President Donald Trump’s budget, like all presidential budgets before it, arrived just in time to attend its own funeral. The power of the purse rests with the House, so the president’s budget is best understood as a statement of priorities, a powerful message that sets the tone for the coming negotiations. President Trump’s budget is also an effective trial balloon, meant to suss out the the liberal attack lines that will be forthcoming when the meaningful work arrives.
It has served this latter purpose especially well.
Liberals have been tripping over themselves to spit fire at President Trump’s budget, especially its reforms to the social safety net. In so doing, they’ve revealed how effective they’ve been at reconfiguring the terms of the debate, going so far as to tailor the definition of words to meet their policy needs.
One of their cleverest tricks was fashioning a world in which the welfare state is in shambles and desperately in need of a cash infusion in order to serve the nation’s poor.
“The federal safety net for poor families was torn to shreds by the Clinton administration,” according to this line of thought. Some go further, arguing that the conundrum of the current welfare state is that “[f]or the most part, there isn’t one.” Of course, its apparent nonexistence hasn’t stopped liberals from accusing Republicans of waging “war on safety nets,” and convincing themselves that if Republicans succeed, “what little democracy we have left in this republic will evaporate.”
In this world, President Trump’s budget is easily deemed “savage” and “devastating,” or if your rhetorically clever, chock full of “Robin-Hood-in-reverse policies in an unprecedented scale.”
But let’s get back to the real world where context matters and words maintain their true meaning. In this world, President Trump’s Medicaid “cuts” aren’t cuts at all, they are simply reductions to an ever-growing baseline.
What liberals don’t tell you is that ever since the Budget Act of 1974, the federal government has used baseline budgeting to determine spending levels. This means that when creating a budget each program is not assumed to start from $0, but is instead assumed to stay at the previous appropriation level with some measure of historic growth built in. In other words, ever-higher levels of spending is baked into the budget.
That has an enormous effect on the way in which we talk about President Trump’s Medicaid reforms. Under baseline budgeting the Office of Management and Budget has built growth into the Medicaid program from $378 billion in 2017 to $688 billion in 2027. That’s an astounding increase. In contrast, Trump’s budget would decrease that total to $524 billion. That’s still an astounding increase. And yet, liberals are able to discuss it not only as a “cut,” but a “devastating” one.
A different rhetorical trick is leveled against President Trump’s changes to the food stamp program. Oren Cass, writing for City Journal, explains the ridiculousness:
The Associated Press describes Trump’s proposal as a “whopping $193 billion cut from food stamps over the coming decade—a cut of more than 25 percent.” But while food-stamp enrollment increased from 26 million to 48 million during the weak economy of 2007 to 2013, the rolls shed fewer than 4 million recipients as unemployment fell back below 5 percent. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expects enrollment to fall naturally by about a quarter in the coming decade. But with another one-quarter reduction on top, enrollment would still remain above its early-2000s level—even after accounting for population growth.
So, despite the claims from critics that Trump is waging class warfare on the poor, this budget, if fully implemented over two terms, would leave social safety-net spending by 2024 higher than under any president not named Obama.
Any rational person, given the proper context, would assume that the safety net is failing in its stated purpose. Safety net pending has grown rapidly and yet the number of people in poverty has stayed relatively stagnant over the last 50 years. Shouldn’t that signal it’s time for something new? Or at the very least, shouldn’t we be able to ratchet down funding given the counter-cyclical nature of the programs?
Not in the upside-down world that liberals have successfully created, in which any cut, or even mention of reform, to social welfare programs is described as a savage attack on the poor. Fortunately, the Trump Administration is asking to be judged by a different, much more meaningful metric.
“We’re no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs, but by the number of people we help get off of those programs,” OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said recently. “We’re not going to measure compassion by the amount of money that we spend, but by the number of people that we help.”
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