The president’s annual budget request is just that: a request, sent to Congress, for legislators to glance at for five seconds before disposing in the paper shredder. It has no force of law, which is why it is often portrayed as the White House’s “statement of priorities” for the coming fiscal year. White Houses are typically in on the joke and understand that they’re offering a symbolic document.
But what if this White House isn’t in on the joke and expects something resembling its vision of government spending to take effect in the next fiscal year? Then what it has offered, in the fiscal 2020 budget request it released Monday, is not just a statement of priorities. It’s a blueprint for the next government shutdown.
In addition to asking for another $8.6 billion to build “the wall” next year—about the same amount that President Donald Trump is trying to stitch together this year from appropriations, transfers, and national emergencies—the president’s request is anchored in another, more fundamental non-starter with congressional Democrats: broad cuts to non-defense spending paired with a sizable increase in defense spending.
The last budget agreement Congress reached, in early 2018, significantly lifted both non-defense and defense spending. Those large increases are set to expire at the end of September, and without a new agreement, the government would see 9-percent cuts to non-defense spending and 11-percent cuts to defense spending. Preventing that from happening is one of Congress’ top priorities this year.
The White House’s only priority, though, is boosting military spending—and it would be more than pleased to see non-defense spending fall off of a cliff. In its new budget, defense spending would increase from $716 billion to $750 billion next year, while non-defense spending would fall from $620 billion to $567 billion. The cuts would come from food stamps, health care, the Environmental Protection Agency, and education, to name just a few.
The administration’s long-term vision would only widen the chasm. Over the course of the 10-year outlook that the White House put together, defense spending would continue to increase year after year, while non-defense spending would continue to shrink. If the White House had its way, then, by 2029, defense spending would be $817 billion while non-defense spending would be $458 billion.
The reason that the defense and non-defense budgets have been kept relatively close in recent years, even when the government has been under unified Republican control, is that it’s been the only way to get out of congressional gridlock. Republicans would have been perfectly happy to boost defense and cut domestic spending. But they couldn’t get such legislation past the Senate’s 60-vote requirement. Democrats used that leverage to ensure Republicans wouldn’t get their defense spending increase if Democrats didn’t get their boosts to domestic programs.
This negotiating posture enrages Republicans. President Trump has persistently griped about how Democrats hold military money hostage to secure “wasteful” and “needless” domestic spending. But it works: In the last budget deal, Republicans eventually gave in to Democrats’ domestic increase to secure the defense-spending boost that Trump had campaigned on.
The president and congressional Republicans were embarrassed by the last budget deal, which lead to endless headlines about how the debt and deficit concerns they professed to care about under a Democratic president disappeared once Republicans took back the White House. They will find it painful to agree to such a deal again.
But if the White House is serious about executing the alternate course it lays out in this budget—blowing up the relative “parity” between defense and non-defense spending—they’ll find themselves doing so from a significantly worse negotiating position than last time. Nancy Pelosi is speaker now, not Paul Ryan, and she will simply never call up a bill that carries even a whiff of the president’s budget proposal. There will still have to be bipartisan spending negotiations, the easiest answer to which is always giving Republicans what they want (increases to defense spending) in exchange for giving Democrats what they want (increases to non-defense spending).
If Trump proclaims that he won’t sign such a deal, he’ll have cornered himself, and the country will again careen toward a government shutdown. In other words, it sounds exactly like the move that would appeal to him most.