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I read Trump's budget with an expert. His take: it's based on phony assumptions.

There are some decent ideas here, but the numbers don’t add up.

OMB Director Mick Mulvaney speaks to the media about President Trump's budget during a briefing at the White House.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s first comprehensive budget proposal has eight “pillars of reform,” which collectively promise to replace “our current economic stagnation with faster economic growth.”

These pillars represent the foundation of Trump’s budget. But what do they actually mean? Are they just aspirational declarations or are they the basis of a concrete plan?

I reached out to Marc Goldwein, the senior vice president and senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The CRFB is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group and an objective resource for policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Goldwein’s focus is on the federal budget, and he works regularly with members of Congress on budget-related issues.

He was kind (and patient) enough to walk through these pillars with me, one by one. I wanted to know if the specific plans outlined in the text align with the commitments Trump is making in this proposal.

Below, I juxtapose each pillar, exactly as it’s phrased in the document, alongside Goldwein’s assessment of what’s actually said in the corresponding section of the proposal.

It’s worth repeating that Goldwein is not a partisan. His criticisms are measured and he admits that there are a few promising ideas in this proposal. The problem, however, is that even when the budget hints at a good idea, it is not detailed enough to meaningfully analyze it.

But, vague though it is, this much is clear: As a moral document, this budget prioritizes the rich over the poor and tax cuts over social safety nets. Republican senators have already declared it “dead on arrival,” but if it were to become law, it would be utterly devastating to poor and working-class Americans.

Health reform

What Trumps budget promises

We need to enable Americans to buy the healthcare they need at a price they can afford. To this end, we must repeal Obamacare and its burdensome regulations and mandates, and replace it with a framework that restores choice and competition ... Additionally, Medicaid, which inadequately serves enrollees and taxpayers, must be reformed to allow States to manage their own programs, with continued financial support from the Federal Government.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

In health reform, as in a lot of these areas, what they're actually doing is punting on the details. In their defense, this is not totally uncommon, particularly in a first full budget, but what they're basically saying is, “We're doing something like the Congressional Health Care Plan, but we don't have all the details yet.”

I think the plan that passed the House replaces the existing subsidies with more of a flat tax credit. It scales back dramatically the Medicaid expansion ($880 billion in cuts) and has some further Medicaid reductions. It does have some health reforms that will reduce cost and save money, but by and large it's 1.3 trillion dollars of net spending cuts and a trillion dollars of less revenue, a good part of that being tax cuts by cutting the Affordable Care Act taxes and some of that being getting rid of the mandates and other things like that.

I think there's some reason to think that where they're headed we'll have cheaper prices for many Americans, particularly if we're just talking about premiums, as opposed to premiums and cost sharing. I don't think there's any evidence that their plan is going to give more people health care. I think it's going to be quite the opposite.

Tax reform

What Trump’s budget promises

We must reduce the tax burden on American workers and businesses, so that we can maximize incomes and economic growth. We must also simplify our tax system, so that individuals and businesses do not waste countless hours and resources simply paying their taxes.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

This is the same situation as with health care reform. The details are nowhere to be found. We've spent the past month talking about the administration's tax plan and yet it's pretty much nowhere to be found in this budget. There is a paragraph where it talks about the basic principles of tax reform at a very high level. Actually, there's less detail in their budget than there was in the one-pager that President Trump released a month or so ago.

From this budget alone, we really can't tell very much about what they're doing on tax reform. From the one pager, all we know so far is that they want to drastically reduce the tax rate. I think that their individual income tax plan actually looks pretty reasonable to me overall. It's missing a couple trillion dollars, but there's no reason to think that couldn't be made up with tax expenditure reform. Their business tax plans are incredibly aggressive reductions in corporate and business tax rates without any clear plan or even any clear way to pay for them.

The president's budget says there are no tax cuts from tax reform. The one-pager and the press coverage surrounding that told us that they're going to have the largest tax cuts for individuals and businesses in history. Then, rhetorically, we've heard that they want this to be a middle-class tax cut. But when you look at what they want to do with the estate tax and what they want to do with the corporate tax and what they want to do with the Obamacare taxes, these cuts are going mainly to the highest earners.

