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Trump’s Budget Cuts Distract from Nation’s Much Larger Fiscal Problems

Eric Pianin
9 Top Takeaways From Trump’s $4 Trillion Federal Budget

In what might be the opening salvo in the coming budget wars this year, the Trump Administration’s Office of Management and Budget has targeted a group of long-standing programs with strong Democratic support for deep cuts or elimination.

The list of the nine government programs in President Trump’s crosshairs, first reported on Saturday by The New York Times, includes many familiar GOP targets that have managed to survive for decades, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities.

Related: Five Big Challenges Facing Trump’s New Budget Chief

Republican efforts to do in Big Bird and public television, slash funding for the arts and sciences and undermine overseas economic development programs are evergreens that date back to the Republican Revolution of the 1990s spearheaded by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

Mounting attacks on these and other programs have always proved to be good political theater for the GOP, even though the amounts of money at stake were relatively meager and the Democrats time and again blunted the attacks as part of the give and take of the appropriations process. What’s more, the amounts at stake represented a minuscule fraction of the nearly $4 trillion annual federal budget.

As The Times noted, the targeted programs – which also include the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Appalachian Regional Commission –  each one costs under $500 million a year -- or a total of about $2.5 billion annually.

While that total is nothing to sneeze at, it amounts to small change compared to the trillions of dollars that Trump and the congressional Republicans intend to spend this year on corporate and individual tax cuts, a major military and missile defense buildup, new infrastructure and an assortment of other campaign promises.

Related: The GOP’s Big Tax Dilemma: Repealing Obamacare Taxes

Moreover, the Republican-controlled Congress is in the throes of an historic debate over the future of the Affordable Care Act and the nation’s health care system. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and other House and Senate GOP leaders are contemplating dramatic changes in Medicaid and Medicare, the health care programs for the poor and elderly and two of the biggest drivers of the country’s long-term debt.

Trump and his new OMB director, Mick Mulvaney, will have a chance this spring to weigh in on a package of spending bills for the current fiscal year that must be completed to avoid a government shutdown. Trump repeatedly promised during the campaign to attack government “waste, fraud and abuse,” and we are likely to see him cite programs on his hit list as prime examples of that waste.

But by targeting these programs, Trump may well be trying to distract the public’s attention away from the Republicans’ far more important “deficit-be-damned” fiscal and budget policies that some experts project will add at least $7 trillion to the debt over the coming decade.

Related: Republicans Eye Medicaid Cuts to Help Finance Their New Health Plan

As Steve Bell, a former Republican Senate Budget Committee staff director, told the Times, the nine targeted programs have little if no real impact on the government’s overall financial picture.

“It’s sad in a way because these programs aren’t causing the deficit,” said Bell, who is now an official with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “These programs don’t amount to a hill of beans.”

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