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Republican experts say Trump budget drops populism

Donald Trump listens to the crowd cheer during a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa.
Mark Kauzlarich | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Donald Trump listens to the crowd cheer during a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa.

For Donald Trump, being a "compassionate conservative" like George W. Bush wasn't good enough.

During his campaign, he cast himself as an uncompromising populist who would fight for forgotten poor, rural Americans. But his budget blueprint is a betrayal of those people and his populist message, according to several former Republican budget officials.

"Where's the populism?" said Steve Bell, a Republican and longtime Senate Budget Committee director who blamed the conservative Heritage Foundation that's long pushed for slashing the federal government. "This is almost like Trump said, 'Hey somebody get me a budget' and Heritage said, 'We've got one right here,' " said Bell.

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Bell is among a number of former GOP budget officials openly critical of the president's first budget outline to Congress because it fails to address the long-term drivers of the debt and appears "vindictive" in eliminating programs that serve the poor and elderly. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, called the cuts "draconian, careless and counterproductive" in a statement. Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., one of Trump's first and closest allies in Congress, said he has serious concerns about "significant cuts to local programs, which I believe go too far."

The budget asks for a $54 billion increase in defense spending funded by deep cuts to domestic programs. Many of these programs serve the working-class people who super-charged Trump's march to the presidency over more "establishment" Republicans.

Examples include cuts to job-training programs seen in rural strip mall storefronts where displaced workers can get new skills training; a 21% cut to the Department of Labor that enforces occupational and mine safety programs meant to protect coal miners; eliminating the LIHEAP program that subsidizes winter home heating costs for low-income Americans (many served are in Great Lakes states like Michigan and Wisconsin that voted Republican for the first time in a generation); and community grant programs that support services like "Meals on Wheels," which delivers hot meals to seniors who are poor or alone.

Trump's budget would also eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission, created under President Lyndon Johnson to support the economically depressed region of the country Trump made so central to his campaign. The program provides small business loans, invests in local infrastructure and provides job training.

The White House says the budget reflects Trump's promise to target waste in the government and prioritize the security of the nation. It increases spending on Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security. Yet, while Trump vowed to slash federal government during his campaign, he was never specific about cutting social programs that benefit low-income Americans.

When Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney was asked on Thursday to square the proposed cuts with Trump's commitment to the working class, he said the goal was to eliminate programs that showed no "demonstrable results."

"We can't spend money on programs just because they sound good," said Mulvaney, who said he was putting himself in the shoes of a steelworker in Ohio or coal-mining family in West Virginia. "It's fairly compassionate to go to them and say, look, we're not going to ask you for your hard-earned money anymore," he said.

The Trump budget is reminiscent of former president Ronald Reagan's first budget, said former senator Judd Gregg, who came to Washington in 1980 as a Republican House member from New Hampshire. "It mirrors that budget very closely," said Gregg, who went on to chair the Senate Budget Committee. Reagan Budget Director David Stockman called the underlying conservative philosophy of dramatic cuts to government programs "starving the beast."

Since Stockman, the share of federal expenditures that go to discretionary programs is already at its lowest level since 1962, as far back as data is available.

"In my years since, I concluded the Stockman budget was a mistake" because it targeted politically popular programs instead of the real drivers of the debt, Gregg said. Entitlements including Medicare and Social Security account for 50% of the federal budget and continue to grow as the baby boom generation ages.

Instead of addressing broad fiscal problems, "We were pecked to death by the interest groups defending these accounts," he said.

Of Trump, Gregg said: "They're making a political statement that creates a lot of fire for their opposition and it's not going to win."

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Trump's cuts amount to 1% of the overall budget for "social welfare programs," which he said include the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, food stamps and public housing. "There is waste in the welfare state," said Rector. "They're just scraping the edges." For instance, the community block grant program has become a "slush fund to big cities."

Excluding Medicaid, 85% of the nation's welfare system is federally funded, said Rector. "Collecting all this money at the federal level and then handing it down to the states is a recipe for corruption and inefficiency," he said.

The budget comes as new analyses show the GOP plan to replace Obamacare stands to disproportionately hurt those same rural, working-class portions of the nation that supported Trump. For instance, states that stand to see the biggest reductions in tax credits to purchase health insurance include West Virginia, North Carolina, Montana and Oklahoma.

Yet unlike with health care, which Trump can pin on Republicans on Capitol Hill and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., he has sole ownership of his budget. "This shows it's impossible to make deep cuts to domestic priorities without hurting many the working people and most vulnerable people that the president talked about helping," said Jacob Liebenluft, a former National Economic Council deputy director under President Obama.

For Democrats targeting House Republicans who represent these areas, including deep red states like Kentucky and Tennessee that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, the attack ads almost write themselves, said Doug Holtz-Eakin, former chief economic policy director for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He warned the administration about "getting tangled up" in targeting these popular programs.

The programs Trump proposes cutting "are the places where you make genuine investment in the economy. They're the places where the founders saw the role of government and his promise was to make that government deliver more efficiently. This doesn't step in that direction," said Holtz-Eakin, also a former Congressional Budget Office director. "I don't see these cuts going through," he said. Meanwhile, the "clock keeps marching forward" on insolvency for Social Security and Medicare.

The most immediate fallout will be for Republican House members already facing heated town halls over the GOP Obamacare replacement plan, Russia and Trump's travel ban, Gregg predicted.

"They're going to have a constant stream of petitioners now on these programs," said Gregg.