Immigration reform

What Trump’s budget promises

We must reform immigration policy so that it serves our national interest. We will adopt commonsense proposals that protect American workers, reduce burdens on taxpayers and public resources, and focus Federal funds on underserved and disadvantaged citizens.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

I realize I’m repeating myself here, but the truth is that there just isn’t much detail here. I understand that these pillars are administration priorities, and that a first budget isn’t going to have all the details, but there's very little here. There is some significant money for border security, of course. There is a 6.8 percent increase in overall funding for the Department of Homeland Security, and something like $2.6 billion to help pay for a wall on the Southern border. There is also some discussion about how we need to enforce immigration rules.

But we're not seeing any kind of comprehensive immigration reform plan, even the kind of reform plan that I know many folks wouldn't like because it would be the opposite of the Senate plan, but we're not seeing that either. For all the rhetoric we hear, it’s just not clear what they plan to do here.

Reducing federal spending

What Trump’s budget promises

We must scrutinize every dollar the Federal Government spends. Just as families decide how to manage limited budgets, we must ensure the Federal Government spends precious taxpayer dollars only on our highest national priorities, and always in the most efficient, effective manner.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

This reduction in federal spending is so far the only one of these things that actually appears in great detail in their budget. They don't look at the three largest programs — Medicare, Social Security, and defense spending. I know people get mad when I say they don't touch Social Security, but they effectively don't.

The only cuts to the disability program that are actually cuts are less than 1 percent of the budget. They're $1 billion. There are practically zero cuts to the old age program. They don't touch Social Security effectively. They don't touch Medicare effectively. They increased defense spending (roughly $25 billion more a year). Those are the three largest spending programs that are basically off the table or very close to off the table.

They do provide pretty detailed cuts elsewhere. Some of them we saw in their skinny budget before where they wanted to cut money for the State Department and community development programs and block grants and you name it, but this goes a lot further in terms of cutting subsidies related to student loans and, in some cases, reforming them as well, cutting farm subsidies, cutting food stamp benefits, changing some rules around eligibility, increasing federal employee retirement contributions, and reducing federal employee retirement benefits.

There are all sorts of spending cuts in this plan. Folks might not like this, but some of them are actually smart, thoughtful changes and reforms, but when you look at them in their entirety, they're disproportionately going to children, to people that are low-income, and to federal investment. Again, that doesn't mean that some of these aren't smart, thoughtful cuts. The inevitable consequence of taking the three largest spending programs off the table, two of which go mainly to the middle class and upper middle class, is that's what you're left with is spending cuts that are mostly cuts to education, investment, children, and low-income Americans.

And there’s no doubt: That’s who would be impacted the most by this budget.

Rolling back regulations

What Trump’s budget promises

We must eliminate every outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective Federal regulation, and move aggressively to build regulatory frameworks that stimulate — rather than stagnate — job creation. Even for those regulations we must leave in place, we must strike every provision that is counterproductive, ineffective, or outdated.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

I'm all for regulatory reforms, but, again, show me the specifics. The budget is pretty vague. They give us a process for how they want to get to regulatory reform. It rolls back Dodd-Frank, but other than that there's very little in terms of actual regulatory proposals here. When we see some regulatory proposals, then we can figure out whether they're growing the economy, shrinking the economy, or simply moving stuff in the economy around. We can't know because they haven't given us their regulatory proposals.

The one thing they talk about is a regulatory freeze and a regulatory review. I don't think the freeze is a good idea, but I'm all for regulatory review. I actually think there's a lot of regulations that aren't written very well that are benefiting monopolies rather than the full economy. They try to do a good thing, but their cost is too high.

I think that there is opportunity here to review some regulations, but before I started counting on faster economic growth, I would probably want to at least identify what those regulations are that I'm getting rid of or reforming rather than just have some kind of generic regulatory review. And that’s all we really have so far.

American energy development

What Trump’s budget promises

We must increase development of America’s energy resources, strengthening our national security, lowering the price of electricity and transportation fuels, and driving down the cost of consumer goods so that every American individual and business has more money to save and invest. A consistent, long-term supply of lower-cost American energy brings with it a much larger economy, more jobs, and greater security for the American people.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

To be honest, this is the one section I’m just not very familiar with. I think a smart energy policy can help a bit with economic growth, but, like so many other things this budget proposes, we’re talking about a minimal impact, decimal points, not percentage points.

