A Guide to the Federal Budget Process

Sarah Jaffe speaks with a labor economist about budget basics, what's next in the process and what you can do, along with the "big gorilla in the room."

A Guide to the Federal Budget Process

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney takes questions from reporters during a briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on March 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This story is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers.

In this edited interview, Jaffe speaks with Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, a think tank in Pennsylvania. Price explains the president and Congress’ role in the federal budget process, what to expect next and how citizens can make a difference.



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

Mark Price: The president’s obligation is to put forward proposals for the full scale of the actual budget, including non-defense discretionary spending. Then, it also includes typically mandatory spending priorities — Medicare, Social Security and food stamps, for instance, are 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 discretionary spending that had long been put forward by various groups over the last several decades. For example, 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. 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 are in each of these areas if they end up becoming law. As the name of the budget implies, it is skinny and has deep cuts to non-discretionary spending, 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. We have until April for Congress to put forward its own budget resolution, its own priorities and spending in each of the areas that the president has proposed.

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

One of the things that I am seeing, at least, is a lot of energy. People are energized particularly around health care. 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 and 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 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. 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.

SJ: 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.

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

SJ: 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 wants 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?

MP: The pieces of the budget that he has put forward that we are seeing definitely fall into that broad group of Republican ideas about [how] “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 or a range of other 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 going to deficit reduction — but instead shifting to defense spending.

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.

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 that we will see going forward, in particular, on health care. As all of this is unfolding, it looks as though the effort on health care is really an effort to go after Medicaid. It is 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. It is reducing the safety net in the other direction, which is the opposite priority of the Affordable Care Act.

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. It is sort of very typical — 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.

SJ: Yes, and you get comments from certain people like Meals on Wheels not showing any results. 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 the 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.

They are sort of throwing as much mud on the wall as they possibly can to see what sticks.

MP: 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 toward government assistance, because it is seen as the opposite of independence.

Mixed in with all of this is this opioid addiction that 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 health care cuts that we are, at least, beginning to discuss or some of these discretionary programs 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, 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 from the president and parts of the House and the Senate.

SJ: 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…

One of the things that happens 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 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.

MP: You are absolutely right. Clearly, what a budget process is for any president — not just the Trump presidency, but for Obama, Reagan and others — is the initial proposals 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 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, as the last 10 days have made clear, is not going to happen. It is a pretty embarrassing cut for any member of the House or the Senate to stand behind, so it is unlikely to hold.

The Appalachian Regional Commission 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 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 21 percent 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 a 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 in 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.

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

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast. Her book, Necessary Trouble: America's New Radicals, was published by Nation Books in August 2016. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.