Donald Trump's budget proposes cutting various programs that benefit people and putting more money into defense. (Xinhua/Yin Bogu via Getty Images)

Interviews for Resistance: There’s Still Time To Shape the Budget—Here’s How

Trump ran on not being a regular candidate. But his budget shows that he is, in many ways, a typical Republican.

BY Sarah Jaffe

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"If people were to show up at town hall meetings to reach out to their members of Congress and let them know that they care about these programs, that will probably go a long way."

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we'll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They'll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn't, what’s changed and what is still the same.

Mark Price: I am Mark Price. I am a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Sarah Jaffe: Let’s talk about the basics of the budgeting process. [President Donald] Trump released his draft budget, which was horrifying, but most of us aren't that familiar with the process.

Mark: The president's obligation is to put forward proposals for the full scale of the actual budget, including non-defense discretionary spending, which is about a third. Then, it also includes typically mandatory spending priorities—Medicare, Social Security and food stamps, for instance, is in that category. The president has put forward a proposal for just the non-defense discretionary spending, about a third of the budget and what his spending priorities are in those areas.

Obviously, a lot of people reacted to that. It is a laundry list of cuts in this discretionary spending that had long been put forward by various groups over the last several decades. The Reagan administration first proposed eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission and once again, it is on Trump's list of cuts. Various folks have recommended things like cuts and reductions, but the president here is recommending eliminating the program entirely.

Basically, the president puts forward his initial budget and it now falls to Congress to hold hearings in the various committees on the president’s priorities and then form its own budget resolution. I think that points to where people can have an impact, because it is ultimately going to be the decisions that our Congressional representatives and senators make in that next step of the budget process. They are going to be heavily influential in teasing out how much of the president’s priorities in each of these areas end up becoming law.

The president has put forward his initial proposal … But, also, he didn’t do a big chunk of his job, which is essentially talking about the other parts of the budget. Perhaps those will be coming forward, but we have until April for Congress to step forward and put forward its own budget resolution, its own priorities and spending in each of the areas that the president had proposed.

One of the things that I am seeing, at least, is a lot of energy. People are energized particularly around healthcare. They are trying to reach out to their representatives. I live in a relatively small rural community and people are showing up at town hall meetings and giving their representatives an earful on these various priorities, like heating assistance for low income folks, Meals on Wheels. If people were to show up at town hall meetings to reach out to their members of Congress and let them know that they care about these programs, that will probably go a long way. That would probably have a great effect, certainly more than in past years.

I think it is important to recognize we don’t have much of a safety net in the current environment we are in. The Trump administration has set its priorities and Congress is a Republican body at the moment and they have a lot of range of motion and our ability to shape things really is going to come down to whether we can get individual members to think twice about cuts in programs that maybe make sense from the perspective of ideology, but at the end of the day, hurt a lot of their own voters. I think that is really where the action is going to be, if you can get people organized to reach out to their representatives and shape that second step in the budget process.

Sarah: One of the things that is happening with Trump is that people are so thrown by him that they are paying attention to processes that they really normally don’t, and so are not sure what is normal.

Mark: It is not the end of the conversation. Is that what you are getting at?

Sarah: Yes. Also, I would like to talk about some of the history of targeting some of these programs. As you said, Reagan wanted to make some of these same cuts—and did make cuts—in many of the programs that Trump is wanting to attack. Trump ran on not being a typical Republican. Can you to talk about the ways in which this budget shows that he very much is a typical Republican?

Mark: Certainly. At least the pieces of the budget that he has put forward that we are seeing, definitely fall into that broad group of Republican ideas about, “the government is too large, so we need to reduce spending.” All of the spending reductions in discretionary spending, whether we are talking about heating assistance for seniors, job training programs, student aid for work study, a range of programs that benefit people all across country are being cut and almost all the money is going into defense. It is a very typical approach in the sense of deep cuts to social programs, but not necessarily to go to deficit reduction, but instead shifting to defense spending. I think folks in the conservative frame usually want to see reductions in spending overall, but there is this big gorilla in the room called “defense spending” that seems, at least in Trump’s vision, to be eating up most of that opportunity to reduce deficits. Although, again, there are other parts of the budget, which we will see going forward. In particular, healthcare is, speaking of gorillas in the room, right? As all of this is unfolding, basically, it looks as though the effort on healthcare is really an effort to go after Medicaid. Sort of taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act, which was a step forward in terms of providing more coverage to people, but taking it as an opportunity to not only roll back the Affordable Care Act, but really undermine Medicaid. Reducing the safety net in the other direction, sort of the opposite priorities of the Affordable Care Act.

