efforts to wage peace, which tend to be a lot cheaper than waging war. But those cuts amount to just one fifth of the extra spending planned for the Pentagon.

America’s federal spending certainly could do with a trim — long-distance rail services, for example, are mainly used by rich enthusiasts. It’s unclear why taxpayers should subsidise their hobby. The State Department could be leaner and meaner (so, for that matter, could the Pentagon).

But all the programmes Mr Trump wants to cut have defenders in Congress. That is why they have survived the budget shenanigans of previous years. Some of the cuts — to science and research for example — are particularly hard to reconcile with rebuilding American greatness.

Mr Trump’s supporters are undaunted. They say that he has a mandate to take an axe to wasteful spending and that the cries of protest in Washington DC are from the self-interested trough-feeders whose easy life is now over.

That is partly true. Voters may well feel that environmental standards are unreasonably high, and that jobs — for example in coal mining — matter more. It is hard to explain why American tax dollars pay for the United Nations, which at least in some of its agencies is a hotbed of anti-Western, anti-American sentiment.

Many of Mr Trump’s core, white, blue-collar supporters also feel that the main beneficiaries of federal programmes are other, better-off people, or feckless members of minority communities. In reality, they benefit from social programmes too, not least Obamacare — whose botched reform is shaping up to be the administration’s next car-crash.

With a skilful mixture of bargaining and vision, the presidency could persuade politicians that an overall budget-cutting plan makes sense, and make sure that enough gains blunt the pain.

So far, Mr Trump’s divided, ineffective administration shows no sign of either bargaining or vision. It is hard to see it getting a workable budget through Congress — or indeed succeeding in anything else.

Edward Lucas writes for 'The Economist'