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Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Depend on Congress to Avoid the Worst of Trump’s Budget

Katelyn Burns

“Congress is not going to adopt this budget as it is, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pay attention to it.”

Though the Trump administration’s recently released 2020 budget proposal may be a non-starter in the U.S. Congress, policy experts caution against writing it off—noting that the administration has historically used it to outline its policy vision.

“The budget is clearly dead on arrival in Congress, but we can’t afford to ignore it because year after year Trump’s budget is the clearest statement of his priorities and whose side he’s on,” said Rebecca Vallas, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress, in an interview with Rewire.News.

Trump’s $4.7 trillion budget request would boost military spending while slashing funds for social safety net programs, including proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

The budget would completely eliminate the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP), according to a press release from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), in a repeat of the previous two Trump budget proposals. When reached for confirmation of the TPPP cut, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesperson directed Rewire.News to an HHS brief detailing the agency’s budget goals that made no specific mention of the program. In a separate line item, the budget calls for maintaining $75 million in funding for “Sexual Risk Avoidance Education,” a rebranded name for abstinence-only education promoted by key HHS officials such as Valerie Huber.

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Trump’s budget, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), would maintain “caps to ‘non-defense discretionary spending,’ the part of the budget that funds vital programs like housing assistance, Head Start, home energy assistance, and after-school programs.” This same portion of the budget also contains $8.6 billion in proposed funding for Trump’s border wall. “As a result, broad cuts to discretionary spending would have a disproportionate and detrimental impact on women and families,” NWLC explained in a blog post.

Democrats in the U.S House of Representatives were quick to denounce the budget. “For the third year in a row, President Trump has released a budget that is cruel and reckless,” said DeLauro, chair of the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, in a statement. “It is disheartening to see a budget that would dismantle so many programs that people rely on every day. It would be a cold day in hell before I helped pass a budget like this—one that hurts the American people in order to lavish tax cuts on millionaires, billionaires, corporations, and special interests.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) also called the budget “cruel,” indicating that its ideas have little support in the House. “House Democrats will reject this toxic, destructive budget request which would hollow out our national strength and fail to meet the needs of the American people,” she said in a statement Monday. “The budget is a statement of values, and once again President Trump has shown how little he values the health and well-being of families across America.”

Now that Trump has released his budget proposal, the House and Senate appropriations committees will put together bills covering 12 divisions of government funding. From there, drafts get sent to full committee for markups, when members of the full appropriations committee have a chance to offer amendments and make changes before voting on whether to send the bills for a vote in the full chamber. The House and Senate spending bill differences are then reconciled before forming a single bill which must be approved by each chamber before being sent to the president’s desk for signature.

With the bulk of the president’s budget goals non-starters in Congress, some analysts have downplayed the document’s significance, since ultimately the legislature controls the government’s purse-strings. But advocates noted that the Trump administration has used the budget document in the past to lay out its policy vision and has shown a willingness to act unilaterally through the federal rule-making process if Congress fails to sign off on its plans.

In last year’s budget, the administration called for anti-choice restrictions on the Title X family planning program. The administration later proposed a rule, which was finalized last month, barring Title X money from going to health-care providers who refer patients for abortions and requiring clinics to physically separate Title X-funded family planning services and abortion services—deemed a domestic gag rule” by reproductive rights advocates.

But the gag rule wasn’t the only Trump budget proposal to later see unilateral administrative action, according to Vallas. “We’re watching him try to do it with one program as we speak, and that’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP],” she said, describing how Trump tried to weaken SNAP through the budget process last year with dramatic cuts and a pitch for work requirements. Some of those changes were included in GOP proposals for the Farm Bill before they were rejected by the Senate. But the administration took matters into its own hands by proposing a new rule which could take food assistance away from 755,000 “able-bodied adults.”

This pattern of proposing massive cuts to popular programs and then turning to administrative action when they fail to get through Congress “is without question the Trump administration playbook,” Vallas said.

Among the budget proposals that could later see administrative action is a provision in the HHS budget document to “strengthen, clarify, and further codify the prohibition against government entities discriminating against individual and institutional health care entities that refuse to perform, refer for, participate in, pay for, or provide (or sponsor) coverage of abortion services, or facilitate or make arrangement for such activities, ensure that HHS has appropriate enforcement tools to address potential violations of that prohibition, and enable health care entities that are the victims of such discrimination to pursue civil actions for appropriate relief.”

So-called conscience protections are already protected under the law, and the HHS document doesn’t provide further details on the new initiative. A spokesperson for the Guttmacher Institute said that more information should become available in a more detailed White House budget document set for release next week.

The budget also calls for work requirements for Medicaid, like those rolled out recently in Arkansas requiring people seeking Medicaid coverage to be actively looking for work or volunteering a minimum number of weekly hours to access the program. According to Melissa Boteach, vice president for income security and child care/early learning for the NWLC, the Medicaid work requirement proposal in this year’s budget is already on its way to being unilaterally implemented by the administration. “He doubled down on [Medicaid work requirements] in this budget,” she said in an interview with Rewire.News. “He’s plowing forward with these permission slips for states to kick people off their health insurance, and that’s in this budget.”

Boteach says people shouldn’t dismiss the proposals in this budget, despite the legislative challenges it faces. “Congress is not going to adopt this budget as it is, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pay attention to it,” she said, adding that Trump is showing who he is through his budget priorities. “You strip away the MAGA hats, you strip away the populist language, he’s showing himself to be a plutocrat in a populist’s clothing.”

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