Welfare reform

What Trump’s budget promises

We must reform our welfare system so that it does not discourage able-bodied adults from working, which takes away scarce resources from those in real need. Work must be the center of our social policy.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

I know they're getting a lot of flak for it, but I think they do some pretty interesting stuff with Social Security disability insurance. I think re-instating the second reconsideration within disability, giving some of the offsets of worker's comp and unemployment insurance, and testing out some models to encourage people to go back to work and to give them some types of support isn’t a terrible idea. Nor is having people go to physical therapy before going on SSDI. We actually did a book called SSDI Solutions a couple years ago where many of the recommendations they've put forward are not so different from what we've put forward.

I’m not against welfare reform. I think we should try to get people back to work, for economic and social reasons. But the cuts this budget proposes are very deep. The one that sticks out to me is TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which is vital to a lot of people, and they’re looking to cut over $21 billion — that’s incredibly deep.

We reformed this program in the ‘90s by putting it into a block grant that doesn’t even grow with inflation, which means it’s frozen. Whatever you think about the block framework of our reform, which is meant to encourage more work and more temporary welfare benefits, you have to understand that if you have a block grant that doesn't grow, even with inflation over time, it's value is going to erode. And their budget cuts it even more. So these are massive cuts.

Education reform

What Trump’s budget promises

We need to return decisions regarding education back to the State and local levels, while advancing opportunities for parents and students to choose, from all available options, the school that best fits their needs to learn and succeed.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

Basically they cut the K through 12 education and then they start moving down the path toward vouchers, and they do it in a number of ways. Will that save the government some money? Yes, probably. Is it a good idea? That’s outside my area of expertise. I’m sure there are reasons not to do it, but it’s not really budget-related.

The other thing they do on education is student loan reform and, again, in some ways these are deep cuts that I think people are going to have trouble with. On the other hand, I think the framework is a reasonable one. The two main places they go to reduce student loan subsidies are, one, they get rid of subsidized loans, which really means they're getting rid of the in school interest subsidy.

So right now, if you take out a student loan, you don't pay anything of that loan when you're in college, which makes total sense, but you also don't accrue any interest. In turns out that almost nobody is motivated to go to college because of this. For whatever reason, it’s just a not a good incentive. There are much better ways to incentivize people to go to college. And in any case, it's not very well-targeted because it ends up going ultimately to high earners mostly. I haven't looked at all the details of exactly how the proposal would work, but I think something like this is reasonable.

They also call for reforms to income-based repayment, which is similar to something the Obama administration called for. Again, the devil is in the details. These reforms save money, which means they’re cuts, so one obvious question is how deep will those cuts ultimately be? But I think that the basic framework behind some of their higher ed changes is reasonable. People will disagree about what to do with the saved money. Some will want to take that money and throw all of it at the Pell grant, which I think would be a good idea.

The bottom line: The Trump administration says this budget is revenue-neutral. Is it?

Marc Goldwein

The budget itself assumes a trillion dollars of tax cuts that come not from tax reform, but from repealing the Obamacare taxes, and it pays for those by repealing Obamacare spending. In that sense, the budget is not revenue neutral, it's revenue negative.

Of course, most people would say, “Ok, but that Obamacare policy. Let’s just talk about tax policy other than that.” Well, other than that, on paper at least, the budget is revenue neutral. But the reason is that they don't incorporate their tax reform plan. They've been talking about this tax reform for a month, but there's actually less detail about tax reform in this budget than there was in their one pager they released a month ago.

When you say you're going to have one of the biggest tax cuts in history and then you don't include that within your budget, it makes it a lot easier to achieve revenue neutrality.

Budgets reflect values. Based on this budget, what does the Trump administration value?

Marc Goldwein

They value trying to have it all, frankly. The president, during the campaign, promised that he was going to cut taxes, that he was going to balance the budget, and that he wasn't going to touch social security or Medicare. This budget basically does it all and it does it by ignoring the cost of tax reform, assuming magic levels of growth, assuming ridiculous and unspecified levels of non-defense discretionary spending cuts.

I know that most people are going to complain about how painful this budget is to certain groups that rely on the government, and that's certainly true. But to me that's not the underlying message when you look at where the money is coming from. The underlying message is that the administration still thinks they can have it all, and it doesn't matter how many phony assumptions they have to make to get there.

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