Let's praise Trump for a budget that's bold and transparent
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Budgets are policy documents. In my public budgeting classes at Duke University, we often compare the budgets of outgoing and incoming presidents and governors to see if we can discern policy changes with a change in administration.

Rhetorical contrasts are easy to find in their budget messages, but changes in the distribution of resources are more subtle and incremental: perhaps a little more for environmental, social and labor programs by Democrats, and maybe a little more for security and economic programs by Republicans. Budget cuts, if there are any, are usually either small or spread fairly evenly, or both.

The fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint released by the White House this week, while only a partial budget, breaks with this incrementalist tradition. Instead, it makes major shifts in policy priorities by directing more resources toward national and homeland security agencies and programs, and away from agencies and programs across most of the rest of government.

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This budget is a clear indication that the Trump administration understands that budgets are the essential means for turning policy preferences into actions by translating resources into programs. As the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Mick Mulvaney, says in the document, "working for a President committed to keeping his promises means my job is as simple as translating his words into numbers."

 

Without budgets, policy preferences are meaningless expressions of wishes and desires.

The first cheer, then, is for Trump's understanding that the budget is the president's principal means of governing by enabling his policy agenda.

Budget are also signals to the bureaucracy about the scope and direction of existing and new programs. Budgets not only provide resources, but set program and performance expectations that coordinate and control government organizations.

Trump's budget outline is a clear signal of expectations and a big step toward taking control of the federal government's vast bureaucracy. Eschewing marginal change, this budget clearly shifts resource priorities. Security spending is increased by $54 billion over fiscal 2017 spending levels and is paid for by double digit percentage decreases for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and 10 Cabinet departments.

Across-the-board cuts in non-defense discretionary spending, seemingly the fairest but actually the most inefficient way to cut budgets, would have been an easier and less-controversial approach to take.

Instead, this budget makes programmatic shifts openly for all to see and understand. The second cheer is for the transparency that empowers the Congress and the public to understand and react.

This transparency is meaningful because president's budgets are only proposals. Congress holds the constitutional power of the purse and must provide appropriations to fund the government. Members' spending decisions will be based, in part at least, by their relationships to the president, their own judgments about spending priorities, and the politics of their states and districts.

Budgetary decisions can become negotiations between the executive and the legislative branches. In that case, Trump has presented his opening bid. 

The missing third cheer addresses the nature of this document. It is not a budget. It's merely a bare-bones statement of spending priorities for the discretionary side of the budget. That's about one-third of total federal spending. It contain no economic assumptions, nothing about tax revenues and no projections for mandatory spending programs like Social Security and Medicare.

These are promised in a fuller budget document expected in May. If Congress were to try to act on this blueprint, it would be doing so with huge information gaps.

There will be much to debate about the details of President Trump's first budget attempt. And there's a lot more work to be done before we will see a complete budget document from the Trump White House.

But, for now, two cheers for governance and transparency.

Douglas A. Brook is a visiting professor in Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. He has served as assistant secretary for financial management in both the Department of the Army and the Department of the Navy and as acting under secretary/chief financial officer of the Department of Defense.


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