Briefing Book

The Budgetary Hunger Games

Instead of pitting program against program, activists must make clear that disinvestment itself is the core problem.

By Martha Coven

Tagged budgetProtestsTrump Administration

On one level, the public response to the Trump Administration’s “skinny budget” has been heartening. Americans are rallying behind the arts, environmental protection, national service, affordable housing, after-school programs, health research, and other causes.

But there is a danger lurking here, as well. If we’re not careful, we may just end up playing a budgetary version of The Hunger Games.

That’s because what’s wrong with the Trump budget is how deeply it cuts, and not just where those cuts land. If the petitions and grassroots alerts flying about the country don’t first and foremost make clear that disinvestment itself is the core problem, advocates risk pitting program against program. And in Hunger Games like these, only the wiliest survive, while the rest are left to perish.

Non-defense discretionary spending—the budgetary category President Trump proposes to cut even more deeply to finance a defense build-up—is headed for a 50-year low as a share of GDP. Remember, this is the part of the budget that makes sure our laws are enforced and that the American people—not just the poor, but the broad middle class—get the services they expect from their government. When it comes to non-defense discretionary budgeting, instead of fighting over table scraps, we should ask whether there’s enough there to eat in the first place.

To be clear, program cuts and eliminations aren’t inherently bad. Not every federal dollar is currently well-spent, and the Obama Administration proposed cutting some of the same programs Trump is now targeting. But that doesn’t mean we need to walk away from a commitment to deliver quality services to the public. If an education or training program doesn’t prove effective, we should redirect those funds to strategies that do work, not give up on building the skills of the American workforce. That’s what the best budgets do: make intelligent decisions about how to invest public resources to advance our nation and the world we live in.

Victory in this battle is not getting the most names on your favorite program’s sign-on letter, only to see those cuts come out of another worthy program. Victory is getting Congress to reject the very notion of disinvestment—of cuts for cuts’ sake. That includes stopping the new round of cuts that will be triggered in FY 2018 by current law sequestration rules—if no action is taken to reverse them. In other words, what we really need is to secure a commitment to support a more adequate topline.

In addition, such letters can actually end up providing political cover for legislators who voice support for individual programs, but then vote for aggregate reductions through the annual budget resolution or by supporting a defense appropriations bill that relies on deep domestic cuts.

The media sometimes aids and abets this strategy, as it did in playing up the risks to Meals on Wheels from the Trump budget (which would be fairly limited, as The Washington Post later explained). That made it all too easy for Republicans in Congress to don their capes and swoop in to save the camera-friendly program (which is not even a federal program) without actually having to do or say anything about the bigger budget picture.

At the end of The Hunger Games series (spoiler alert!), the Mockingjay bands together with others from across the land—not just her own “district”—to break free of the controlling regime that had forced district representatives to fight one another to the death each year.

We can learn a lot from the arts. If they survive the budgetary Hunger Games, that is.

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Martha Coven served in the Obama White House as special assistant to the President at the Domestic Policy Council and associate director at the Office of Management and Budget. She is a visiting professor at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs. The views expressed here are her own.

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