WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, asserted a bold goal recently, sounding as if he were pitching a plot of an action thriller: “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
On Thursday, as Trump releases his first budget, Americans will get a wider glimpse of what exactly that means.
This earliest version of Trump’s spending plan is far from final and will be short of many specifics, but it promises to lay out a vision for a stripped-down federal government that is heavy on defense and far lighter on employees assigned to protect the environment, regulate business, work with foreign governments and provide assistance on things like housing and heating oil that many at the state and local level have long taken for granted.
“You’ll see reductions exactly where you would expect it for a president who just ran on an ‘America first’ campaign,” said Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director. “You’ll see reduction in the State Department. … You’ll see reductions in the EPA. In fact, you’ll see reductions in many agencies as he tries to shrink the role of government, drive efficiencies, go after waste, duplicative programs.”
Briefing reporters Wednesday ahead of the formal budget rollout, Mulvaney offered scant details but said most departments would see cuts ranging from 10 percent to 12 percent. Trump has empowered Cabinet secretaries to make significant changes within their departments, he said.
Pledges to reduce the size of government are nothing new, of course. In the U.S., Europe and beyond, conservative leaders over the last generation, from President Ronald Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher to President George W. Bush and Canada’s Stephen Harper, have often talked about shrinking the size of the state, but found the reality more difficult to achieve.
Trump’s goals are ambitious, but he also faces some major constraints.
The administration, in an email to supporters Wednesday, promoted a Washington Post story that called Trump’s budget proposals the largest contraction of government since World War II. Trump and his allies call that shrinking necessary, not only to cut costs, but also to eliminate the people who enable the government to continue permitting and regulating. Conservatives see permitting and regulating as a hindrance to economic freedom, while progressives have long believed they are essential to keeping people and the environment healthy.
At the same time, Trump, who has never been an ideologically consistent conservative, has put the largest pieces of the federal government off-limits to budget cutting. In addition to proposing a 10 percent increase in defense spending, he promised during the campaign not to touch Social Security, Medicare and other so-called entitlement programs.
He has also promised to build a multibillion-dollar border wall, spend $1 trillion on airports, bridges and other infrastructure, and cut taxes dramatically — all of which would make taming the deficit challenging.
The one exception in the entitlement area has been Medicaid, the giant government program that provides medical care to the poor and nursing home residents. The GOP health care bill Trump supports would sharply cut federal support for the program in future years, undoing some of the vast expansion in health coverage that took place under President Barack Obama.
Culling more than 10 percent from the rest of the domestic budget will not be easy, even under a Republican Congress that has pledged fiscal restraint. Cutting $6 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, would jeopardize community grants to cities throughout the country that could galvanize critics on both sides of the aisle, including those in the urban centers and Rust Belt communities that Trump pledged to help.
Some programs that conservatives have targeted in previous budget fights — the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for example, and other federal support for the arts — have survived because of backing from Republicans in Congress.
Democrats say they are preparing for potential fights on things such as heating and cooling assistance for millions of low-income households and nutritional programs for women and children along with significant reductions for the Environmental Protection Agency and emergency management programs that hold communities together after storms and earthquakes. Climate science research could also take a large hit.
Mulvaney said the State Department would lose 28 percent of its budget as the country shifts from the “soft power” of diplomacy to the “hard power” of military threat. But several Republicans who hold a much different view than Trump about America’s role in the world have pledged to defend the diplomatic corps.
“It’s dead on arrival. It’s not going to happen,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in an NBC interview last month. “If you take soft power off the table, then you’re never going to win the war.”
Still, Democrats believe Trump will get some of what he wants, even if they warn of devastating consequences.
“They’re going to make some real severe cuts,” said John Lawrence, former chief of staff to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. Lawrence argues that the goal is not deficit reduction, but shrinking the government for its own sake.
Indeed, that idea of shrinking the government unites many of the factions that have split the GOP in recent years, including the tea party conservatives who have bedeviled other plans from party leaders.
“We believe in the Constitution where there’s 18 enumerated powers and the rest should go down to the states and the people,” said Rep. Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican who is one of Congress’ most conservative members. The size of government is “overboard by a lot, not by a little,” he said.
Brat, and others like him, will pressure Trump to go even deeper in cutting entitlement programs. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the leader of the party’s establishment wing, also advocates cutting entitlement programs. Some in Congress believe Mulvaney, who sided with archconservatives when he served in the House, will help make their case inside the Trump administration.
All this talk has excited longtime movement conservatives who view some of Trump’s agenda with a wary eye. Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, said he had been in touch with Trump’s budget team and reeled off a number of ideas he said Trump would probably support. Among them: privatizing the Federal Aviation Administration, the type of proposal that would alarm safety advocates.
“Deconstructing the administrative state is a way of getting to the question of how do you get radical — meaning going to the roots — reform,” he said.
Norquist said too many conservatives have focused on cuts to existing programs rather than overhauls that will have longer results by forcing government to rethink its core mission.
“Do you cut a program in half? It grows back again,” he said.
Trump’s preliminary plan will probably face significant revisions before he submits a more detailed budget in May. Republicans in Congress will redraft their own spending plans after that, which could depart dramatically from the president’s. And Democrats will also have leverage, given both the disunity among Republicans and the need for 60 votes in the closely divided Senate to enact much of what Trump wants to do.
But even with those obstacles, everyone in Washington agrees the arrow for the size of government will point downward for the foreseeable future.
“This is the first bite at the apple,” Norquist said. “There’s four or eight years of this.”