‘Crisis Budgeting’ Likely Ahead Despite White House Claim

‘All sorts of riders’ could bring new shutdown threats, experts say

Copies of President Donald Trump’’s 2019 budget request are unpacked by House Budget Committee staff on Monday. Experts say it won’t end Washington’s decade of ‘crisis budgeting.’ (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Copies of President Donald Trump’’s 2019 budget request are unpacked by House Budget Committee staff on Monday. Experts say it won’t end Washington’s decade of ‘crisis budgeting.’ (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 13, 2018 at 5:05am

White House officials contend the two-year budget deal that became law last week will end Washington’s spending crises and government shutdown threats. But President Donald Trump’s new budget request suggests otherwise.

Trump himself was lukewarm about the spending package he signed last week, which raised defense and domestic spending caps for the remaining seven-and-a-half months of this fiscal year and the next. And the president had little to say about the fiscal 2019 budget blueprint his administration sent to Capitol Hill on Monday. But his top aides painted each one as game-changing documents.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the 2019 plan, if enacted, would “reverse … trends” the Trump administration inherited, like “a crumbling infrastructure, growing deficits, rogue nations, and irresponsible Washington spending.” He also contended it will “ensure greater prosperity for the hard-working American taxpayer.”

The bold predictions about the fiscal 2019 spending plan came just days after senior White House and administration officials predicted the same of the bipartisan pact to spend a collective $300 billion more during those two years than would have been allowed under the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Watch: Trump’s Budget Request Won’t End the Cycle of Crisis Budgeting

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“This deal increases the debt ceiling to March of 2019, which moves us away from crisis-to-crisis budgeting,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Feb. 7. “We’re certainly happy … that we’re moving away from the crisis budgeting that we’ve been on in the past.”

[Budget Won’t Balance as Economic Growth Dividend Shrinks]

To be sure, how to handle an expiring federal borrowing limit has indeed triggered crises over the past decade, particularly the 2013 “fiscal cliff.” But the Trump and Obama administrations have had to deal with shutdown threats and budgetary crisis points mostly because the 44th and 45th presidents — along with their political parties on Capitol Hill — had major disagreements on how much taxpayer money to spend and on what.

“I still have hopes of a date with Elle McPherson,” said Steve Bell, a former senior aide on the Senate Budget and Appropriations committees who is now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “The odds of that happening are about the same odds that a Trump budget would bring an end to ‘crisis budgeting.’”

Shutdown slowdown?

Other longtime budget observers were similarly skeptical, even as Sanders on Monday contended the plan will “rebuild” the U.S. military, which she said has been “ignored for so long,” and Mulvaney said it is based on “real numbers” rather than “plugs,” meaning gimmicks to, for instance, make it appear that a budget plan balances. (The Trump 2019 plan does not.)

“Just because Republicans agreed to raise the caps does not mean there is agreement on how to spend the money within the caps,” said Todd Harrison, a federal budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The end of crisis-to-crisis budgeting that Sanders promised last week “is not guaranteed,” Harrison said. A big reason? GOP lawmakers have a history of inserting provisions into spending bills that would gut or negatively affect programs important to Democrats, as they did repeatedly during Obama’s second term after grabbing control of both chambers.

Because a handful of Democratic senators must vote with Republicans to pass spending bills, shutdown threats are not likely to be going anywhere, despite the White House’s typically bold rhetoric.

“And since appropriations bills are among the few bills that will eventually pass each year, they inevitably become a target for all sorts of riders that could slow or derail them,” Harrison said Monday. “So Congress certainly has a better chance of getting the fiscal 2019 appropriations bills passed in a timely fashion this year, but it is far from certain.”

Should a politically white-hot policy rider end up in whatever lawmakers try to pass to keep the federal lights on beyond March 23, when the latest stopgap spending bill expires, the cycle could continue.

Ifs, ands and cuts

Down the road, experts expect Senate Democrats to object to the deep cuts to domestic spending the administration is proposing in its fiscal 2019 spending plan, which BPC’s Bell said “are going nowhere — end of discussion.”

Senate Democrats said as much Monday. Their leader, Charles E. Schumer of New York, put their collective rejection of the plan succinctly. The 2019 blueprint shows Trump’s agenda is calibrated for “the rich and powerful at the expense of the middle class,” he said.

[House Appropriators Ready to Carve Up Budget Deal]

“It is utterly astounding that just six weeks after slashing taxes on the wealthy and biggest corporations, creating a huge deficit, the president asks older Americans and middle-class Americans to make up the difference by slashing Medicare and Medicaid,” Schumer said.

Democrats’ response on Monday suggests more turbulence ahead. “Congress simply cannot and will not address substantive budget challenges, nor does Trump’s budget,” Bell said.

G. William Hoagland, also a former Senate aide now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, noted that the reasons “this — or any budget — will not end ‘crisis budgeting’” largely are rooted in the country’s increasing red-versus-blue mentality.

“Real budgeting — allocating limited resources for unlimited desires, setting priorities, making trade-offs with alternative policies, debating goals and objectives, just passing individual appropriation bills — is difficult under the best of circumstances,” he said Monday. “But when you have a country divided as much as this one is on what the role of government should be, you will always have ‘crisis budgeting.’”

For his part, the president on Monday appeared much more interested in his long-promised plan to upgrade the country’s roads, airports, bridges, water systems, energy grids and seaports. He called it a “big week” — not for his litany of spending proposals, but for his infrastructure plan. “After so stupidly spending $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is now time to start investing in OUR Country!” Trump tweeted shortly before 8 a.m.

“We’re going to get the roads in great shape,” Trump said later during an infrastructure meeting at the White House. “Washington no longer will be a roadblock to progress.”

Just before the 45th president drowned out his own budget plan with big promises about infrastructure, the 44th chief executive was across town throwing shade at his successor.

“We miss you folks,” former President Barack Obama told former aides as the Smithsonian Institution unveiled his official portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, about a 15-minute walk from the White House. He then took a shot at Trump and his scandal-plagued staff, telling his former aides he and wife Michelle Obama also miss “how you carried yourselves.”

Watch: If There’s a Deal, Then What’s Up With Trump’s Budget Request?

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