Presidential budgets have all the legal force of a letter to Santa—they're essentially the White House asking Congress for a pony. The "skinny" blueprint released by the Office of Management and Budget in March is the result of even less consultation and collaboration than usual with the legislators who hold actual budget-making power, which makes wish fulfillment even more unlikely.
Nevertheless, when President Donald Trump announced $54 billion in cuts to several federal agencies, the press immediately got to work on its own form of slash fiction, fetishizing the appropriations status quo and moaning over any possibility of budgetary restraint.
"Donald Trump Budget Slashes Funds for E.P.A. and State Department," declared The New York Times. Gizmodo: "Trump's Plan to Slash the NIH Budget Won't Just Hurt Scientists—It Will Hurt Everyone." Bloomberg: "Trump Would Slash Research in Cut to Health Budget." Daily Kos: "Trump would slash education budget…but pour $1.4 billion into privatization." Business Insider: "Trump's slash-and-burn budget could hit his own political base the hardest." The metaphor makers at The Washington Post preferred smashing to slashing: "Trump's budget takes a sledgehammer to the EPA."
In fact, most of Trump's budget cuts take the targeted agencies back to federal funding levels of the mid-'00s—hardly a Hobbesian state of nature. And despite the apocalyptic rhetoric, they're largely sensible trims that Republicans have been jawing about for years without having the chutzpah to actually propose them.
Cuts to Health and Human Services, for instance, clock in at a 17.9 percent decrease from the levels established so far in 2017 by continuing budget resolution. Some of those savings come from reduced appropriations to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Scientists "brace for a lost generation in American research," reports The Atlantic. Never mind that funding for the type of research NIH produces already comes predominantly from non-federal sources. In the mid-1960s, the federal government footed the bill for about 60 percent of R&D. That number has since flipped, with about two-thirds coming from private sources for the last decade. The cuts, described in the Atlantic article as having "deadly" consequences, will take the federal component of NIH funding down to levels not seen since…2003.
You remember 2003, when pain treatment consisted of willow bark tea and natural philosophers were still trying to figure out the epicycles that would explain the movement of heavenly bodies around the earth.
Some programs were actually zeroed out in Trump's budget. Meals on Wheels, the food aid program for the elderly and disabled, isn't one of them. The bulk of the program's funding comes through a line item in the Department of Health and Human Services budget that goes unmentioned in the blueprint (although the department is slated for a 17 percent cut overall). Some Meals on Wheels offices, which are locally run and employ a patchwork of funding, do receive relatively small amounts of federal cash through the community development block grant program, which is what Trump actually cut. The press panic over the future of the program was totally unwarranted.
One program that really is on Trump's hit list: the United States Institute of Peace (IOP). Anyone who has ever driven by the IOP HQ in Washington, D.C., might be forgiven for wondering whether the $186 million spent on the structure was really the most efficient use of funds. Architectural Record once wrote that the building "evokes a geometric sketch of a single bird's outstretched wings"; The Washington Post preferred to call it "a duck amuck." This structure is located on one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the capital, a huge plot right across the street from the State Department with a view of the Vietnam Memorial.
Even if the federal spigot runs dry, the IOP has long partially funded its laudable mission to pursue "a world without violent conflict" with private checks. Former diplomats and the occasional warmonger do penance in retirement by hosting black tie galas in its honor. Indeed, outside donors funded about a quarter of the construction costs for the white elephant—er, dove—itself.
While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration got a tiny 0.8 percent trim—bumping its budget back just a few years—the money earmarked for education has been zeroed out. Much of the $115 million the space agency spent on education in 2016 went to programs targeted at cultivating interest and aptitude in American students for jobs at NASA. But astronaut and rocket scientist aren't exactly careers currently suffering from high negatives. And while everybody likes to see the joy on a child's face when her ant farm reaches low earth orbit, it's hard to argue that's an essential function of government.
Other reductions are similar: Trump wants to cut the Department of Commerce by 16 percent, to $7.8 billion, which will return the agency to its 2008 levels. Don't worry though: There's a little bit extra tossed in there for the Census—which is the only thing anyone has any idea the agency does anyway.
Trump's budget proposes $59 billion for the Department of Education, a 13 percent reduction in funding, and diverts some of the money to promote school choice. Keep in mind, though, that the federal government supplies only about a tenth of the cash used to educate K–12 students, which means the impact on local districts is unlikely to be more than 1 or 2 percent of their actual spending. The budget explicitly does not cut funding for students with special needs. The department's largest program, which provides Pell grants to college students, remains untouched, though budgetary sleight of hand extracts almost $4 billion from the program's surplus. (The Pell program keeps a bunch of cash on hand because it is essentially an entitlement that operates as part of the discretionary budget.)
Cutting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 31 percent brings total spending to $5.7 billion, with some savings coming from getting rid of 3,200 bureaucrats. Those reductions are indeed large, and return the agency to funding and staffing levels not seen since shortly after its founding in the early 1970s.
While the early '70s were hardly the stuff of dystopian science fiction, both the air and water were substantially dirtier then than they now are. Will rolling back the EPA return us to those swim-at-your-own-risk days? Hardly. As Reason Science Correspondent Ron Bailey has noted, we have likely already reached a point of diminishing returns when it comes to federal environmental regulation. Despite the fact that GDP, vehicle miles traveled, population, and energy consumption have all increased dramatically since 1980, total emissions are down by 65 percent.
As American Enterprise Institute scholars Joel Schwartz and Steven Hayward point out in their 2007 book Air Quality in America, "Air quality has indeed improved since the 1970 passage" of the Clean Air Act, with drops in airborne smoke, soot, ozone, and sulfur dioxide. "But it was improving at about the same pace for decades before the act was passed, and without the unnecessary collateral damage caused by our modern regulatory system."
Trump's budget, alas, takes the money from all these hard-fought cuts and dumps it back into the security state, increasing funding for the military, border control, and law enforcement. Meanwhile, the document's brag that it "does not add to the deficit" has a bit of an "I've stopped beating my wife" vibe. While there's no guarantee a single Trump proposal will make it to the actual congressional budgeting process, the increases are typically more likely to survive than the cuts. Boosts for national security spending are a good bet as long as a Republican majority is slouching around Capitol Hill.
Still, the national discussion about dramatically cutting federal agencies usually peaks around the second GOP primary debate (and only then if there's someone with the last name Paul on the stage). The fact that some of that sentiment has made it all the way to an actual presidential budget is rather remarkable. Hope for that pony, somehow, springs eternal.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "A Big Fat Freak-Out Over Donald Trump's 'Skinny' Budget".