Trump is looking to redefine the relationship between government and citizens
His budget will propose dramatic cuts in federal environmental and education programs
President Donald Trump plans to dismember government one dollar at a time.
His first budget – expected to be unveiled later this week – will mark Trump’s most significant attempt yet to remold national life and the relationship between federal and state power.
It would codify an assault on regulatory regimes over the environment, business and education bequeathed by former President Barack Obama, and attempt to halt decades of steadily growing government reach.
All presidential budgets are aspirational documents – and few emerge from Congress in the same shape as they arrived on Capitol Hill.
But Trump’s first budget will make more of a statement than most debut spending blueprints by other new presidents. The White House has made clear it intends to use the document to usher in the radical political changes that powered Trump’s upstart, anti-establishment campaign last year.
It comes on the heels of other big changes such as the abrupt dismissal of 46 US attorneys last week and the effort to dismantle Obama’s signature health care law.
The “deconstruction of the administrative state” is what Trump’s political guru Stephen Bannon calls the President’s agenda.
The senior White House adviser laid out his philosophy during a rare public appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month.
“If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction. The way the progressive left runs, is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just going to put in some sort of regulation in an agency,” Bannon said.
“That’s all going to be deconstructed and I think that that’s why this regulatory thing is so important.”
Slicing up government power is part of a deeper antipathy towards institutions and the political establishment that runs deep in the Trump White House.
At various times during the early months of his term, the President has seemed at odds with different parts of the government that he runs – his disputes with intelligence agencies are a prime example. Last week, Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer did not reject the notion of a “deep state” of entrenched federal employees that is popular among some of the President’s supporters, suggesting that some embedded former Obama administration officials were working to bring down the Trump agenda from within the government.
How to de-fang the government
“We’re going to do more with less,” Trump told state governors late last month, promising a government that is “lean and accountable to the people.”
Trump will highlight his priorities by upping military spending by $54 billion, and is also expected to boost funding for homeland security – money that may be used to toughen immigration enforcement and to build his wall on the southern border.
The President will cement his “America First” policy by slashing State Department funding, foreign aid spending and grants to the United Nations, officials have already made clear. And nowhere is his assault on government expected to be as dramatic as at the Environmental Protection Agency – which is bracing for a massive reduction of its budget.
“I think the important thing to remember about any budget is that it is more of a policy document – ‘this is what my ideal policy would be, this is my vision of the next four years,’” said Justin Bogie, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“I think for President Trump it is important for him to get these ideas out there and show ‘I am still committed to these things.’”
Attacking the EPA on every level
There is a direct line between homing in on the EPA and Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric, in which he vowed to neuter the power of government and regulatory policy on issues like greenhouse gas emissions and a hatred of government interference brewed in his own long years in piloting construction projects.
“That is an agency that has had a lot of burdensome regulations and that kind of thing that has limited the private sector and make it harder to do business,” said Bogie.
In choosing Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, Trump elected an administrator who as attorney general of Oklahoma sued the agency he now leads multiple times over environmental regulations. The Sierra Club commented after Pruitt was confirmed that “the arsonist is now in charge of the fire department.”
EPA officials are bracing for a budget cut of at least a quarter of its current size, and one source told CNN’s Rene Marsh that layoffs and facilities closures are likely to take place as well as a reduction to the agency’s basic services.
The budget slashing is likely to target EPA regimens and limits on emissions by power plants that were at the center of Obama administration climate policy.
Other programs under threat include the environmental justice program, which is meant to help local communities grapple with environmental concerns, and Global Change Research, a program funded by several agencies, including the EPA, which reports humans’ impact on the planet.
Leaving entitlements alone and cutting elsewhere
Another key Trump campaign promise was his vow to his voters, especially those in blue collar Midwestern swing states that he would not touch entitlements like Social Security or Medicare – vast repositories of taxpayer dollars that with along with interests on the national debt make up two-thirds of the federal budget.
That means that discretionary spending is vulnerable, especially to an administration that wants to make a political point.
“The President ran very, very clearly on priorities. And the priorities are spending money at home on national defense, on border control, on immigration enforcement,” said Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney on the Hugh Hewitt radio show last week.
“In order to prioritize those spendings, without adding to that already large deficit, the money has to come from someplace,” Mulvaney said.
Such warnings are why agencies like the EPA and the Education Department that have long been in conservative crosshairs are particularly vulnerable in the Trump era. Federal funding for other Republican targets — like National Public Radio, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities may also be under threat — even though they account for a comparatively small area of overall spending.
‘It is to his advantage to tear down institutions’
For the Education Department, Trump chose Betsy DeVos, who has made clear that she intends to use the budgetary process to rein in the clout of her agency.
“I can guarantee that there are things that the Department has been doing that are probably not necessary or important for a federal agency to do. We will be looking at that, we will be examining and auditing and reviewing all of the programs of the Department and really figuring out what is the core mission,” DeVos said on the Michael Patrick Shiels syndicated radio show last month.
“Really, when it comes down to it, education and the provision of education is really a state and local responsibility to a large extent.”
Critics of the Trump cabinet are warning that the functions of agencies under the control of leaders like Pruitt and DeVos could be hampered for years.
Dan Kanninen, formerly the Obama administration’s White House liaison at the EPA, said Trump nominees at the EPA, Education, and Housing and Urban Development, which Ben Carson now runs, are “ideologically bent against the mission and against the agency but they have no idea what the agency does.”
“It is certainly ideological and it is certainly ignorance and it is disdain for the fundamental institution of government – what Steve Bannon means by tearing down our institutions,” said Kanninen, now vice president for issues and advocacy at the Smoot Tewes group.
“What Mr. Trump does across the board is create doubt about our institutions,” he said. “It is to his advantage to tear down institutions.”
Executive orders getting things started
The President did not wait for the official announcement of his budget to get a start on cutting government.
In January, Trump signed an executive memorandum ordering a federal hiring freeze.
Monday, he went a step further, signing an executive order mandating an evaluation of every agency in the Executive Branch to work out where money could be saved.
“This order likely will result in agencies directing significant resources toward the agencies’ very survival. That alone, will significantly slow regulatory activity,” said Creighton Magid, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney, an international law firm.
Congress won’t go along easily
Still, Trump’s budgetary strategy could face significant challenges – particularly in the Senate, where Republicans may be unwilling to support cuts to popular programs.
Seen in the abstract, government is always unpopular with Republican voters. But often individual programs enjoy significant support at local levels.
For instance, the Chicago Tribune reported Monday that the Trump budget proposes to cut the budget by 97% to $10 million in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Over the last decade the bipartisan plan has transformed the environmental health of Lakes Erie, Michigan and Ontario.
The plan has seen heavily polluted areas cleansed, improvements to drinking water and the fight against Asian Carp which threatens to crowd out native species in the Great Lakes and harm local fishing industries. Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle are already mobilized in a bid to fight off the prospect of cuts to the program.
Last week, Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman, joined a bipartisan group of colleagues in writing a letter to Pruitt calling on him to guarantee the full $300 million funding for the program.
The political sensitivity of the program might end up occurring to Trump – in a way that will underline just how complicated using the budget to transform government can be. The region includes the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which together racked up 64 electoral votes that put him in the White House.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct a quote by Bannon.