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Trump Unveils 'Hard Power' Budget That Boosts Military Spending

Mar 15, 2017
Originally published on March 16, 2017 7:35 pm

Updated: 5:08 p.m. ET

The Trump administration's new budget blueprint aims to quantify the president's nationalistic agenda in dollars and cents. The plan, released Thursday morning, calls for significant increases in military and border-security spending, along with corresponding cuts in many other parts of the government.

The blueprint was designed to "send a message to our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration," Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney explained on Wednesday as he previewed the document in a briefing with reporters.

It also sends a clear message domestically: This administration is willing to make drastic, controversial cuts to fund that "strong-power" message. That includes slashing spending on foreign aid and the environment, as well as long-standing programs aimed at boosting the arts and humanities, as well as the fortunes of the most vulnerable Americans. The question now is how much the Republican-controlled Congress will go along with that vision.

Like any White House budget, Trump's blueprint is more of a political document than an accurate predictor of government spending. Congress controls the purse strings and lawmakers may have very different priorities. As a statement of presidential intention, though, the blueprint is crystal clear.

"This is the America First budget," said Mulvaney Wednesday. "In fact, we wrote it using the president's own words. We went through his speeches. We went through articles that have been written about his policies ... and we turned those policies into numbers."

"There's no question this is a hard-power budget," Mulvaney also said Wednesday. "It is not a soft-power budget. This is a hard-power budget. And that was done intentionally."

Trump wants lawmakers to boost military spending in the coming fiscal year by 10 percent, or $54 billion. Rather than raise taxes or increase the deficit, the president is calling for equivalent cuts in other areas. Foreign aid would be especially hard hit, with the State Department's budget cut by about 28 percent.

Alongside Defense, the agencies for which the White House proposes spending increases are almost entirely military- and national security-related. The Department of Homeland Security would see a hike in funding of 6.8 percent, as would the Department of Veterans Affairs (5.9 percent) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (11.3 percent).

"The president ran [his campaign] saying he would spend less money overseas and more money back home," Mulvaney said Wednesday. "When you go to implement that policy, you go to things like foreign aid, and those get reduced."

Critics argue the administration's single-minded focus on hard power is short-sighted, and could ultimately be detrimental to national security. They point to past comments from Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine general, who once told lawmakers, "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition, ultimately."

The White House blueprint does not address major safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which the president has promised to protect. But Trump is calling for sharp cuts in discretionary spending, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

The administration is proposing cutting the EPA's budget by 31 percent, from $8.3 billion in fiscal year 2017 to $5.7 billion in fiscal year 2018. That's the largest cut among all Cabinet departments and major agencies.

The budget says that slash in funding is necessary "to ease the burden of unnecessary Federal regulations that impose significant costs for workers and consumers without justifiable environmental benefits."

Instead of carrying out many of its current functions, the agency would "primarily support States and Tribes in their important role protecting air, land, and water in the 21st Century," the document adds.

The EPA's new administrator, Scott Pruitt, is a longtime critic of what he sees as the agency's activist agenda. He and the president have both promised to scale back environmental regulation, including efforts to curb carbon pollution and promote alternative energy. Last week, Pruitt reiterated his doubts that carbon emissions are a primary contributor to climate change. That puts him at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus.

Climate research at NASA could also take a hit under Trump's budget. The plan would reduce overall spending at NASA by around 1 percent, Mulvaney said, but would increase spending on space exploration, which Trump supports.

"We're not spending money on this anymore. We consider that a waste of your money," Mulvaney said about climate change research as he took questions from White House reporters at Thursday's afternoon press briefing.

In addition, funding for the National Institutes of Health would fall by 18 percent, or $5.8 billion. That cut involves "a major reorganization of NIH's Institutes and Centers," including closing some of those centers, "to help focus resources on the highest priority research."

In a speech to a joint session of Congress last month, Trump promised to bring renewed hope and opportunity to what he called "our neglected inner cities." The Department of Housing and Urban Development will not be the vehicle for that effort, though.

"We've spent a lot of money on housing and urban development over the last decades without a lot to show for it," Mulvaney said Wednesday. He added that Trump prefers to invest in cities' infrastructure and school choice.

"Nobody's going to get kicked out of their houses," Mulvaney told reporters Thursday afternoon, reiterating that many of the HUD cuts were related to infrastructure and would be addressed in the massive infrastructure plan the president wants to implement.

The president's plan calls for a 6 percent increase in spending by the Department of Homeland Security, including $2.6 billion to begin work on a planned border wall. The White House is also asking Congress to devote $1.5 billion to the wall in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Trump claimed throughout the campaign that he would get Mexico to pay for the wall, but Mulvaney said Thursday afternoon that, "as to the source of funds, that's up to the president, the Treasury and the State Department" and wouldn't commit to getting the funds from Mexico.

Leading Democrats on Capitol Hill slammed Trump's budget blueprint as wrongheaded. "President Trump is not making anyone more secure with a budget that hollows out our economy and endangers working families," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, said in a statement, adding, "The budget is a statement of values, and President Trump has shown he does not value the future of children and working families." The Senate's top Democrat was more direct: "Democrats in Congress will emphatically oppose these cuts & urge our Republican colleagues to reject them as well," Sen. Charles Schumer, of New York, said on Twitter.

