Lawmakers struggle to understand what President Trump and the White House really want

  • The president's budget conflicts with his own promises, with the wishes of Congress and with legislation he has signed into law.
  • Lawmakers in both parties are making their own infrastructure plans before the White House belatedly released a proposal this week.
  • Under Trump, lawmakers struggle to understand what the White House really wants.
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on infrastructure with state and local officials in the State Dining Room of the White House on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on infrastructure with state and local officials in the State Dining Room of the White House on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC.

President Donald Trump's aides have grown accustomed to ignoring their mercurial boss as they deem necessary. Now Congress is poised to do the same.

The issue is new spending plans produced by Trump's chaotic, thinly staffed, internally conflicted administration. Even in a Congress controlled by fellow Republicans, the plans will receive minimal consideration.

That's because the president's budget conflicts with his own promises, with the wishes of Congress and with legislation he has signed into law. Instead of waiting, lawmakers in both parties began making their own infrastructure plans before the White House belatedly released a proposal this week.

"Let's be generous and say the president's budget is no more irrelevant than any other president's budget," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a senior member of the House budget and appropriations committees.

That's too generous. While lawmakers never pass presidential budgets as written, they typically use White House requests as a starting point.

Under Trump, lawmakers struggle to understand what the White House really wants.

In 2016, Trump promised voters he wouldn't cut the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs. But White House budget director Mick Mulvaney favors cutting them, and proposed cuts for all three.

Those proposals respond, if half-heartedly, to House Speaker Paul Ryan's call for "entitlement reform." But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell isn't interested in reforming Social Security and Medicare without cooperation from Democrats, and Trump hasn't sought any.

The budget affirms Americans' doubts about the president's credibility. It seeks $18 billion for the border wall he insisted Mexico would pay for, and shows higher deficits from tax cuts he had claimed wouldn't increase deficits.

The 2019 budget proposal doesn't even match the law Trump ratified a few days ago. Like his 2018 budget, this one proposes deep domestic cuts offsetting big defense increases. The bipartisan legislation he signed increases domestic spending.

That new law includes $10 billion more in each of the next two years for infrastructure — about half the annual spending increase Trump proposed when he unveiled his the infrastructure plan in tandem with his budget. Congress shows little enthusiasm for the administration's approach.

The White House's gaudy claim of $1.5 trillion in additional infrastructure investment relies largely on spending by states. But "the states don't have the money," noted former GOP congressman and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

It also depends on private investment. But Cole, who represents south-central Oklahoma, notes that many rural infrastructure projects can't generate the profits private businesses require.

Trump would offset new expenses by cutting existing infrastructure programs that both parties strongly support. The only way to ramp up spending further, Cole says, is with a White House push for additional revenue through higher gas taxes.

The administration's infrastructure plan doesn't include a gas tax increase. "It's a con game," concludes Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

One problem devising credible plans is that, in much of the government, Trump has barely made a footprint. At the Transportation Department, the administration has only five confirmed appointees in place out of 20 top jobs; at Labor, only five of 14; at Agriculture, four of 13.

That vacuum helps elevate quixotic budget proposals that won't go anywhere, such as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's idea for a government-delivered "harvest box" that would replace a chunk of food stamp benefits with American-sourced packaged foods. The House and Senate Agriculture committee chairs declined to endorse it.

The Senate chairman, Pat Roberts of Kansas, also rejected a separate proposal to reduce crop insurance benefits as contradicting a promise he received from Trump. Absent a fully staffed administration, final decisions will fall to Congress and career agency officials — the civil servants Trump allies deride as the "deep state."

"There just isn't going to be any respect for the political types," said Bill Hoagland, a longtime Senate Republican budget aide now at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "They're going to pretty much ignore Mr. Mulvaney."

Strange as it sounds, Mulvaney himself expresses similar sentiments. As a member of Congress from South Carolina, he told senators this week that he would have probably opposed his budget, too.

Later, a spokeswoman revised that answer to say Mulvaney would have voted for his own budget plan. What he would have opposed, she explained, is the budget deal his boss in the White House just signed into law.

Correction: An earlier version misstated Van Hollen's state. He represents Maryland.

WATCH: This is what happens when the U.S. government shuts down