Absolutely, it is typical in the sense that there are a lot of cuts proposed here that were proposed in previous years to a wide range of programs, but they are all in one package. Again, it is sort of very atypical of the goal, you oppose heating assistance for the elderly, because if they were cold they would go out and get a job and have more money in order to pay for heat. These are often strange priorities, but certainly that sort of embodies it.

Sarah: Yes, and you get comments from certain people like Meals on Wheels not showing any effectiveness. You mentioned living in a rural area. It has been noted in several places that the cuts in this budget would disproportionately affect rural voters who tend to at least to be governed by Republicans, if they are not themselves Republicans. Talk about the way that, in particular—on one hand, you are kicking your voter base, but on the other hand, it also creates some leverage for those very people if their representatives want to continue to get re-elected.

Mark: For me, this is one thing I have struggled a bit with. As time has passed after the election, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about what happened and what was driving voters. In particular, thinking about Appalachia, there has been some discussion that there was a feeling in those communities, a sense of pride in work, in the coal mines, for instance, and a certain resentment towards government assistance because it is seen as the opposite of independence. You are dependent on the government. Mixed in with all of this is this opioid addiction which is sweeping across the country. I think, on the one hand, you are absolutely right. This is a very real opportunity to get folks in these rural places energized, because they are going to be benefiting from a lot of these programs—whether it is the healthcare cuts that we are, at least, beginning to discuss or some of these discretionary program that Trump has put forward to be cut. Certainly, that is going to be an organizing point.

But I think the challenge, as always with rural communities, it is much harder. It is a classic challenge in organizing unions, it is easier to organize a big workplace. You have lots of workers in one spot. When you have people spread out in a lot of little small communities, organizing becomes much harder. That is an enormous challenge, which I can’t help solve, but I think the fact that a lot of these program cuts, whether it is heating assistance or Meals on Wheels, certainly it is going to create an opportunity to get a lot of these voters in these rural places to wake up to what the policy priorities that are coming out of the president and parts of the House and the Senate.

Sarah: When we talk about programs like the Appalachian Regional Commission, things like that, the budget will have this massive number of these programs that each one of them is not very much money. I have seen a lot of memes going around that one of Trump’s golf trips could pay for Meals on Wheels. When thinking about fighting for them, it basically seems like people are going to seize on one or two of these, again, fairly small programs that are obviously very important, but again, not very much in terms of the overall budget. I wonder if you have some advice for how best to think about this as both an overall document and as a political statement and project.

One of the things that happens here is a couple of the programs that get put up for cuts catch the public attention. Meals on Wheels is the big one right now. What is actually happening here is however many hundreds, thousands of programs add up to make up non-defense discretionary spending. If everybody focuses on Meals on Wheels, that is $3 million. It is very easy for the Trump administration to go, “fine, we will save Meals on Wheels,” and then you have billions of other cuts that are still killing people all over the place.

Mark: You are absolutely right. Clearly, what a budget process for any president, not just the Trump presidency, but for Obama, Reagan, the initial budget proposals, they are testing the waters: “These are our priorities.” Certainly, here, I think the Trump administration has put forward a broad range of cuts. I suspect that they are not planning that all of those cuts will happen. They are sort of throwing as much mud on the wall as they possibly can to see what sticks. I think you are absolutely right that which programs ultimately survive, it is sort of like the cute animals are the ones that people are going to care about or the animals that are easy to talk about, that communicate well. Meals on Wheels, the idea that that cut will stick is … if the last 10 days have made clear, that is not going to happen. That is a pretty embarrassing cut for any member of the House or the Senate to stand behind, so it is unlikely to hold.

