Donald Trump’s first proposed budget took a step towards draining the swamp in Washington. His proposal was the first one since the Reagan era in which a president has sought a wholesale demolition of boondoggles. On the other hand, Trump’s defense and homeland-security spending increases will squander bounties that should be reserved for taxpayers, not bureaucrats.
Regardless of whether Trump can cajole Congress into buying into the cuts, Americans should welcome candor on an array of federal programs that should have been decimated or abolished long ago.
- The Housing and Urban Development budget takes one of the biggest hits — down $6 billion or 13 percent. Trump proposes abolishing Community Development Block Grants, which would save $3 billion a year. A Heritage Foundation analysis noted that CDBG “grants have been diverted to wasteful parochial projects, which include funding a pet-shampoo company and issuing risky business loans.” The administration aims to sharply cut spending on Section 8 rental vouchers, which are notorious for redistributing violent crime from public-housing projects to previously safe urban and suburban neighborhoods. HUD’s flagship HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which provides grants to states and localities is also in the budget crosshairs.
- That program is such a fiasco that HUD was not even aware that hundreds of projects it was bankrolling had not been built until a Washington Post investigation compiled hundreds of aerial photos of empty lots.
- Trump calls for abolishing both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The vast majority of spending for the arts comes from private pockets. America does not need a culture commissariat to give federal seals of approval to efforts that please Washington bureaucrats. There is no justice in taxing dishwashers in Arkansas to subsidize programs such as Synetic Theater’s “Silent Shakespeare” — in which actors gyrate and grope in lieu of delivering the richest bounty of the English language. Brooklyn theater director David Marcus notes that subsidies cause “perverse market incentives…. The real way to succeed as an arts organization is not to create a product that attracts new audiences, but to create a product that pleases those who dole out the free cash. The industry received more free money than it did a decade ago, and has fewer attendees.”
- Trump recommends abolishing federal subsidies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which would save almost half a billion dollars per year. Liberals were aghast and started a #JusticeForBigBird campaign on social media. But when federally financed television and radio began in the 1960s, there were vastly fewer options on the television and radio dial. Now, there are 500 television stations and networks and an endless array of radio options. Scholar Howard Husock, who is on the CPB board of directors, noted that National Public Radio “boasts that some 58 percent of NPR listeners are college graduates, and that its listeners are ‘74 percent more likely to earn more than $100,000.’ One NPR slide deck boasts that its programming reaches ‘cultural connoisseurs’ likely to drink four glasses of wine per week.” Considering the bounty that technology is delivering, there is no excuse for spending $485 million a year for news and cultural programs that are consistently biased in favor of big government.
- Trump proposes a 17 percent cut for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service — which nowadays prefers to play therapist instead of giving taxpayers the best information available. In March, the Weather Service realized that it had greatly exaggerated likely snowfalls from winter storm Stella but refused to correct itself because it feared “confusing” folks. A headline from the New York City’s Gothamist website summarized that debacle: “National Weather Service: Sorry, You’re Too Stupid To Trust With The REAL Forecast.” That article suggested that “this ‘lie of caution’ was just a piece of Steve Bannon’s larger plan to engender a total lack of trust in the state. That wouldn’t be minor at all.” Only in libertarian dreams. Actually, European weather forecasts are far more accurate than American forecasts, in part because the National Weather Service is a technological laggard.
- Trump calls for slashing spending for Food for Peace, America’s most destructive foreign-aid program, by $1.5 billion a year. For decades, foreign farmers have been bankrupted when U.S. government agencies dump crops in their nations at harvest time. American food dumping sparked an uproar in Haiti last year over a plan to deluge that nation with surplus U.S. peanuts — a dire threat to Haiti’s 100,000+ peanut farmers. But the program works out well for the farm lobby, the merchant marine, and nonprofit groups, and its foreign victims have no lobby in Washington.
