By Niv Elis - 06-21-17 06:00 AM EDT
Trump administration officials are taking a beating on Capitol Hill over the president's budget request.
In hearing after hearing, Cabinet officials are absorbing heavy fire - much of it from Republicans.
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), a former chairman of the Appropriations panel, told Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at a June 8 hearing that he was "flabbergasted" by a budget proposal to end a workforce redevelopment pilot program designed to help coal workers.
"Not all of these decisions we will agree on, but this is what a balanced budget looks like," Zinke replied, defending the 13 percent cut to the Interior Department.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) listed a series of strategic challenges that would be exacerbated by cuts to the State Department totaling nearly 30 percent.
"I think this budget request is in many ways radical and reckless when it comes to soft power," Graham told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a June 13 hearing.
Tillerson replied, somewhat awkwardly, that State's funding was not all that important to achieving its goals.
"I have never believed, or experienced, that the level of funding devoted to a goal is the most important factor in achieving it," he said.
He said State was looking for nongovernment actors to make up for programs that would be cut or eliminated by Trump's budget.
It's far from unusual for Cabinet members to take fire for defending cuts in a presidential budget.
Officials from administrations in both parties expect to take partisan lumps as part of the process, and it's not uncommon for members of the president's own party to question cuts that might affect their districts.
It's the size of the cuts in Trump's budget that are unusual, as are the volume of complaints from Republicans.
"You have a situation where the agencies are really saying they wouldn't mind if they received more money than they asked for. It's this kabuki dance," said budget expert Stan Collender, executive vice president at the MSL group.
To pay for $54 billion in defense increases, Trump proposed cutting the same amount from nondefense discretionary programs, which comprise almost every other federal agency.
The budget also proposed additional cuts from mandatory spending programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and disability insurance.
"In this case, you have additional problems because the cuts are so severe on the domestic side," Collender said.
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin actually denounced a proposed $3 billion cut to Individual Unemployability, a cut that would pull additional disability benefits from roughly 200,000 veterans.
"We have budget numbers and targets that we have to hit, but we shouldn't be doing things that are going to be hurting veterans that can't afford to lose these benefits," Shulkin told Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) at a June 15 hearing.
Most of the cuts being defended by Trump's Cabinet have zero chance of making it through Congress.
"The president's budget is, at the end of the day, a messaging document," Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said to reporters last week.
But they have little choice but to offer some kind of defense.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson told Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) that community development funds cut from his agency's budget could be made up in an infrastructure bill that the administration is pursuing.
"Well, certainly we have been advocating for housing to be included in the infrastructure bill, and things do seem to be moving in that direction," Carson said at a June 9 House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
Yet there have been no indications that portions of the block grant program would be rekindled under the Transportation Department or in an infrastructure bill.
Carson also made the mistake of praising the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness as "effective." It was eliminated in the budget proposal.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross described the Economic Development Administration, also eliminated in the Trump budget, as an effective program before falling back on the argument that "tough decisions" led to it being extinguished.
"I think they have been an effective program, but there is a limited amount of funding to go around, and one has to make unpleasant and difficult choices, and this was one of the more unpleasant and difficult ones," he told Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) at a June 8 hearing.
Some Cabinet members have acknowledged reservations about the cuts.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt argued in a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on June 15 that the 30 percent cut to the agency's roughly $8 billion budget was not necessarily carried out the way he would have wanted.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the subcommittee's chairman, scolded him, saying, "In many instances, the budget proposes to significantly reduce or terminate programs that are vitally important to each member on this subcommittee.
"This is perhaps not how you personally would craft the EPA's budget, but it's the budget you have to defend here today," he later added.
Pruitt's defense: "This is our approach presently, but we look forward to your input on how, maybe, this can be restored and/or addressed in a different way."
Despite the discomfort the proposal may have caused administration officials, the budget has served as an anchor for budget talks.
Its chief proposal, to cut domestic discretionary spending by $54 billion and increase defense spending by an equal amount, is at the center of budget talks in the House and Senate.
Yet even here, it's not clear that Trump will get what he wants. Some Republican lawmakers want to expand defense spending by more than the $54 billion proposed by Trump.