The saying "a budget is a moral document" has become almost a cliche, something that people repeat whenever anyone assembles a budget for the federal government. Interestingly enough, it's usually liberals who say it, while conservatives aren't particularly eager to cast their budgetary choices in the light of morality. There's a good reason for that.
But before we get to that reason, let's take a look at the budget the White House released on Monday. It should be said that this budget won't actually become law — Congress writes budgets, and Democrats and Republicans just made an agreement that will cover government spending for the next two years — but the president's budget is always a window into the administration's thinking and priorities. In this case, that window opens on an ugly place, where the world the Republican Party would like to see is laid out in all its hideous glory.
Let's take a look at just some of the highlights. The budget would do the following:
- Spend $716 billion this year on the military
- Spend $18 billion over two years to build a border wall
- Cut $554 billion from Medicare over 10 years
- Cut $250 billion from Medicaid over 10 years
- Cut $214 billion from food stamps over 10 years
- Cut the EPA's budget by 34 percent
- Cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget by 14 percent, including eliminating the fund that pays for capital repairs to public housing
- Eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides funding to PBS and NPR
- Eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities
- Eliminate the Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal help to poor Americans
- Eliminate the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which ensures that poor Americans don't freeze to death in the winter
- Cut funding for Amtrak in half
- Eliminate ARPA-E, which does cutting-edge research on energy technology
Now tell me those aren't moral choices.
If you're looking for a silver lining, you might observe that unlike prior Republican budgets, this one does not pretend that it will be balanced in 10 years. Which might sound like some admirable candor, were it not for the fact that this one is as full of magic asterisks, fairy dust, and unicorn kisses as ever. Most importantly, it assumes that GDP growth will quickly top 3 percent then stay that high through 2024, a stretch unlike anything we've seen in decades. That allows them to say they aren't ballooning the deficit as much as they actually would.
The budget also includes items like $139 billion in savings achieved by reducing "improper payments government wide." It's almost impossible to tell what they're talking about, but it sounds a lot like what we used to call "waste, fraud, and abuse," which is shorthand for "we can reduce the budget by huge amounts without cutting anything anybody actually likes." It never seemed to work out, not because there isn't waste, fraud, and abuse in the government; there is, just as there is in any large organization, and the U.S. government is the largest organization on Earth. No, the problem has always been that it's hard to ferret out, and what we can find never amounts to anywhere near what people hope.
To get back to the question of the moral beliefs embedded in a budget like this one, that's language Republicans would prefer to avoid. They'd rather say that we have to set priorities when we have finite resources, and though we'd like to do everything, there are some things we just can't do.
The problem with this line of argument is that Republicans don't treat resources as finite when they involve programs they like. We spend nearly as much on our military as every other country in the world combined — worldwide military spending in 2016 was estimated at a little under $1.7 trillion, and this year we will be spending over $700 billion. No Republican ever says, "We'd like to spend more on the military, but as a country we just can't afford it." Their attitude is always more, more, more, and if we have to increase the deficit to do it, that's what we'll do.
Yet when it comes to domestic programs, they don their green eyeshades and say somberly, "We'd love to, but the money just isn't there." And that, of course, comes after they just passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut, most of the benefits of which went to corporations and the wealthy. So when they say "we can't afford that," what they actually mean is, "we don't want to do that at all, but we're going to pretend it's because we can't afford it."
That deception is necessary because so many of the programs Republicans want to cut are tremendously popular. Only a few of them will say outright that government shouldn't provide health insurance to people, but that's what their philosophy dictates. So every year they try to chip away at Medicare and Medicaid, mounting the occasional frontal assault only to retreat when the public gets wind of it and recoils in horror.
But look back at that list, and consider what kind of country Republicans are trying to create. It's one where everyone's on their own and everyone's out for themselves, where we don't expect much from our government apart from building bombs and building walls.
Very few Americans will slog through the budget documents, and not that many will even read detailed news articles about them; we all know it isn't the jazziest of subjects. But if you want to know what this administration and the party it represents believe, it's all there in black and white.