Trump Budget Cuts Met With Mix of Criticism, Sense of Deja Vu

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By Nancy Ognanovich

President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint boosting Defense funds but cutting from other domestic programs is generating criticism as well as a sense of déjà vu among House and Senate appropriators, who would be charged with carrying out the reductions in two sets of annual spending bills.

Both Democrats and Republicans said they are supportive of plans to increase Pentagon funding but said it’s unrealistic Congress will back deep cuts to programs with bipartisan support. Republicans said they will likely ignore Trump’s calls for reductions in the fiscal year 2017 bills they are currently working to finish and will fight the larger cuts as they develop the FY 2018 bills later this spring.

“Presidents propose, Congress disposes,” said former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), whose home state would be hit hard by many of Trump’s proposed cuts. “We appropriate according to our budget and so be it.”

Rogers said many of the $54 billion in discretionary program cuts proposed by Trump have all been seen before—with many of them proposed by President Ronald Reagan—and also rejected by Congress previously.

“I’m strong for national defense, but to finance his buildup at the expense of practically everything else just will not work,” Rogers told reporters a few hours after the White House released a budget blueprint focused almost exclusively on the discretionary portion of the budget that’s under the control of appropriators.

Trump’s bare-bones budget outlines spending priorities for the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. But appropriators currently are struggling to wrap up work on the 2017 bills that Republican leaders agreed to shelve late last year in order to give the new president more say over federal spending. Federal funds for most agencies will lapse April 28 unless Congress passes those measures by the deadline.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) downplayed the deep cuts Trump proposed for programs under the Labor, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee he chairs at Appropriations and said lawmakers will mostly ignore another $18 billion in cuts the White House wants for 2017.

“The president’s budget is really about ’18, and the signal we’ve gotten is, ‘Just finish ’17 as best you can,’ so that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Cole said.

‘Worse Than We Expected.’

Federal discretionary monies controlled by the appropriations committees in Congress is the focus of Trump’s blueprint, with a more detailed plan that also covers mandatory programs and tax not expected until May. Budget cutters would be better served by finding savings in mandatory programs as that is the primary driver of the federal debt, appropriators said.

The $1.51 trillion spending total Trump proposed includes $1.065 trillion in regular discretionary spending, $77 billion for so-called Overseas Contingency Operations account monies and $9 billion in additional spending not subject to budget caps.

A $54 billion increase would take Defense to $603 billion next year but lower non-defense spending to $462 billion. Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs get boosts ranging from 10 percent to 5.9 percent. Labor, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development budgets are cut about 20 percent. The reductions for State and the Environmental Protection Agency are at the 30 percent level.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) both issued statements stressing appropriators’ role in setting spending levels and saying their first priority is to finish the 2017 bills. Neither commented on the deep cuts proposed across the domestic side of the ledger.

But Democrats immediately criticized the budget, with House Appropriations Committee ranking member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) calling it dead on arrival. Lowey said she is not opposed to more money for the Pentagon to address readiness, but said bills that cut education, transportation, health care and other domestic programs can’t get enacted into law. Democrats released a substantive report showing state-by-state cuts under the plan.

“Democrats will not help pass laws that shift economic burdens onto hardworking American families,” Lowey said.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), ranking member of the Labor-HHS panel, said the overall 21 percent cut to Labor programs hides cuts of as much as $30 billion to programs under the panel’s jurisdiction.

“The budget today is even worse than we expected,” DeLauro said at a hearing on early education programs. “It is surreal.”

Rogers, who now oversees the State-Foreign Operations budget that Trump would cut by 29 percent, said it will be up to appropriators to once again fight back against deep cuts. He said many of the Trump proposals target programs that are critical to the so-called red states the president carried in the election.

Rogers said he’s opposed to Trump’s plan to eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, transportation grants and other programs critical to Kentucky.

“Over the years I’ve been able to rally support for the Appalachian Regional Commission all the way back to Reagan’s time,” Rogers said. “He proposed to abolish ARC and almost every year I’ve had to fight off the same thing.”

Wall Called ‘Nonstarter.’

But the first fight appears likely to be on Trump’s request for an extra $33 billion in supplemental funds in 2017. Besides sending the budget blueprint, Trump asked Congress for another $30 billion for the Pentagon to address readiness issues and fight the Islamic State.

In addition, he requested $3 billion extra for Homeland Security to beef up security along the U.S.-Mexico border. The latter amount includes $1.4 billion to begin work on a physical wall and other funds to support 5,000 border protection agents and 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and agents and increase detention facilities.

Cole and Rogers said appropriators are likely to ignore Trump’s call for $18 billion in cuts to pay for some of that increase, reductions that they said would threaten their ability to finish the 2017 spending bills by the April 28 deadline. The comments suggest that instead the funds might be provided on an “emergency” basis and therefore not be offset with other funds.

But Democrats said they still won’t support funding to begin construction of a wall, which is expected to end up costing at least $20 billion.

“The $1.4 supplemental request for Homeland Security to construct a wall on the southern border is a nonstarter—it would be a multiyear, multibillion-dollar boondoggle,” Lowey said. “This unjustified request is based on nothing more than a campaign promise.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats recently warned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a letter that Democrats will block any bill that includes money for the wall. Some Republicans—including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas)—also are said to have reservations about the proposal.

Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, said he can’t support a plan to cover the big Defense increase with the 20 percent cut to Agriculture. He said he also doesn’t believe the Senate will support Trump’s request for the border wall.

“I don’t see how you find the way to spend $1.4 billion without paying for it in ways that are unacceptable,” Moran said. “It’s unacceptable here.”

Cole downplayed those concerns.

“I’ll let the Senate worry about that,” Cole said. “I don’t think the president will have a hard time getting it through the House.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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