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Donald Trump’s new budget proposal is a map to what divides America

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Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

Sometimes government documents are hard to read, filled as they are with legalese and veined with political deals. Sometimes, of course, they are easy, as in Donald Trump’s proposed 2021 budget proposal to Congress.

It is a plain political document that outlines the president’s reelection campaign points and that runs afoul of his own State of the Union address suggestions a week ago. As such, Democrats fell over themselves to declare it dead on arrival.

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Among other things, the $4.8 trillion plan includes budget cuts that break with a two-year deal that Trump made earlier this year with leaders of both congressional parties. But its aim at spending for Medicare and Medicaid runs counter to last week’s promises, and the emphasis on cutting entitlement spending seems vintage Republican orthodoxy.

In case you might be wondering, there is no health plan or climate change program in it, there is less spending on a whole range of things that might seem familiar like anti-poverty programs and the arts,  and a whole lot more on items like rebuilding nuclear weapons and anti-immigrant border policing.

Among other things, the budget proposal aimed to cut foreign aid by more than 20%, further isolating the United States in its more usual international efforts like humanitarian aid. Ukrainian military aid was preserved without mention of any new investigations being requested. The proposal also is for a 37% cut for the Commerce Department and a 26% cut for the EPA, as well as less money for the National Health Institute and the Centers for Disease Control – outside of the infectious disease unit, which perhaps would have looked weird even to Trump as we see coronavirus growing into a pandemic.

There will be attention on using cuts in Medicaid to pay off the growing, and increasingly giant U.S. debt – a process that would take more than 15 years even under rosy circumstances to pay. But Trump wants unpaid tax cuts extended for at least another 10 years.

Indeed, economists were focused on the basic tenet of the entire budget proposal – which promises economic growth of at least 3% per year and possibly much more than that. The proposal is overly optimistic, they say, showing that even this last year, the first full year after the federal cuts meant to goose the economy reflected growth at about 2.3%.

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Of course, presidential budgets are routinely seen by Congress as a starting point only. But both parties in the Congress had worked out plans that conveniently would postpone this particular brand of spending priorities discord until after elections.

But this is better seen as a political document than a governing one. It made me wonder how much work the administration even put into it. You can see Trump in a debate with, say, Bernie Sanders, debating federal spending. This would be the document with highlighted points on the stage.

Pretty much every line would be a dispute.  Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez called Trump’s proposal “morally bankrupt,” and remarks from other Democrats went downhill from there.

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If the contents weren’t so critical to people’s lives, the whole budget discussion would be a bit best left to Saturday Night Live or Stephen Colbert. But these issues are that critical, and we need to recognize that we have a White House that wants to make up for unpaid tax cuts and higher military and border spending by cutting food stamp aid, by dropping eligibility for Social Security and Medicaid disability payments, by eliminating families eligible for housing subsidies.

The budget proposal includes $590 billion in non-defense spending and $740 billion in defense spending. The total anticipates about $3.5 trillion in spending on Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements, eliminating about $700 billion for Medicaid alone – achievable, Trump said, through elimination of fraud. The budget proposal carries a trillion-dollar debt for the year alone.

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Last August’s deal with congressional leaders raised spending for both defense and domestic spending. They are unlikely to endorse a plan that blows up what they already thought settled.

So, we’re best off reading this proposal as a plain-letter plan that shows where the president’s priorities are.

On the one side, we are entertaining which Democratic plan for expansion of health and aid for college student debts fit best with our vision. Democrats want to expand spending on science and climate change, add environmental protections and move away from fossil-fuel energy sources.

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On the other, we have Trump, who wants to get savings from cuts to children’s health, disability payments, fewer environmental protections, less money for public schools. He wants more money to send a manned mission to Mars and to remake and modernize nuclear weapons. And a wall, another $2 billion worth, down from last year’s $8-billion request.

Democrats should stop squabbling among themselves and just take a communal look at this budget proposal.

It is a map to what divides America.

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