FY 2018 Budget

An Addiction

The new budget does not mention the word ‘addiction,’ and mentions ‘opioids’ only once despite Trump promising to help the rural swathes struggling with this issue (he did not offer such help to the urban populations with the same problems, of course). ‘Opioids’ are mentioned in a section titled Invest in Law Enforcement. Opioids don’t even merit their own sentence; they’re rolled into a sentence about fighting illicit drugs, which includes interdiction efforts and gun crime reduction.

The Department of Justice figures heavily in this effort, in the context of “fighting…illicit drugs.” Treatment does not come into the equation. Instead there is an $84 million commitment “for increases in the Federal detainee population,” and $214 million “for immigration enforcement,” which the DOJ will use in part to hire 75 more immigration judge teams, all the better for ramped up deportations.

News of ICE actions and deportations have crackled in the background of the national news like heat lightning ever since January. Obama built a formidable deportation force, and this is the one Trump now works with, which is not a piffling thing. The hires that Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has laid out include 5,000 additional Customs and Border Protection agents and 500 Air & Marine Agents/Officers, as well as 10,000 new Immigration & Customs Enforcement hires, and the deputization of state and local law enforcement as immigration agents with the powers enumerated under the Immigration and Naturalization Act. These combined with the fund commitments this budget promises will be even more powerful than before, and an expedited court process for throwing out illegal immigrants will unleash this power with even greater bluntness and speed.

In line with this commitment the budget suggests $1.5 billion above the current budget for the Department of Homeland Security. This money is expressly earmarked for “ensur[ing]…DHS has sufficient detention capacity” – which will mean the construction of ever more prisons in the nation’s already sprawling ecosystem. These prisons will likely be built by private firms and administered by private firms. Since Trump’s election stock prices for private prisons have launched dizzily into the stratosphere. The Center for American Progress has published a good look at the links between the private prison industry and the current administration. Those include quarter million dollar contributions from the GEO Group and CoreCivic. CoreCivic donated $225,000 to the Rebuilding America Now super PAC, which the Campaign Legal Center says violates a law prohibiting government contractors from donating to politicians.

GEO Group has already begun reaping the benefits; in April it was awarded a contract worth $110 million for a 1,000 bed detention center in Conroe, Texas. The full dollar amount of the contract, according to its contract solicitation listing, is $457,361,493. A CNN Money article which reported the stock bonanza also noted that 200,000 beds in prisons are over 75 years old predicted that “the federal government may turn to private prisons instead of upgrading antiquated facilities.” This squares with the GEO Group contract and slashes in the proposed budget, which includes a reduction of $888 million in construction funds for the Federal Prison System.

The supplementary Major Savings and Reforms report to the budget includes this justification for those cuts:

“The Attorney General recently released guidance reversing a decision to phase out the use of privately-operated contract facilities. In light of that decision and the present size of the inmate population, the Administration has additional, flexible options for confinement that may be used before expending resources for new construction.”

That reversal is of a directive issued last year by the Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates under the previous administration, which directed the Bureau of Prisons to reduce dependence on privately operated prisons with an eye towards ending their use.

And while I might be inclined to criticize such a policy, credit is due to the remarkably bureaucratic-dystopian phraseology of “flexible options for confinement.”

Fiscal Responsibility

This budget crows lustily about its fiscal responsibility. Nothing lays lie to that claim more than the budget’s justification for increased military expenditures of $54 billion.

“[The Budget Blueprint] included a $54 billion increase in defense spending in 2018, which was fully offset by $54 billion in reductions to non-defense programs.”

Balanced indeed! The supplementary Major Savings and Reforms report tells us it’s all part of a plan to “create a leaner, more accountable, less intrusive, and more effective Government.” And a more leaner country it will surely create, with massive cuts to SNAP of $191 Billion over the next 10 years.

Funding will be shifted over to the states, the evergreen solution this budget refers to. The aim is to end the benefits, expressed in a bit of shifty language that for a moment pretends to be empowering: “By giving States a financial stake in the cost of providing these benefits, rather than relying entirely on Federal funds, it would increase State incentives to create economic paths to self-sufficiency.”

Put more plainly, with states scrambling to allocate their budgetary outlays effectively, they will not be able take on the burden of programs previously paid for by the federal government. The language does not envisage a path to economic self-sufficiency, i.e. the material needs of poor people being met; the only concern is to get the problem out of the government’s hair.

The most insulting expression of this policy is the introduction of the SNAP Retailer Application Fee. The dollar amounts are not nailed down yet, but they start at $250 and can go as high as $25,000. MS&F claims it will raise $2.4 billion over the next ten years.

I asked NACS, which represents convenience and petroleum retailing, whether or not they thought these fees would discourage stores from seeking SNAP authorization.

“The short answer,” came the reply, “is yes.”

A press release from NACS on Wednesday laid out the organization’s objection: “any policy that would make it more costly or difficult for small format retailers to participate in SNAP raises concerns because of the access implications for beneficiaries.”

The financial concern for retailers is important too; SNAP is “not…lucrative,” I was also told, as well as that NACS had “already gotten a couple of calls” from retailers concerned about the fees.

That leads one to the conclusion that these fees are designed to limit access to benefits for those most in need, who, if their local store decides the new fee is too much to pay, would not be able to travel far to a supermarket than can afford the authorization.

Passing the Buck

Much is made in this budget of the “flexibility” it offers to the states. This is a smokescreen for the fact that the budget merely strips federal dollars for essential services that states have come to be expected to provide. But while states will still be expected by their residents to provide these services, they will have far less money at their disposal to do so than before. Thus, rather than being in a more flexible position states will now be further constrained in how they allocate funds. In states controlled by conservative governments the outcome will be programs like welfare assistance, health care, and housing assistance simply being cut. This will also be the case in poorer states because of the bare fact that they won’t be able to find the extra money.

The National Governor’s Association released a statement on May 25th criticizing the budget for shifting costs to the states; for them the “additional flexibility” does not make up for “significant cuts to federal-state programs.”

‘Flexibility’ is a cruel euphemism. Nothing in this budget makes up for anything in it or out of it. It is a deliberate mess, crates toppled behind a thief for us to clamber over as we try to chase him down.

Budget Material

Summary: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/budget/fy2018/budget.pdf

MS&F: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/budget/fy2018/msar.pdf

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