- The Homeland Security budget proposes to fritter away a couple of billion dollars on a border wall — a monument to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign that will have little or no impact on curbing illegal immigration. On the bright side, the budget favors slashing Urban Area Security Initiative grants — a howler of a program that has paid for a latrine-on-wheels in Fort Worth, Texas, sno-cone machines in Michigan, and a “Zombie Apocalypse” show at a training seminar. Also targeted for cuts is the Transportation Security Administration’s goofily-named VIPR program (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) — which dispatches TSA teams to pointlessly hassle bus and train passengers in “security theater” at its most absurd. Unfortunately, the budget does not call for radical downsizing of the TSA itself — which is one of the most onerous federal agencies that Americans deal with on a daily basis.
- Another bright side of the Trump budget proposal, as Politico noted, is that “the possibility of wholesale elimination of departments terrifies government workers, as well as the unions that represent them.” Federal employees are mostly overpaid and many of them have only a distant acquaintance with vigorous labor. Trump’s budget proposal is probably working out very well for Washington-area therapists.
The media responded to the Trump budget proposal as if it heralded the end of Western civilization. A CNN headline warned of “Trump’s plan to dismember government.” But “combined U.S. federal, state, and local government expenditures have zoomed from around $3.2 trillion in fiscal year 2000 to north of $7 trillion this year,” as Reason’s Matt Welch noted. Welch noted the “three iron rules of political-class reactions to any whiff of budget cuts: 1) Every previous budget ratchet will be ignored, yet taken as the minimum acceptable baseline. 2) If even 1 percent of a to-be-reduced bloc of spending can be described as keeping granny from starving to death, that will be precisely how the whole bag of money is characterized. 3) It will all be about the president, even though the president writes no budgets.”
And then there is the downside of the Trump budget. Trump proposes to devote almost all of the savings from cutting domestic programs into the Pentagon, whose budget would rise by $52 billion, roughly 10 percent. Since 9/11, the Defense Department has been Washington’s ultimate sacred cow — regardless of how badly U.S. military interventions abroad have turned out. Presidents and Congress pour money into the military and then take victory laps — regardless of whether the spending makes America safer.
A Pentagon advisory panel recently documented $125 billion in bureaucratic waste. The Washington Post reported, “Pentagon leaders had requested the study to help make their enormous back-office bureaucracy more efficient and reinvest any savings in combat power. But after the project documented far more wasteful spending than expected, senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results.”
Pentagon leaders had been complaining for years that their budget had been cut to the bone and the study did not help their tin-cup rattling on Capitol Hill. The study revealed far more outsiders on the payroll than previously suspected. For instance, “the Army employed 199,661 full-time contractors” which “exceeded the combined civil workforce for the Departments of State, Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development.” The report also revealed that “the average administrative job at the Pentagon was costing taxpayers more than $200,000 [a year], including salary and benefits.”
Defense spending has been out of control for at least 15 years. The Pentagon Inspector General reported that the Army made $6.5 trillion in erroneous adjustments to its general fund in 2015. But multi-trillion dollar “errors” have failed to hold the attention of Congress.
There is a schizophrenia at the heart of the Trump budget and entire approach to governance. The administration makes noises about wanting to reduce federal controls at home at the same time that some administration officials sound as if they lust to lead a crusade to free the world from radical Muslims or whatever. But as American experience since 9/11 shows again, crusades abroad are not compatible with limited government at home. Killing masses of innocent civilians abroad — as Trump’s stepped-up bombing campaign in Syria is doing — could eventually spur terrorist attacks here at home.
The specter overhanging Trump’s budget is the possibility that he could jettison his campaign promises and plunge the nation more deeply into foreign conflicts. There is already talk of another troop “surge” to Afghanistan despite the dismal results of the prior 16 years of U.S. fighting in that land. If Trump plunges or blunders into more wars abroad, federal spending will quickly soar out of control, as it did in the George W. Bush administration. What is the point of draining the swamp if all the savings are poured down other budgetary rat holes?
A Washington Post article fretted that, under Trump’s budget, “government would be smaller and less involved in regulating life in America.” Actually, there was an election in November 2016 and the people who did not want their lives micromanaged by federal agencies won. But it remains to be seen whether Trump will honor his campaign rhetoric.
This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Future of Freedom.