Content Editor: Adam Daroff

Monday, May 8, 2017

Don't Get Distracted

Effective activism in the Trump era is largely about deciding where to funnel your energy. You can’t have a march or rally or an internet campaign about every crazy tweet Trump fires off. You need to pick your battles and focus on the stuff that really makes a difference to people’s lives.

This is harder than it sounds.

The Terrible Budget that Doesn’t Matter

On March 18th President Trump released his budget proposal and liberals on the internet went bananas. They had a good reason to be concerned. The budget proposed slashing funding for a number of critical departments and programs, like the National Institute of Health:
…and even the program that funds “Meals on Wheels”

These memes make it sound that we need to ensure that Trump’s budget isn’t passed, in order to protect our health, and our seniors. 

But what these memes don’t tell you (and what their authors might not even know) is that even in the unlikely event that Trump's budget passes, it wouldn’t have any impact on the funding of any of these programs.

That sounds too bizarre to be true, but to understand why it is you have to spend a few minutes wading through…

The American Federal Budget Process!

Don't fall asleep. Don't zone out. Even though it's boring, it's important to understand this.

Here’s how the federal budget process works in a nutshell:

Step 1: Every year the president proposes a budget (like Trump did back in March), outlining how much money they think should be allocated to each program and department in the federal government

Step 2: The proposal gets submitted to Congress, which usually ignores it and comes up with its own budget proposal

Step 3: Congress passes a “budget resolution.”

Step 4: None of this matters.

The “budget resolution” that comes out of Congress isn’t legally binding in any way. It’s just a suggestion of how much money Congress thinks it would be nice to spend on various things. It has no legal authority and doesn’t actually allocate real money to anything. 

That means that if Trump proposed a budget saying that he wanted to cut all funding to the Department of Education and use the money to pay for a giant gold statue of himself on the National Mall, and Congress passed it, nothing would happen. 

The budget resolution is just a wish-list. Which makes the President’s budget proposal a wish-list for things he’d like to be on the wish-list. So it's basically another big campaign speech, full of promises he knows he can't keep. Everyone in Washington knows this.1

The reason we go through the "budget show" every year is partly tradition, partly a vain hope that one day we'll actually follow the budget recommendations, and partly because it gives the President a chance to outline his priorities in a way that people are sure to notice, because most Americans don't understand that it doesn't matter.

 So How Do We Actually Decide How Much Money the Government Spends on Stuff?

The reason that the Federal budget doesn't really matter is that, unlike individual states, the Federal government doesn't have to balance its budget every year.  If we want to spend more money than we have, we just borrow whatever we need.

Of course when you borrow money you eventually have to pay it back, and intelligent people in the US disagree about how much the US can borrow before it becomes a big problem.2

But because we don't need to make sure everything follows a budget it’s the much less visible appropriations process that actually determines how much money gets allocated to different programs and departments. The appropriations process is simple. Congress passes an omnibus spending bill which allocates a bunch of money to different parts of the federal government, and the President signs it. 

But this one matters. If you are a Federal department, you only get money if the spending bill says you do. And if Congress can’t pass a spending bill before the last one expires, then the government shuts down. 

The 2017 “Budget” that Actually Matters

Last Friday Trump signed the omnibus spending bill sent to him by Congress, which will fund the government until next September. It’s huge and complicated but here are some highlights:

Planned Parenthood is still funded!

Meals on Wheels is still funded!

The National Institute of Health gets $2 billion increase in funding

It’s not all good news for Liberals of course. 

The Department of Education loses $1.2 billion -- $68 billion, down from $69.2 billion. The Environmental Protection Agency loses $0.2 billion -- $8 billion, down from $8.2 billion. On the other hand, none of the additional $1.5 billion for border security can go towards building Trump's wall. 

Picking the Wrong Battles

We can't solve everything. If we pick up the phone for every congressional vote or executive order, we'll get burned out, and lose passion. If we take to the internet after every Tweet, our message becomes diluted.  That means we need to focus on what's really important, and not waste energy on what's not.

All of the effort activists put into "saving" Meals on Wheels and Planned Parenthood from Trump's budget was wasted energy - because those programs weren't in serious danger anyways - or at least, not from Trump's budget.. 

Unlike many activists, Democratic members of Congress knew that the budget was a smokescreen, and without any support from their activist base, they forced the GOP and Trump to accept a funding bill that preserved key liberal priorities.

But there will be times where activism is necessary, and when that time comes we don't want to be distracted by protesting something that doesn't actually matter.

Trump understands this. He's a master of misdirection. He fires off an inflammatory Tweet, or makes some bone-headed statement (like "I didn't know being President would be so hard!) and liberal activists go nuts – pulling up old Tweets where Trump said exactly the opposite of what he’s saying now, providing “fact checking,” and doing a genuinely awesome job of making Trump look like an idiot.

And while everyone is distracted by all this Trump has an opportunity to sign an executive order, or move a bill through Congress, which can actually impact people's lives but which isn’t as obviously inflammatory. And because activists are distracted by his tweet they don’t notice.

The problem is that “important stuff” is often boring and complicated. You might have to dig a little harder, and learn a little more about the way government works in order to even understand what the issue is. 

So What About Health Care?

The American Health Care Act that the House passed last week is one of those things that really matters. For one thing, unlike Trump's budget proposal, the ACHA really would cut funding for Planned Parenthood. You've probably already heard about all the other stuff it would do as well.

 However,  the ACHA is still a long way from becoming law. The Senate (which tends to move pretty slowly) has to debate and pass their own version, and then the House has to vote on it again  to approve whatever changes the Senate made. Then Trump has to sign it. So if you care about this bill, there is a lot of time to make your voice heard. But it's important not to get distracted.

In the next few weeks Trump will probably say or Tweet something so crazy that you can't help but rant about it. It might be about the Civil War, or science, or CNN, or Mexicans, or chocolate cake. It will make him sound like a total moron. It will make us laugh at how dumb he is. But if we focus on that and forget about the huge, complicated health care bill wending it's way through Congress, Trump will be the one who laughs last.


Congress often doesn’t even bother to pass a budget resolution. It didn’t pass a one in 2011, 2012 2013, 2013 or 2015. But it passed one in 2016. But because none of this really matters, you probably didn't notice.

There are a bunch of reason why it's so difficult to agree on whether it's OK for the US to keep borrowing money every year. One reason is that "money" is something that the government (really the Federal Reserve, or the "Fed" for short) creates in the first place. The Fed can create new money out of thin air (some people don't like that this is how money works, but it's how basically every other country in the world has been doing things for the past 50 years or so). But if it creates too much money, really bad things (like hyperinflation) can happen. The other issue is that when the US government borrows money it's often borrowing it from....other parts of the US government. The Federal government borrows money by issuing Treasury Bonds, and one of the biggest buyers of Treasury Bonds is the Social Security program's trust fund. Right now the US government owes Social Security around $2 trillion. So does that mean the government owes itself $2 trillion? What does that even mean? Well, it depends on how you look at it. If all this sounds insanely complicated you're correct, and hopefully this helps to explain why questions about whether the US is borrowing "too much" are really difficult to answer.

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