White House fires opening salvo in budget skirmish

Andrew Taylor
Associated Press
The White House is reflected in a puddle from the melting snow on Feb. 21, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Washington – The White House fired an opening salvo Monday in an upcoming fight with Capitol Hill Democrats over spending on domestic agencies that face sharp budget cuts without a new budget deal.

The military faces cuts, too, but White House Budget chief Russ Vought writes in a RealClearPolitics opinion piece that the Trump administration will seek to use a budget gimmick to exempt the Pentagon from automatic spending caps written into a 2011 budget agreement.

Vought says the administration will classify tens of billions of dollars in Pentagon operating costs as overseas military spending that doesn’t count against shrinking budget “caps” while denying Democrats the money they want to protect domestic agencies against cuts. Democrats are sure to fight the idea.

“Time and again, Congress has ignored presidential cost-saving recommendations and plowed ahead with irresponsible budgets that increase both spending and the size of government,” Vought said. “This needs to stop.”

Trump is submitting his 2020 budget next month. Vought said the budget will seek a 5 percent cut to non-defense programs budgeted by Congress each year.

In fact, Trump has routinely submitted suggestions for spending cuts that were promptly shelved even when Republicans fully controlled Congress. Instead, 18 months ago, Trump signed onto a budget pact that raised spending by $300 billion over 2018-19 years, awarding record increases to both the Pentagon and domestic agencies.

The 2011 budget deal between tea party House Republicans and former President Barack Obama promised major deficit cuts from a heralded “supercommittee,” but that panel failed and left in place tough spending cuts that lawmakers have been unable and unwilling to live within.

“President Trump has already submitted two extreme budget requests filled with destructive cuts that Congress completely rejected,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. “The third Trump budget will be more of the same.”

Without action by Congress, a 10 percent budget cut awaits both the Pentagon and non-defense agencies. Democrats controlling the House are unlikely to give the Pentagon any relief without comparable help for domestic programs. But any deal seems months away and Capitol Hill’s appropriations committees are likely to get started on their own.

One option would be to link any budget pact with must-do legislation to increase the government’s borrowing limit this summer. That’s been a template used in the past.

“In each of these deals, Democrats in Congress held defense spending increases hostage for increases in domestic spending,” Vought wrote. “We should expect more of the same from Democrats this year.”