The two Republican Hill leaders were supportive of the blueprint but both signaled a long process lay ahead. "I welcome the president's blueprint for next year's budget, which turns the page from the last eight years," House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, said in a statement, adding that he looked forward to "reviewing this with the Appropriations Committee and our entire conference." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, said he "pleased to see an increased focus on our national security and veterans budgets," calling them "positive steps in the right direction," according to the Washington Examiner. But McConnell added he looked forward "to reviewing this and the full budget when it is released later this spring."

Among all the proposed spending hikes and cuts, some areas would see spending cuts of 100 percent. The administration wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Together, the two groups receive about $300 million annually.

Trump also wants to eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps to finance public radio and television stations. CPB received $445 million in the current fiscal year.

Several of these eliminated programs aim to help the poorest Americans. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps people pay utility bills and weatherize their homes. And the Community Development Block Grant, a part of HUD, helps support affordable housing and infrastructure (among many other things).

Grants to Meals on Wheels would also likely be eliminated as part of the cuts to the Community Development Block Grant program, and Mulvaney defended those cuts Thursday afternoon, claiming the block granting program was "not showing any results."

Pressed on whether cutting back or eliminating altogether programs that help the poor was not being compassionate toward people who needed help the most, Mulvaney said that passing this budget was "one of the most compassionate things we can do" because it was being compassionate toward taxpayers who are funding those programs.

The budget also proposes eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission, which promotes economic development in the region stretching from northern Mississippi to western New York. Many counties in that swath heavily supported Trump in November.

NPR intern Maya Fitzpatrick contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump unveiled a budget blueprint, his vision for how he wants the federal government to spend its money. While Congress is certain to make substantial changes to the proposal, the White House wish list does offer a window into the president's priorities. That includes more money for defense and border security and less money for just about everything else. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Budget director Mick Mulvaney says the spending blueprint the White House issued today is an effort to turn Trump's America first campaign rhetoric into hard numbers. It calls for a $54 billion increase next year in military spending. Mulvaney says that would be partially offset by an $11 billion cut at the State Department, with much of that coming out of foreign aid and U.N. peacekeeping.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICK MULVANEY: There is no question this is a hard power budget. It is not soft power budget. The president very clearly wants to send a message to our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong power administration.

HORSLEY: Critics call the proposed cutbacks shortsighted. Liz Schrayer, who leads the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, has enlisted dozens of retired generals and admirals to make the case for continued diplomacy and development.

LIZ SCHRAYER: Military leaders frankly across the country will say hard power alone will not keep America safe.

HORSLEY: Here at home, the president's plan calls for somewhat increased spending on Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, including $2.6 billion next year for work on Trump's border wall. Just about every other federal department would see a cut - 13 percent less money for Housing and Urban Development, 16 percent less for Health and Human Services and 21 percent less for the Department of Agriculture. Sharon Parrott of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says the president's plan would push domestic discretionary spending to its lowest level in decades.

SHARON PARROTT: Interestingly, many of the cuts would really affect in a very negative way some of the very people and communities that the Trump administration has said are a priority - workers left out by today's economy and distressed urban and rural communities that the president has talked about quite a lot.

HORSLEY: The deepest cut proportionally would come at the Environmental Protection Agency, where Trump wants to slash spending by 31 percent. His plan would eliminate federal money for Great Lakes restoration and cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. It would also end the EPA's effort to reduce carbon pollution from power plants and all the agency's climate research.

ANGELA ANDERSON: This is a real head-in-the-sand kind of budget.

HORSLEY: Angela Anderson directs the climate and energy program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

ANDERSON: If the government decides to stop doing research on climate change, that doesn't change the fact that we are moving inexorably towards a future that is warmer temperatures, more erratic weather patterns. So we can pretend that doesn't exist, but it's pretty penny wise and pound foolish.

HORSLEY: Ultimately it's Congress that controls the federal checkbook, so the White House blueprint is really just a statement of principles. Veteran budget watcher Stan Collender of Qorvis Communications notes the president's plan doesn't even address tax revenues or the big safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare.

STAN COLLENDER: Calling it a budget is giving it more credit than it's due. This is nothing more than a press release coming from the White House masquerading as a government document.

HORSLEY: Congressional Democrats were predictably quick to criticize Trump's spending priorities, but Collender says the proposed cutbacks are also getting a chilly reception from members of the president's own party.

COLLENDER: Some of the biggest opposition to the Trump plan that was released today has come from Republicans. I mean keep in mind that a lot of what was in the Trump plan today are things that have survived multiple rounds of budget cutting over the last decade or so. And if they've survived this long, they're almost certainly very politically popular on Capitol Hill.

HORSLEY: That includes programs like the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps to supports NPR member stations. Trump's plan calls for eliminating all of those. Collender says lawmakers are more likely to increase domestic spending along with the military budget and put any additional cost on the government's credit card. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.