Budget Balderdash

by John Lawrence

One of the serious complications resulting from Donald Trump’s reliance on fabricated information is that, on those rare occasions when he says something truthful, many people dismiss it as balderdash. Trump’s unpredictability, his destructive refusal to comply with the norms of political etiquette, and his dangerous reliance on the mythical infallibility of his own judgment are astonishing, but every once and a while, he actually does say something with a ring of accuracy.

For example, today he shared some thoughts about the challenges of developing an alternative to the Affordable Care Act. Congressional Republicans seem intent on replicating their efforts in the last Congress – on nearly 60 occasions – to repeal the health law with no plan for repairing its admitted shortcomings (hardly surprising in a complex 6-year-old law) or replacing it. But as some GOP governors, especially those like John Kasich of Ohio who have opposed repealing the Medicaid expansion, have been warning that such action by the Congress would be devastating not only to those newly covered by ACA but to the hospitals, clinics, health care providers and state budgets that would be left to cope with the chaos. Even within the dysfunctional Trump White House, it is said, some senior staff are reportedly growing wary of dismantling a law that has expanded health care to over 20 million Americans – many in states that voted for Trump.

It is hard to know whether to be gratified or embarrassed by Trump’s admission that health insurance coverage is “an unbelievably complex subject,” as the President confessed. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Well, actually, everybody (except apparently Trump, who has never had to worry about his own health care) knows how complex health care is, which is why Democrats initially sought to create a simplified single payer system or, at least, a system including a public option that offered an alternative to reliance on private insurance companies. Republicans unanimously opposed those approaches, insisting on an alternative that would have extended coverage to one-tenth the number of people covered by the ACA.

Trump’s amazement at the complexity of governing should also be kept in mind when he delivers his initial speech before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. It seems that a portion of the audience will show up out of respect, while a significantly larger share will watch the speech just to see how he interacts with a suspicious Congress. The key initiative in the speech will likely be his budget proposal, which like most GOP budgets, strives for lower deficits on the backs of the middle and lower-income taxpayer. The most important feature, it is reported, will be a $54 billion increase in military spending with a corresponding reduction in non-defense spending. Not a dime will come from closing tax loopholes or compelling the most affluent to pony up their fair share of taxes; no sacrifice will be requested from entitlements that are responsible for 70% of government spending, including most of the unfunded deficits.

Instead, 100% of the cuts will come from the non-defense discretionary portion (NDD) of the budget which, incidentally, just took the brunt of the trillions in spending reductions imposed by the 2012 budget agreement and the subsequent sequestration. This NDD portion of the budget is just 12% of overall spending – education, health programs, law enforcement, energy, infrastructure, the environment – but it bears the overwhelming burden of sacrifice when the long budget slashing knives come out.

One area of the budget that won’t contribute much to deficit reduction is that old whipping boy that Americans love to hate: the foreign aid we lavish on those ungrateful countries that secretly hate us. Ask a deficit hawk where we should cut spending to balance the budget, and year after year, the leading target is foreign aid. In a poll last December by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average respondent estimated that more than a quarter of the entire federal budget was showered on other countries. It goes without saying that if we trimmed back that program, the deficits would dry up pretty quickly.

Well, unfortunately, foreign aid barely registers as an asterisk in the federal budget (where spending is rounded off to the nearest $100 million). The actual share of the federal budget spent on foreign aid: less than one percent. Reducing the alleged “waste” in the foreign aid budget, which feeds and clothes and shelters millions of people around the world, would be the budgetary equivalent of getting a haircut to lose weight. Indeed, when respondents were told that eliminating foreign aid would have a negligible impact on the federal budget, only 28% still believed the federal budget needs cutting.

Budgets are often a case of legislative legerdemain; the savings you get are often less than predicted while the spending is more. (One favorite sleight of hand: hide the ballooning cost of a program outside the ten year “budget window” to obscure the true cost of the initiative.) This year, in addition, the House Republicans changed the House rules to mandate that budget analysts use guffaw-inducing “dynamic scoring” to make income revenues unrealistically swell to achieve alleged deficit shrinkage.

Here’s the test for the seriousness of any budget proposal: Whom does it make squirm? From whom does it ask for “sacrifice?” If the response to the forthcoming Trump budget is a sigh of relief from the fat cats, you can be pretty sure that once again, the old bait and switch has been played on the unsuspecting voter. Count on it.

 

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