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President Trump’s (technically not a) State of the Union address Tuesday night included lots of policy proposals but few details. He promised a new version of his controversial travel ban but didn’t explain how it would pass judicial scrutiny. He nodded to a tax overhaul favored by House Speaker Paul Ryan but didn’t quite endorse it. And he gave the rough outlines of a replacement for the Affordable Care Act but didn’t resolve any of the thorny questions that have made Republicans’ “repeal and replace” promise harder to keep than they expected. (“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” Trump told reporters Monday, drawing incredulous reactions from the approximately 100 percent of people who knew that health care could be so complicated.)
Fortunately, we’ll learn more details soon thanks to everyone’s favorite hundred-plus-page doorstop: the federal budget. The multitrillion-dollar annual wish list is the best indication of where any president’s priorities lie.
Trump won’t present his first formal budget to Congress until later this year (a preliminary outline is expected this month), but a few details are starting to trickle out. The White House this week told reporters that Trump wants to boost military spending by $54 billion over planned levels. To pay for it, Trump plans deep cuts to other agencies, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department. As Trump promised on the campaign trail, Social Security and Medicare, the government’s main programs for retirees, would be spared cuts. But other elements of the safety net probably won’t be so lucky, meaning that the poor, the disabled and the unemployed could all see their benefits reduced.
Various news outlets in recent weeks have reported that Trump’s budget will draw heavily on a plan released by the conservative Heritage Foundation last year. That document proposes slashing spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years by eliminating dozens of federal programs and offices. But Trump appears to be departing from the Heritage plan in significant ways. The think tank’s plan calls for eliminating whole categories of tariffs, for example; Trump has suggested he might impose steep new ones. And Heritage wants to get rid of programs that provide support for entrepreneurs and small businesses, arguing that the free market would do a better job allocating resources to the best companies; Trump, in his address to Congress, proposed a new program to encourage women entrepreneurs.
It’s wise not to take any of these early leaks too literally. The budget process is long and complicated, and agencies and interest groups are adept at using the media to gain an edge in negotiations. Besides, when all the jockeying is over, the result is nothing more than a request — it’s up to Congress to appropriate the money.
In fact, it’s best not to think of the president’s budget as a budget at all, at least in the conventional sense of a document that describes where and how money will be spent. Instead, think of the budget as a list of priorities — one that, unlike speeches like the State of the Union, forces presidents to make actual tradeoffs. The old saw is as true as ever: If you want to know what presidents truly care about, follow the money.
Here are some of the major policy developments from the past week:
Civil rights: Undoing the Obama legacy
Reforming the criminal justice system and both defending and expanding civil rights protections were two top priorities of the Obama administration, as Obama himself argued in an article he wrote for the Harvard Law Review in January.
On civil rights, the Obama administration filed lawsuits accusing states such as North Carolina and Texas of trying to limit the ability of blacks and Latinos to vote and argued that some police departments unfairly targeted minorities for arrests and citations. The administration also sought to expand civil rights by letting gay people serve openly in the military, issuing guidance in favor of allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with and letting women serve in combat jobs in the military.
To address the disproportionate number of black men serving in prison, Obama’s administration urged federal prosecutors not to always seek the maximum sentence possible for nonviolent drug offenses. It also started phasing out the use of private prisons to house federal inmates and banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons — steps liberals hailed as long-needed reforms to make America’s criminal justice system more humane.
The Trump administration, particularly Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is signaling that it will seek to overturn many of these Obama policies.
Sessions said in a speech this week that the Justice Department would “pull back” on lawsuits against local police departments for discriminating against minorities. And in the last two weeks, the department has withdrawn the federal government’s opposition to a Texas voter ID law that Obama’s team had argued was unconstitutional, reversed the Obama administration policy that schools should let transgender students choose the restroom they use and said the federal government would continue to send people to private prisons.
Civil rights groups had sharply opposed the nomination of Sessions, worried that he would reverse Obama’s policies. But — as his “pull back” comments this week make clear — what Sessions opts not to do will be just as important. Obama’s Justice Department was known for launching investigations of shootings of civilians by the police and issuing detailed reports on how police departments treated people of color. Sessions’ moves over the last two weeks suggest that those practices are unlikely to continue in a Trump administration.
VIDEO: President Trump has record disapproval ratings
Environment: Cutting jobs at the EPA
Word on the street this week: Trump’s proposed budget will include a 25 percent cut to the EPA, which would include eliminating at least 3,000 jobs there. None of this has been confirmed by the administration (natch), and some congressional Republicans are already pushing back, but it’s worth taking a look at what those so-far-hypothetical numbers would mean — especially given the president’s shoutout to protecting America’s air and water quality during his address to Congress on Tuesday.
First off, the EPA’s budget is already tiny in comparison to those of other federal agencies. Its cost of operations in 2016 was about $8.7 billion. In contrast, the estimated 2016 budget for the Department of Agriculture was $164 billion, the State Department got $29.5 billion, and NASA got $19 billion. Put another way, everything the EPA spent last year amounts to about 1.5 percent of the budget for the Department of Defense, the agency President Trump is hoping to further fund through cuts to EPA and other agencies. So giving 25 percent of the EPA’s budget to the Department of Defense would increase the latter’s budget by less than half of 1 percent.
