President Donald Trump’s first budget, expected to be released Thursday, will provide his blueprint to drastically reshape the federal bureaucracy.
Reports are that he wants to cut deeply into the coffers of the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department, beef up the Pentagon’s annual budget by more than 10 percent and eliminate other programs, including federal legal aid and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“The finances of our country are a mess,” Trump recently told budget officials. “But we’re going to clean them up.”
But the reality is that many, if not most, of those proposals will probably never become law. It has little to do with Trump himself and more with the way spending decisions are made in Washington.
Presidents typically get little of what they request in budgets once Congress takes over its constitutionally mandated duty of writing federal spending plans. That’s magnified in an era when even a unified Republican government can’t seem to agree on much when it comes to spending priorities. The Democratic minority in the Senate also still holds immense leverage since it can filibuster plans it doesn’t like.
Taken together, those dynamics tend to insulate the more than 4 million-member federal bureaucracy from any major changes year to year. Those same undercurrents are also likely to block Trump’s more far-reaching proposals. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Trump’s budget would cut the EPA by 31 percent and the State Department by 28 percent to 31 percent.
“The president is going to be lucky if he gets 10 percent of the cuts that he’s asking for,” said Stan Collender, a federal budget expert at Qorvis MSL Group, a Washington-based public relations firm.
Previous attempts to shutter government agencies have been stymied in Congress, and the same is true at Georgia’s statehouse, where then-Gov. Sonny Perdue — now Trump’s pick for agriculture secretary — struggled to eliminate pet programs, even during the 2009-2010 Great Recession when the state was cutting basic school funding.
Instead, Trump and his allies in Congress may have more luck stymieing federal programs they don’t like through a host of smaller cuts that strike at an agency’s ability to effectively carry out particular policies. Shutdown showdowns and other fiscal standoffs are also possible, budget experts say.
Trump has discussed reorienting the bureaucracy more toward the military and national security. In order to pay for a wall on the southern border and heightened operations against the Islamic State, his administration is reportedly looking for substantial cuts to nondefense programs.
Taken together, Trump’s upcoming budget proposal is akin to a wish list — a blueprint of what the president would do if he did not have to negotiate with Congress.
“It’s an opportunity to get beyond … what’s doable and get to what’s dreamable,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, a member of the House Budget Committee.
The House and Senate typically view such plans as a benchmark as they cobble together their own measures, but the details tend to turn out very different, even during periods of united government.
That’s because each member of Congress has his or her own interests beyond party affiliation that tend to color spending goals. District, regional and pet issues come into play, as do committee assignments on Capitol Hill.
If a lawmaker, for example, sits on the committee that oversees the State Department, he or she may not be as willing to cut deeply into its coffers since the move could affect the luster of his or her own position.
In addition, departments, programs, expenditures and tax cuts come with an army of lobbyists paid to make sure few changes are made, and those that are enacted come with greater government largess, not less.
Federal agencies “have got entrenched constituencies on Capitol Hill, committees that are adamant that programs within their jurisdiction aren’t going to get cut,” Collender said. “Even though it’s a Republican Congress with a Republican president, a lot of what’s in the budget is extremely popular politically and the cuts are never going to see the light of day.”
That is one of the reasons why eliminating entire federal agencies has proved to be so difficult in the past. More often it’s common to shrink programs or shift missions between existing departments.
Perdue’s Georgia cuts
States have to balance their budgets each year, unlike the federal government, and Perdue had to do so through two recessions during the 2000s. During the first, he eliminated some add-on spending and minor programs started by Democrats.
By the second one, the Great Recession, he was taking aim at programs backed by fellow Republicans and, sometimes, a strong contingency of lobbyists.
Perdue got strong legislative pushback when he tried to end a long-standing program that provided taxpayer-funded grants to private college students. At the time, the state was cutting deeply into spending on public colleges, but the private college grants survived. In the upcoming year, they will cost roughly $25 million.
“If there is a defined constituency, it’s very difficult to reverse course on something folks are accustomed to receiving,” Trey Childress, the governor’s budget director, said at the time.
Recent congressional fights
Without a balanced budget mandate to adhere to, deficits have historically been less of a concern for members of Congress.
However, a growing wing of fiscally conservative deficit hawks has reshaped government spending debates in recent years, and it’s likely it could do the same this year under Trump.
Many in that group have routinely rejected GOP funding bills in the House in recent years for spending money on programs they don’t like and adding to the deficit. As a result, Republican leaders were often forced to look to Democrats to secure enough votes to advance those must-pass measures, giving the left more negotiating power.
Steve Bell, a former top Senate budget staffer, said the federal deficit is projected to grow over the next several years — the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is predicting the debt could grow nearly $10 trillion over the next decade — which could cause those fiscal conservatives to revolt when it comes time to vote on their party’s budget blueprint or spending bills. Trump’s initial budget is not expected to address the biggest drivers of the deficit: entitlement programs such as Social Security.
“That really poses a problem for Republicans who have had deficit reduction as one of their main items in their entire campaigns,” said Bell, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank. “Because then they have to go home and say ‘I voted for a budget that made deficits bigger.’ ”
That will make it much harder for any Trump- or Republican-authored spending increases to get off the ground, since Democrats aren’t likely to be willing to help.
Also, Republican leaders will eventually need to win over Democrats to avoid a Senate filibuster if they would like to avoid a shutdown or see at least some items on their wish list signed into law. It’s possible the GOP could change Senate rules to get around that requirement, but until then it will need to negotiate. If lawmakers cannot come to agreement, the government will shut down, as it did for more than two weeks in 2013 as the parties bickered over funding for Obamacare.
Democrats will likely demand that any spending plan they sign onto keep in place funding for nondefense programs that Trump wants to shutter.
“This is the way things get done around here: You propose something, then you negotiate,” said U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. “I know for a fact that Democrats are not going to just roll over.”