President Trump’s budget proposals have taken a hatchet to President Obama’s top priorities. They’ve called for deep cuts in renewable energy, medical research, and non-military spending in general. They’ve eliminated TIGER, a grant program for innovative transportation projects created by Obama’s stimulus bill; ARPA-E, an energy research agency launched by the stimulus; and CDBG, a community development program many Republicans consider an urban slush fund.
Now the Republicans who control Congress have passed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill, and it not only protects Obama’s priorities, it expands them. It does far less for Trump’s stated priorities, and while his administration endorsed the bill Thursday, he tweeted a veto threat and expressed some apparent buyer’s remorse Friday after it passed.
The omnibus—Capitol Hill jargon for a single spending bill that funds most government functions—does not kill any of the programs or agencies Trump’s budget proposed to kill; it triples funding for TIGER, nearly doubles CDBG, and boosts ARPA-E’s budget by 16 percent. Trump wanted to slash the Energy Department’s renewables budget 65 percent; instead, Congress boosted it 14 percent. Trump proposed to keep non-military spending $54 billion below the congressional budget cap; the omnibus spends right up to the cap, a $63 billion increase from last year.
This is why the conservative National Review denounced the omnibus as “the sort of legislation that would have been right at home in the Obama administration,” while Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer gloated in a statement that its “job-creating, life-saving investments stand in sharp contrast to the Trump budget.” It basically extends the fiscal status quo that has prevailed since the start of Obama’s second term—plus a sizable chunk of new deficit spending—even though Republicans now control the legislative and executive branches.
“Throughout the Obama presidency, the Republican Party at least gave lip service to the need to restore fiscal sanity in Washington,” says Michael Needham, head of the conservative policy group Heritage Action. “It is now clear just how many in the GOP are willing to engage in profligate spending when they control the levels of power.”
Republicans are pleased that the omnibus hikes defense spending 10 percent, even more than Trump requested, including a 2.6 percent military pay raise Trump has already bragged about on Twitter. The White House also got $1.6 billion for border security, although the bill specifies it cannot be spent on the concrete wall the president wants. There’s a 6 percent cut in foreign aid and other State Department programs, less than the 25 percent cut in the Trump budget written by Office of Management and Budget chief Mick Mulvaney but still a significant rollback. And the omnibus did not include a specific line item for the Gateway rail tunnel project in New York City that Trump had called a deal-breaker, although Democrats are confident that Gateway will still get plenty of cash from the bill.
Still, given the power of Republicans in Congress and their usual deference to the president, it’s fairly remarkable how many of Trump’s budget priorities failed to hitch a ride on the omnibus. Not only won’t it build his wall—much less get Mexico to pay for it—it won’t cut funding for “sanctuary cities” or add new detention beds for undocumented immigrants. It won’t eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Legal Services Corporation, and actually provided modest funding increases for all three agencies. It won’t fund Trump administration proposals to expand school choice or replace food stamps with home-delivered boxes of food.
Mulvaney’s budget blueprint called for a dramatic shift in Washington’s fiscal trajectory, shrinking just about every domestic program that didn’t involve the military, veterans or the border. But it has been clear throughout the Trump era that the Republican leaders who clamored for austerity in the Obama era no longer care so passionately about shrinkage. The omnibus did not adopt Trump’s proposed cuts to Pell Grants for low-income students, Head Start for low-income children, the Centers for Disease Control or the National Institutes of Health, which all got more money than they got last year. The Environmental Protection Agency, which would have lost nearly a third of its budget if Trump had his way, was level-funded.
Those are presumably the kind of priorities Trump was grumbling about when he tweeted that he “had to waste money on Dem giveaways in order to take care of military pay increase and new equipment.” Trump has periodically threatened to shut down the government if Democrats wouldn’t meet his demands, but Republican leaders were clearly desperate for the Democratic votes they needed to keep the government open. The omnibus doesn’t even cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, a GOP priority that inspired a government shutdown under Obama.
