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Donald Trump's first budget outline, explained

Sean Spicer Holds Daily Press Briefing At White House
Budget director Mick Mulvaney.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

President Donald Trump’s first official budget document includes massive changes to the one-third of federal spending going to “discretionary” programs. Programs to mitigate climate change are cut or eliminated across the government. Programs to assist the poor are slashed. And while almost every department would face large cuts, three would see sizable increases in spending: Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.

The impact of the cuts and hikes laid out in the document would be massive. Trump wants to fund a border wall, deportation raids, a hiring spree for Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and purchases of new F-35 fighter jets and a variety of Navy vessels. And it would dramatically hamper enforcement of environmental and labor regulations, end grant and loan programs for clean energy and disadvantaged regions, and significantly reduce funding for biomedical research.

The document is a “skinny” budget that ignores taxes and entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps. It only specifies changes to “discretionary” spending by agencies. In total, this is about a third of the overall federal budget; non-defense discretionary is about 16 percent.

The budget will not pass in full, and provisions are already provoking political backlash on Capitol Hill. It will be up to Congress to actually implement spending policy; Trump can only offer suggestions. But the document is revealing and important nonetheless. It gives a clear signal of the administration’s priorities on agency spending, and signals that it will support any efforts by Congress to crack down on international programs, environmental protection, and anti-poverty programs.

Even given its somewhat limited purview, though, the consequences are massive:

  • $639 billion in total defense spending, including both base budget and Overseas Contingency Operations (the war budget) — a $52 billion increase.
  • Increases of 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively, for the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Veterans Affairs. That includes funding for a border wall, $1.5 billion more to remove undocumented immigrants, $314 million to hire more Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and a $667 million reduction in grants to state and local governments, including FEMA grants.
  • A 31 percent cut in the Environmental Protection Agency budget, from $8.2 billion down to $5.7 billion, the lowest level (after adjusting for inflation) in 40 years and below where even congressional Republicans wanted it. More than 50 programs would be eliminated, as would 3,200 jobs. Specifically, the budget "discontinues funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts,” and reduces Superfund cleanup funding.
  • A 28 percent cut in the State Department budget, with particularly harsh cuts to the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The Global Climate Change Initiative and UN climate change programs would see funding cut off, other UN funding including peacekeeping would be cut, and development banks like the World Bank would see $650 million in cuts over three years.
  • Significant cuts to just about every other department, including 21 percent to Agriculture and Labor, 18 percent to Health and Human Services, 16 percent to Commerce, 14 percent to Education, 13 percent to Housing and Urban Development, 13 percent to Transportation, and 12 percent to Interior. The Education Department would get $1.4 billion for new school choice programs, including private school vouchers, but see cuts to before-school, after-school, and summer programs, a $2.4 billion teacher professional development program, and need-based grants that help with college tuition.
  • Huge cuts to medical and science research spending, including a $6 billion or 18 percent reduction in the National Institutes for Health budget, a $900 million cut to the Energy Department's Office of Science, a $250 million cut to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grants for research and education, and eliminating the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.
  • Total elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, the United States Institute of Peace, and 14 other agencies.

The budget includes major cuts to climate change programs

Among other goals, the budget appears designed to totally unwind the Obama administration’s government-wide commitment to combating climate change.

The antipathy toward climate change programs begins with the EPA, where funding cuts focus on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, climate change research, international climate change programs, and so forth. But it doesn’t end there.

The State Department cuts also make a point to end the Global Climate Change Initiative and other international efforts on the issue. The Commerce Department reductions includes significant cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of the major agencies conducting climate change research, and the budget outlines relatively mild cuts to NASA that target its Earth science programs.

The budget outline eliminates funding for TIGER, a grant-making program in the Transportation Department, most of whose funding has gone to "rail, transit and bicycle projects designed to reduce carbon emissions as well as congestion," per Politico's Michael Grunwald. And the Energy Department budget eliminates two programs providing loans for companies working on clean energy and clean vehicles, respectively, as well as ARPA-Energy, a widely praised agency created in the 2009 stimulus bill that provides early-stage funding for clean energy research and development that venture capital often won’t.

The budget document is literally titled, “America First,” so it’s perhaps not a shock that international programs come in for particularly large cuts. At the State Department, educational and cultural exchange programs other the Fulbright Program would be eliminated. The US commitment to international organizations ranging from the UN to the World Bank would be drawn down. Even military aid abroad would be shifted from grants to loans as a cost-saving measure.

But the cuts extend beyond State and USAID. In the Department of Agriculture, for instance, the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education program is eliminated — a program that aims to combat world hunger, helped feed more than 2 million people in 2016, and won the 2008 World Food Prize for the former US senators who pushed for its passage.

The National Institutes of Health's only division devoted to global health, is eliminated. The Bureau of International Labor Affairs in the Labor Department would see its grant program eliminated.

At State and USAID, the Fulbright Program would be preserved, but other Educational and Cultural Exchange programs would be cut. The budget insists it "provides sufficient resources to maintain current commitments and all current patient levels" for PEPFAR, the federal government's premier anti-HIV/AIDS program, "maintains funding for malaria programs," and "meets US commitments to the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria." But it also states that it "refocuses economic and development assistance to countries of greatest strategic importance to the US.”

In other words: While global health funding may continue to go to places of greatest need, other development aid will be redirected to focus less on need and more on US strategy. Already, though, aid dollars are allocated based more on geopolitics than humanitarian necessity.

Discretionary programs for the poor are slashed

Most of the major programs for the poor are mandatory spending programs, and so they’re not part of the skinny budget: Medicaid, SNAP/food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income, and other programs that help low-income Americans get by.

Still, even given those constraints, Trump’s budget outline does what it can to reduce anti-poverty spending. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which directly provides baby formula, healthy foods, nutrition counseling, and more to poor mothers with young children, would see funding reduced to $6.2 billion, from $6.4 billion.

The Legal Services Corporation, which provides funding for legal aid groups to support the poor in civil cases (suing a landlord for a wrongful eviction or a boss for wrongful termination, say), would be totally eliminated. The Community Development Block Grant program, which assists local and state governments with programs like Meals on Wheels, infrastructure improvements, and the like, would go away entirely.

So too would the Choice Neighborhoods program, a neighborhood revitalization program aimed at poor areas, and the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, a block-grant for state and local governments to spend on affordable housing programs. Also gone: the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, which provides financial assistance for poor college students.

These cuts aren’t as huge as the mandatory ones likely forthcoming in May — or, for that matter, included in the health care bill Congress is currently weighing. But they’re what would happen if you went through the discretionary budget with a fine-tooth comb looking for every program designed to help poor people, and then eliminated them all.