Donald Trump's Budget Explained

By Eleanor Wertman, MPH

Last week, Donald Trump released a preliminary Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal, which describes the changes he would like to make to the federal government’s discretionary spending in the coming year. The proposal, which suggests cuts to scientific research, diplomacy, housing, the arts, and more, has alarmed people across the political spectrum. However, Trump’s proposal is currently just that—a nonbinding recommendation that Congress considers as they determine the federal budget for 2018. Read on to learn more about what Trump has proposed, what happens to his proposal now, and how you can hold your members of Congress accountable for their spending decisions.

What does the federal budget look like today?

The federal budget is divided into mandatory spending, which is mostly allocated to Medicare, Social Security, and paying interest on the national debt, and discretionary spending, which includes defense spending and all other federal spending. The Fiscal Year 2017 federal budget allocated 73% of funds ($2.56 trillion) to mandatory spending and 27% ($1.08 trillion) to discretionary spending. Of this discretionary spending, about 49% (over $543 billion) went to defense spending.  

The percentage of the budget allocated to non-defense discretionary spending is currently at a historic low.

What does Trump’s budget proposal recommend?

Trump’s budget proposal only makes recommendations for discretionary spending and includes large cuts to non-defense discretionary spending and large increases for defense spending.

As the graphic above shows, Trump’s budget proposal would massively scale back funding to most federal agencies to pay for increases to defense spending and funding for the border wall and school voucher programs. The proposal would reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency to its lowest level ever and decrease funding for many other departments, such as the Department of Labor, the Department of the Treasury, and the Department of Agriculture, to their lowest levels in a decade or more. The budget would also completely eliminate funding for 19 federal agencies, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Chemical Safety Board, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Trump’s $1.15 trillion proposed discretionary budget, if passed in its entirety, would be the lowest federal discretionary budget in 15 years despite raising defense spending to its highest level in 6 years. The proposed budget is a threat to the environment, to education, and to programs like Meals on Wheels that rely on community development block grants to serve vulnerable Americans.

What happens next?

The president’s budget proposal is nonbinding, as only Congress has the constitutional power to appropriate Treasury funds for federal spending. The House and Senate Budget Committees will refer to Trump’s proposal when developing and proposing their own nonbinding budget resolutions. The House and Senate then attempt to reconcile their two proposals into a single budget resolution that sets federal spending targets for each of the twelve appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate. The budget resolution is supposed to be completed by April 15 (although Congress often misses this deadline).

Once the resolution is complete, appropriations subcommittee members hold oversight hearings to decide how the money allocated to their subcommittee should be divided up among the various departments and agencies whose funding they oversee. The subcommittees develop appropriations bills based on hearings and the President’s budget proposal. For these bills to become law, they must pass through the House Subcommittee, the full Committee, and the entire House, and then go through the same process in the Senate.

The President is supposed to sign all appropriations bills into law by October 1 (the beginning of the new fiscal year). However, Congress sometimes fails to agree on appropriations bills by this deadline. When the Congress cannot agree on a budget by the October 1st deadline, they must either pass continuing resolutions to maintain current funding levels to various federal agencies or allow the government to temporarily shut down; the last budget-related government shutdown happened in 2013.

What can I do to resist the budget cuts Trump has proposed?

As mentioned above, Trump’s budget proposal is still far from being implemented. Members of Congress need to hear from you about why his proposed budget is unacceptable.

First, educate yourself about Trump’s budget proposal. The New York Times has a good high-level overview of proposed budgetary changes. USA Today provides a list of the federal agencies and programs Trump has recommended eliminating completely. Pick an issue that matters to you personally—medical research, education, the environment, providing community support to seniors, addressing racial inequities, etc.—and learn how Trump’s proposed budget would affect funding for that issue.

Next, contact your members of Congress and encourage them to oppose Trump’s funding cuts. Congressional staffers have stated that in-person visits to your members of Congress and polite, concise phone calls are the most effective ways to communicate your feedback. Individualized letters (especially to state district offices), faxes, and emails can also be helpful, but they can take longer to process than phone calls. Congressional staffers tend to disregard social media posts and mass emails orchestrated by advocacy groups, so be sure you are calling and writing letters in addition to using these methods. Be as specific as you can when contacting Congress. Ask them to oppose funding cuts to specific agencies and programs when you can. Use resources like 5 Calls and the Indivisible Guide to find sample language to use for your calls and letters.

Above all, stay informed and keep fighting. It is up to us to ensure Trump and the Republican-led Congress do not dismantle crucial federal programs that serve our nation.