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Trump’s Reverse–Robin Hood Budget Should Be a Gift to the Democrats


February hasn’t been a good month for the Democratic Party, but on Monday the White House gave it a much-needed present: a budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year. The budget reneges on Donald Trump’s repeated vow to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—a pledge that helped him attract voters in 2016. It also proposes unprecedented cuts in spending for other popular programs and institutions, such as the Affordable Care Act, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If the Democrats can’t take advantage of this election-year horror script, they really are in trouble. The White House is practically inviting them to run a repeat of their successful 2018 campaign, which focussed on Republican plans to undermine and repeal the Affordable Care Act. Now Democrats can make that case again, and point to the budget document as irrefutable evidence that the destructive cutbacks by Trump and his Republican allies extend well beyond health care.

Under the budget proposal, the White House would seek unspecified reductions to the A.C.A. budget, which helps people of modest means purchase private health care through insurance exchanges, and make major cuts in Medicaid, the government-run health-care plan for poor people and families. After its expansion under the A.C.A., Medicaid now provides coverage to some seventy-one million Americans, a little more than half of whom are children. Taken together, the cuts to the A.C.A. and Medicaid would total more than a trillion dollars over ten years, relative to the current baseline.

Medicare, the federal health-care program that nearly fifty-nine million American seniors use, would also be targeted. The White House is looking to achieve hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicare savings over the next decade, relative to the baseline, by changing the way doctors are paid and making other changes.

Health care isn’t the only part of the social safety net that the Administration is hoping to cut. It also proposes slashing the SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, which thirty-four million low-income Americans rely on to get by from week to week. The budget would “push tens of millions of less fortunate Americans into or deeper into poverty and cause widespread hardship even as it doubles down on tax cuts for the most well-off,” Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, said. “It would take health coverage away from millions of people and cut aid to millions of families and individuals struggling to make ends meet. At the same time, the budget would make permanent the 2017 tax law’s tax cuts for individuals, which are heavily weighted toward the top.”

The budget tries to justify its draconian proposals by claiming that spending is out of control and the country needs to reduce the budget deficit. But a large part of the problem is that the Trump-G.O.P. tax cuts, from 2017, denuded the tax base to such an extent that, even with the unemployment rate at 3.6 per cent, the Congressional Budget Office is predicting that federal tax revenues will be just 16.4 per cent of G.D.P. this year. It’s the same reverse–Robin Hood strategy that the Administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush adopted: pass big tax cuts slanted toward the rich, then claim you have to balance the budget on the backs of the masses.

For Trump to put his name to these proposals in an election year seems like a strategic blunder. Just six months ago, he publicly disavowed the hawkish approach toward spending that the budget embodies by supporting a two-year bipartisan agreement to increase spending substantially on military and non-military programs. “Go for it Republicans, there is always plenty of time to CUT!” Trump tweeted, back in August. Now his own White House is boasting about the unprecedented scale of the spending cuts it is proposing.

“This year’s budget includes $4.6 trillion of deficit reduction, including more spending reductions than any previous administration,” a White House fact sheet said. Apart from a few favored agencies, such as NASA and ICE, almost all domestic agencies would see substantial cuts. The budget of the Environmental Protection Agency would be slashed by 26.5 per cent in a single year; the Department of the Interior would see a 13.4-per-cent chop; and the Department of Education would face an eight-per-cent reduction. Even the National Institutes of Health, which pays for life-saving medical research, would see its budget cut by 6.5 per cent.

To be sure, there is little chance of these cuts being enacted anytime soon. The two-year spending agreement is still in place, and congressional budget appropriators are virtually certain to abide by it until 2021. On Tuesday, various voices on Capitol Hill declared the new document dead on arrival, which wasn’t surprising: White House budgets have received a similar reception for years, under Presidents of both parties. But the Trump Administration has laid down a marker, which the Democrats can pick up between now and November.

In New Hampshire, two of the Democratic front-runners are already responding to it. “The old cliche is that a budget is a moral document,” Bernie Sanders said, in a statement, on Monday. “What kind of unbelievable moral framework allowed this White House to propose $182 billion in cuts to nutrition assistance from needy families, when nearly one in seven households with children are food insecure?” Pete Buttigieg also assailed the budget, at an event in Milford, New Hampshire. “Cuts to environmental protection, cuts to public education. He’s already said that Social Security is fair game,” Buttigieg said. “The President of the United States thinks we’re suckers.”

These statements are a good start. The Democrats need to stick to them, and intensify their attacks. A central fact about Trump’s record is that he campaigned as a populist and has ruled as an oligarch, showering favors on corporations and the rich, himself included. Just in time for primary season, his White House has published a road map for a second term, which involves extending those favors and slashing programs that benefit the middle class and the poor. Get to it, Democrats.



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