Pelosi and Schumer’s gloating aside, Democrats did not get everything they wanted. The omnibus did not include the new protections they are seeking for undocumented “Dreamers” who came to America as kids, or new funding they want for stabilizing the Obamacare exchanges. But considering the balance of power in Congress, they got quite a lot they wanted that Trump didn’t want—including full funding for the 2020 census, money for states to bolster their election security and the FBI to fight Russian cyberattacks, and language blocking a proposed Trump administration rule that would have allowed employers to pocket tips earned by their workers. They insisted on expanding a tax credit for low-income housing development in exchange for allowing Republicans to fix a technical glitch in the recent tax bill. And they won a modest strengthening of gun background checks and a rollback of a ban on gun violence research by the CDC without having to accept a provision requiring states to honor concealed carry permits; conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus claimed GOP leaders had promised that provision would be part of the deal.
Presidential budgets are always dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, but the omnibus feels more like a product of Obama-era divided government than Trump-era Republican monopoly. Trump’s budgets floated the deepest cuts in research and other innovation investments that any administration has ever proposed. On Thursday, an analysis by Matt Hourihan of the American Association for the Advancement of Science concluded the omnibus would provide the largest increase in innovation funding since Obama’s 2009 stimulus, boosting America’s research budget 12.8 percent to its highest inflation-adjusted level ever. “Typically, when discretionary spending is increased, research funding moves along with it, and this year’s omnibus proves no exception,” Hourihan wrote.
The bill was crafted behind closed doors by congressional leaders—most back-benchers had less than a day to read its 2,232 pages—so it’s hard to say how much of it reflects genuine Republican enthusiasm for big government and how much reflects a political decision to cave to Democrats to avoid a shutdown on Trump’s watch. For years, limited-government conservatives have been frustrated by the compromises GOP leaders have made to avoid budgetary train wrecks, and House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows complained that “this omnibus doesn’t just forget the promises we made to voters—it flatly rejects them.”
At the very least, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided the omnibus wasn’t the ideal vehicle to push federal policy to the right. For example, rank-and-file Republicans tried to stuff it with scores of provisions rolling back environmental protections like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, but the only one major one that seems to have survived had significant bipartisan support, an amendment declaring that electricity produced by burning trees and other biomass is carbon-neutral. And even that scientifically dubious effort to resolve a controversy over climate policy by legislative fiat was scaled back; the original version would have made the change permanent, but the final version only lasts a year, and environmentalists vowed to fight the forestry industry to get rid of it in 2019.
“It remains a terrible precedent for Congress to codify fake science in the budget, but at least the language is not set in stone,” says Laura Haight, a senior policy advisor for the Partnership for Policy Integrity.
The inability of GOP leaders to undo environmental protections in a budget bill does not necessarily mean they’ve lost interest in undoing environmental protections. But given the additional $143 billion the omnibus will add to the federal deficit over the next six months—plus the $1.5 trillion the Republican tax bill will put on the national credit card over the next decade—it’s fair to say they’ve lost interest in reducing red ink. The federal deficit actually declined by two thirds on Obama’s watch after ballooning due to the Great Recession—partly because of his tax increases, partly because of the economic recovery, and partly because of Republican demands to hold the line on spending—but it is rising again under Trump, and could hit $1 trillion next year. Republicans still attack Democrats as big spenders, but the Tea Party rallies where they clamored for Washington to live within its means feel like vestiges of a bygone age.
The omnibus doesn’t really seem to have an ideological theme, other than more—more for defense, more for opioid treatment, more for infrastructure, more for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers that Mulvaney has denounced as a waste of money, and more goodies buried in the fine print. Section 731 of the bill’s Division A tweaks the Department of Agriculture’s Tree Assistance program to make sure that producers of pecans can get reimbursed for disaster losses in 2017 even if they didn’t lose 15 percent of their trees, the usual standard under the program. The top pecan-producing states are Texas and Georgia, which got hit last year by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma; House Agriculture Committee chairman Mike Conaway is from Texas, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is from Georgia.
“Somebody got inconvenienced, so now the government’s on the hook,” says Joshua Sewell, a senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “It’s easy to put something like that into a bill nobody’s going to read before they vote.”