Appalachian Regional Commission—which makes investments in Appalachia in economic development and workforce development in an effort to energize a region that has historically high levels of poverty and a lack of opportunity—that program might be harder to defend in the sense that it doesn’t communicate as well as Meals on Wheels or some of the other programs. I think, absolutely, one dimension of this is going to be that not all these cuts will be treated equally. Some of them will be rolled back. It comes down to, again, how effective people are in organizing and letting their members in the Senate and the House know that they do not support, broadly, these cuts.

I think you put your finger on a real challenge here. A lot of the cuts that have been put forward here—there is a 20% cut to the Labor Department and their work is vital and important. It goes into simple things like enforcing minimum wage law, making sure food safety and workplace safety are being properly enforced. Those cuts are certainly going to be real and have real and important impact. They might be harder to communicate to people, so they may stick more than other proposed cuts. I think that is the real challenge … how you push back.

If you were in an environment where you had a goalie, in the sense that you had a president, say the Obama administration, that could stand as a veto threat to make sure that certain things don’t go through—you don’t have that here. Essentially, it is a Republican president, Republican majorities in the Senate and the House. It is going to be very difficult to contain the damage and it is going to be hard to focus people on the wide range of programs that have been cut.

Back to your original question, I don’t know how you deal with that other than it just comes back to making sure that representatives know beyond your support for specific programs that you don’t support these spending priorities overall. Making it clear that shifting $15 billion from these valuable programs that help a lot of different people across the country to defense spending, which is not terribly well specified.

It is a real challenge here that is going to be hard sometimes to communicate the dimensions. There are a wide variety of programs from work study to job training. These are things that are sort of abstract and difficult to talk about. That is a real challenge.

Sarah: The old canard about defense spending is it is distributed in every congressperson’s district so nobody will ever vote to cut their own district. I am wondering almost how that same thing plays out here where, again, we have a lot of Republicans representing poor rural districts that are going to disproportionately face the pain of these cuts and don't have local governments that can step in and mitigate some of that—the way that somebody who lives in New York City, whose members of Congress are obviously going to vote against any Trump budget anyway, but there is a New York City government that can at least mitigate some of the harm that Trump can do. Somebody who lives in rural Pennsylvania, where you are, or in Maine or in Arkansas doesn’t have that same option. I am wondering what things you are thinking that Republicans are already looking at and going, “I am going to get killed if I cut that?”

Mark: I think it just depends a lot on the nature of the individual member of Congress. If you have an ideological member who is deeply committed to the idea of shrinking government, the size of government, they are probably going to be somewhat impervious to various criticisms. Whereas, if you have got run-of-the-mill members who do listen to their communities, who got elected because they know people in the local community and are going to hear from them, I think there is certainly potential that, for instance—again, we are talking probably too much about Appalachia, but I think in Appalachia there is probably going to be some hesitance on the part of a number of Republicans based on the institutions and the local communities that have benefited from Appalachian Regional Commission economic development programs in the past. There is going to be some pushback that they are going to feel to defend that program, because it has provided real benefits to local communities. I think the extent to which these various programs do land that way, thinking about the job training programs, even housing assistance, some of the block grants for economic development, those things are most likely where there is going to be pressure not simply from voters, but where existing elected [leaders] and folks who are running community organizations are going to be pushing hard on those members to defend those priorities. I am not good at identifying where all of those will be, but certainly there will be a broad pushback on a lot of these cuts in a lot of these places for Republicans, especially.

Sarah: To wrap up, we are having this conversation because I think a lot of people are just now trying to figure out how processes like this work. What would you suggest for things people can read and ways that people who have not followed the workings of Congress and the budgeting process closely—where would you recommend people look to learn about how these things work?

Mark: One good place to start is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is a D.C. think tank that spends much of its time worrying about non-defense discretionary spending. The totally non-organizable term, but the things that capture investments in communities, low income housing assistance, food stamps, all of those. The center puts together little primers and one of their primers is on the federal budget process. It goes through and explains each step of the budget process and also gives folks some numbers and puts those numbers into proper context. “Here is how much discretionary spending represents of total spending.” That is a good place to start to get a basic understanding of the budget process in D.C. that we are going through. I think that is probably the best place to start.

Sarah: Finally, how can people keep up with you?

Mark: They can find me on the web at KeystoneResearch.org. There, they will see my research and the advocacy that I do. On Twitter you can follow me at @Price_LaborEcon.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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