Inside D.C.

Fear not the Trump budget “outline”

One of the most overblown stories in both trade and general media is that President Trump’s scary budget outline released 10 days ago, the one which sacrifices domestic programs and foreign aid to increase the Pentagon’s budget, will somehow become the law of the land, directing FY2018 federal spending and whacking USDA’s budget by 20%-plus.

The congressional budget process is a numbers/process geek’s heaven. First, it must be understood that a budget outline, even a budget “report” is not a budget proposal.  While the Congressional Budget & Impoundment Control Act of 1974 — you can call it the “Budget Act” —  requires the White House to submit the president’s budget proposal by the first Monday in February, obviously with a new administration, the new kids in town are cut some slack.  The formal FY2018 Trump budget proposal will likely hit the Hill in a couple of weeks.

Once the detailed Trump budget is sitting with appropriators, it languishes until the respective committees are ready to mark up each of the 12 separate spending bills. For both committees, public statements notwithstanding, any president’s budget very quickly becomes little more than a starting point.  In fact, starting point may be generous.  A guideline, a sort of really big memo, giving the chief executive’s priorities, is more accurate.

Congress has no legal obligation to even read a White House budget proposal let alone adopt any of it. Once appropriators hammer out a spending bill, the president’s budget proposal is generally a point of comparison, as in “This year’s spending level is $250 million more than last fiscal year, and $180 million less than the president proposed.”

“I’ve never seen a president’s budget proposal not revised substantially,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R, IA), a 36-year Senate veteran, in a New York Times interview. “As a member of the Budget Committee, I’ll carefully scrutinize and assess priorities as the president has with his proposal.” Grassley also chairs the Judiciary Committee and is a long-time member of the Agriculture Committee.

This year, because the House Agriculture Committee has energetically started the long march down the path to an FY2018 Farm Bill. This go around, cuts to the discretionary spending included in the omnibus farm package are a particular sore spot for agriculture lawmakers.

“Agriculture has done more than its fair share,” Conaway said to anyone who’ll listen. “The bottom line is this (Trump’s budget outline) is the start of a longer, larger process. It is a proposal, not THE budget.”

Every president comes into office thinking it’s relatively simple to identify the fat in the federal budget, and this president and his team are no different. But the reality is that each and every federal program has a godfather/godmother, a member of Congress who protects programs of parochial interest from overzealous spending cuts.  It used to be that appropriators were somewhat careful lest they offend the White House.  No longer, however, does Capitol Hill worry too much that just because the President must ultimately sign spending bills, do they need to pay much attention to any president’s budget.

So, rest easy. Trump’s budget proposal, with its monster military spending hike and deep cuts to just about everything else, is just a guidepost, a sexy headline or the subject of a Friday blog.

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