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.

Sarah Jaffe

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

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. 

"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."

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 Key​stoneRe​search​.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 for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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