O'BRIEN: Trump’s budget outline reveals foolish spending priorities

Opinions Column: Policy Over Politics

As Republican leadership seeks to pass and sign into law the first full federal budget since 1997, the White House waded into the discussion with a proposed discretionary spending plan last week. President Donald J. Trump and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney proposed a huge boost in defense spending and equally large cuts elsewhere in government. While this plan  only covers about a third of the total budget it reveals the president’s misguided priorities that will harm the poor, the environment and American businesses.

The spending outline, or the “skinny budget,” adds $54 billion in defense spending and corresponding cuts in domestic spending. The biggest victim is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which would see a 31 percent reduction in funding and 3,200 jobs cut. Climate change research would end. The Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama’s initiative to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, would be defunded. The Department of State would see vast cuts in its budget, reducing aid to third-world countries and United Nations peacekeeping missions in unstable parts of the world. The  Department of Labor would have job-training programs for the poor drastically cut. The Department of Housing and Urban Development grant funds supporting anti-poverty programs like “Meals on Wheels” would be axed. Federal work-study and financial aid programs utilized by Rutgers students would be cut.

The vast majority of this money would be funneled to the Department of Defense. Over the next few years, Trump plans to build 75 new ships for the Navy, 100 more aircraft for the Air Force and add 70,000 active duty military personnel to the Army and Marine Corps.

This spending outline makes Trump’s promise to put “America First” disingenuous. Instead of presenting a budget that invests in the American people, the scientific innovation that drives American businesses and the anti-poverty programs that empower the nation’s working poor, Trump will line the pockets of military contractors and shovels money towards the most wasteful entity in the federal government.

The proposed cuts in research are underreported but immensely important. The federal government has invested billions in what’s called “basic science” for decades because no one else will. This research usually doesn’t produce immediate applications, but often serves as the basis for later technologies and medical breakthroughs. The proposal makes sharp cuts to Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health research programs, among others.

In the realm of environmental protection, the famous Superfund program, which cleans toxic waste sites around the country, will see its funding cut by over 30 percent. A Department of Agriculture grant and loan program that helps rural and tribal communities clean their water supplies will be completely eliminated.

If Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan truly want to reduce spending, education, anti-poverty programs and environmental protection should be the last items on the chopping block. They should instead target the biggest wasteful spender in Washington — the military. In 2015, the Pentagon buried an internal study showing that it could save $125 billion over five years without laying off any military or civilian personnel. Following through on that report’s recommendations alone covers almost half of the proposed spending increases. Instead of cutting meals to homebound, disabled seniors, perhaps it would be a good idea to start with the $640 toilet seats, a $1 billion Navy destroyer the Department of Defense never requested, or the $2 billion worth of domestic military bases even the Pentagon says are no longer necessary.

Military spending has become the sacred cow of the federal appropriations process. Need takes a back seat to how many jobs are in which Congressional districts and how much Lockheed Martin contributes to House of Representatives and Senate campaigns. Feeding the beast will not solve the problem and only encourage more wasteful spending.

While I’m no deficit hawk, it’s frustrating to see so much money wasted that could go toward solving pressing issues at home. Obama’s proposal to make community college tuition-free and invest in high-skilled training programs, for example, would have come at an average cost of just $6 billion a year. At a time when millions of low-skilled workers are watching their pay gradually decline, a new injection of human capital investment for the working class may be just the remedy we need to halt growing income inequality, reduce poverty and cement the presence of high-end manufacturing in America. It remains a pipe dream.

This plan is certainly far from becoming law and is likely to be amended dozens of times in Congress if it’s even considered at all. But it’s the point from which the president will be negotiating and a very public statement of the direction he wants to take the government. And his message is clear: the longstanding tradition of prioritizing wasteful military spending over the welfare of average Americans will continue.

Connor O'Brien is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in economics with a minor in history. His column, "Policy Over Politics," runs on alternate Thursdays.

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