Meanwhile, the largest chunk of EPA spending — 46 percent, or nearly $4 billion — goes to assistance agreements for states and Native American tribes. These are grants that fund locally directed environmental projects — exactly the kind of locals-know-best work that new agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has long talked of supporting. The second-biggest budgetary item for the EPA: environmental programs and management, i.e., enforcement, education and other programs that are directly tied to maintaining clean air and water. Those take up another $2.7 billion. Those two categories alone account for more than 75 percent of the money the EPA spends. What’s left over? Mostly, it’s money for Superfund sites, leaking underground storage tank remediation, and the science and technological research that assists the agency in getting all these other jobs done. The EPA has already cut 20 percent from its budget since 2011. “You really want to be sure you are not cutting the meat and muscle with the fat,” Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma told the trade publication Inside EPA on Tuesday.
Basically, it is going to be hard to target the EPA for significant downsizing and maintain popular anti-pollution programs. And even if those programs do take a big hit, the added cash won’t make much difference to the Pentagon’s budget. This is another example of the administration’s ongoing difficulty with making promises that conflict with other promises.
Health care: What to do about Medicaid?
Republicans are in an awkward position when it comes to one of the trickiest aspects of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act: Medicaid. The ACA took what was once a relatively narrow program (serving primarily pregnant women, children and the disabled) and opened it up to a much broader group of low-income Americans. Millions gained health coverage as a result. Now Republicans have to decide what happens to them if the law goes away.
It’s not going to be easy for Republicans to find common ground. Peeling back the expansion and reforming how the program is funded, as some Republican plans have proposed doing, would leave millions of the nation’s poorest without coverage. Keeping the expansion, however, goes against conservative ideals of small government and personal responsibility. Adding to the challenge: 19 states chose not to expand Medicaid as the law allows. The ones that did expand don’t want to lose the billions of dollars in federal assistance expected to be paid out over the first decade of the program; states that rejected the expansion want to find a way to recoup some of the federal dollars they are missing out on by not expanding.
Republican governors have been particularly vocal about their concern over draft bills that would gut funding and insurance coverage. This week they offered their own solution, calling for a complicated set of rules. States that expanded Medicaid could keep the expansion, but with less federal reimbursement. States that didn’t expand would be given the chance to do so, but for a more limited group of people. But the plan is likely to get a cool reception from the most conservative wing of the party, which has said it won’t support a replacement plan that involves anything less than a full repeal. It’s no wonder House Republicans have opted to keep the newest draft of the bill locked away in a reading room in the hopes that it won’t be leaked to the public.
Hiring: Going from normal to not so normal
Trump has been accused of taking a lackadaisical approach to nominating people to fill positions in his administration. Hundreds of spots still are without nominees — a wide-ranging list that includes ambassadors; key members of leadership in the State Department and other offices; the directors of law enforcement organizations such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the heads of advisory groups such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
But if you look at the numbers, Trump hasn’t been wildly out of pace with previous presidents. There are roughly 1,200 presidentially appointed positions that require Senate approval (and many other appointments that don’t). Getting them all named, vetted and OK’d has always taken time. The Partnership for Public Service — a nonprofit agency that studies and works to improve government functioning, including presidential transitions — recommends that administrations have 400 of these positions in place by the August of a president’s first year in office, The Wall Street Journal reported. But that’s a reach goal — nobody has ever achieved it.
In his first month in office, Trump has been a little slower to send nominations to the Senate than Obama was — nominating 34 people by Feb. 21, to Obama’s 39, according to a CNN report based on numbers from the Partnership for Public Service. But Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush were all slower than that, averaging 23 nominations in their first month in office. Trump has had a more difficult time getting his nominations confirmed than some of those other presidents did. As of Feb. 21, 14 of Trump’s nominees had been OK’d by the Senate — the fewest since George H.W. Bush, who had just 11 confirmations at the same point.
So far, so normal. But then, this week, Trump turned the situation upside down, telling Fox News that he has no intention of filling some of those positions.
“A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,” Trump told “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday. “I look at some of the jobs, and it’s people over people over people. I say, ‘What do all these people do?’ You don’t need all those jobs.”
Trump has not yet said which positions he plans to leave empty, and without knowing that, it’s hard to say whether this idea would be disastrous or useful. It’s not entirely abnormal for positions to go empty for long periods, either through lack of prioritization or because the Senate won’t confirm nominees. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for instance, went without a Senate-confirmed administrator between 2006 and 2013. And that can cause administrative chaos in the organizations that are running rudderless. On the other hand, James Pfiffner, professor of public policy at George Mason University, has written that the number of presidential political appointees has ballooned in recent decades, contributing to a slowdown in the nomination process. Reducing the number of those appointments, according to Pfiffner, could improve the functioning of the executive branch.
More from FiveThirtyEight
- We launched a dashboard this week to track Trump’s approval ratings.
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions was criticized this week for speaking with Russian officials ahead of the election. Here’s a look at several possible scenarios for why he and others would do that.
- Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress was quieter than your average Trump speech, but no less radical.
- Also, will the speech change anything?
- How is Trump’s early strategy different from — and similar to — those of past presidents?
- If the administration’s policies weaken Mexico’s economy, political instability could find its way back into the U.S.
- And check out our now completed Party Time podcast mini-series, on where the two major parties are headed in the Trump era.