St. Louis Post Dispatch: In the Trump budget debate, it’s back to the future – the 1980s

St. Louis Post Dispatch: In the Trump budget debate, it’s back to the future – the 1980s March 17, 2017

The ghost of Ronald Reagan is everywhere in President Donald Trump’s bold and controversial attacks on domestic spending as well as his boost in the defense budget.

As in the early 1980s, a Republican president is proposing deep cuts in programs aimed at regulating air, land and water quality, abating poverty and underwriting the arts. Meanwhile, his administration is pushing for a 10 percent boost in defense spending.

Reagan, the Great Communicator, had an eight-year battle with everyone from environmentalists to artists as he continuously attacked over-regulation, pushing back against what he said was imperial, intrusive federal government.

Trump, the Great Tweeter, is making the same arguments and running into the same initial roadblocks. Under Reagan, proposed cuts in school-lunch programs became a rallying point for critics. On Thursday, potential Trump cuts in after-school nutrition programs for children became the newest symbol in a familiar budget fight.

Some things literally have not changed.

Reagan cited the aging B-52 bomber — which the Air Force had trouble keeping in the air in the 1980s because of a lack of spare parts — as a sign of a decaying military.

Trump cited the very same aircraft, still in the nation’s arsenal 60 years after it was introduced, after an engine of one of the big “Buffs” fell off during a mission over North Dakota in January.

Although Congress is likely to make changes, Boeing Co would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the administration’s proposal, which included $2.4 billion for 24 F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet jet fighters that would be made in St. Louis. This is 10 more than the U.S. House of Representatives approved on March 8 in its 2017 base spending bill.

Instead of facing a Democratic House, as Reagan did, Trump has a GOP body that is turning out to be just as cantankerous as Tip O’Neill’s Democrats were in the 1980s. Reagan and O’Neill came to an eventual agreement over taxing and spending after Reagan had a fairly unified GOP behind him.

The road to Republican rapprochement this time around is less clear.

Some Republicans, especially in the Senate, are balking at some of Trump’s spending cuts.

“The president’s budget is the first step in the appropriations process,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who last year helped push through the first spending increase in the National Institutes of Health budget in 12 years, only to see Trump propose on Thursday a nearly 20 percent cut. “There are many concerns with nondefense discretionary cuts.”

Another difference from the 1980s? A more voluminous and more instantaneous web of interests that support their slices of the federal pie. Simultaneously released with Trump’s budget were data streams making the case for everything from student loans to student art.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded by John Podesta, a veteran ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, dispensed data showing that Trump’s proposed cuts would slice $70 million out of more than a half billion dollars in Pell Grants for Missouri students, and that Trump-proposed cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency could reduce federal aid to Missouri by $15 million.

Trump, and his allies, are fighting back.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the $1.1 trillion discretionary budget blueprint a “huge down payment on the president’s goal of showing fiscal responsibility.”

Trump’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said that “we’re going to spend a lot of money, but we are not going to spend it on programs that cannot show” they work.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who last year helped usher through the first major change in chemical regulations in decades, told the Post-Dispatch he is confident that the EPA will have the money necessary to carry out those regulations, and others mandated by law.

It was add-on initiatives such as expanding EPA control over water quality in then-President Barack Obama’s controversial “Waters of the USA” initiative that the government should not be paying for, Shimkus told the Post-Dispatch.

Many advocacy groups fighting the changes were able to drill down to the impact on localities with the computer-assisted speed of fiber-optics.

Within hours of Trump’s budget release, Kate Shindle, former Miss America and president of the 50,000-members Actors Equity union, was denouncing the potential cuts, including the elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Local organizations dependent on the federal funding were in reaction mode, too.

“This could be a fatal blow” for St. Louis arts organizations, especially smaller and locally focused ones, said Cecilia Nadal, executive director of Gitana Productions, an arts organization that uses music, dance and drama as a bridge between communities. The group has focused on bringing black, white and immigrant children together in Ferguson and south St. Louis.

Some current budget warriors made specific references to Reagan.

Citing polls showing decisive public support for programs protecting the environment, National Resources Defense Council governmental affairs director David Goldson said that “this is a misreading of the public that the right wing has made repeatedly.

“They made it under Reagan, they made it under George W. Bush, they made it under [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich.

“Every time they have tried to go after these programs and the public has seen what they are actually talking about, there has been a backlash and they have moved away,” he said. “That is one reason why these programs are still around after 30 years of efforts to attack them. It is because they have real benefits for real people.”

The federal government’s debt passed $1 trillion in Reagan’s first year in office.

It is approaching $20 trillion now, after nearly doubling under Obama.

Adam Aton of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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