Let Trump Golf, Let the Public Draft the Budget

One idea behind a representative government is to approximate what the public as a whole would do if it had the time to sit down and consider each matter itself. Of course the entire U.S. public does not have that time. But when a random sample of the public is asked to take the time on one topic, its results typically line up with opinion polls, not to mention basic human decency, far more closely than does the work of the Congress or the White House.

An example is found in the matter of the fiscal year 2018 federal budget. This can be a tricky topic to poll the public on, principally because most of the public has little idea what the budget looks like, and most discussions of the budget only make matters worse. Passionate pleas not to cut this or that valuable program leave people imagining that such programs make up a significant part of the budget, and that the White House proposal would shrink the government by cutting such programs.

In fact, only one item makes up a significant part of the discretionary budget — over half of it, in fact — and President Donald Trump’s proposal is for the same size government, but with funding moved out of virtually everywhere else and into this one budget item: the military. Trump’s budget proposal would push military spending up to above 60% of discretionary spending (not counting secret budgets, of course).

What would be the point of asking for budget recommendations from people who believe that military spending is 10% and foreign aid 20% of the budget? How responsible would that be? If the public were to decree that we must “increase” military spending to 15% of the budget, how would we implement that policy?

A democratic solution to this conundrum, short of an improved communications system, has been found by the staff of the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland. They simply show people the current 2017 budget, so that they know what it is, and ask them how to improve it. The results would only shock an elected “representative.”

“By far the biggest gap,” the researchers report, “is for … military spending. Overall the Trump administration favors a $53.4 billion increase while the public favors a $41 billion cut – a $94.4 billion gap.” And, of course, Trump favors cuts to pay for his militarism that the public opposes: on education, public housing, the State Department, medical research, the environment, and mass transit.

I’m with the public on this and every other topic I know of. A sample of informed public opinion should override any veto, filibuster, house resolution, or executive order as far as I’m concerned. We’d all be better off.

Dumping $700 billion into a never-audited department named “defense,” against the will of the public, is certainly not defensive of democracy. Neither is it defensive of anything else. Only 20 countries reach $10 billion in annual military spending, nine of them NATO members, 8 more U.S. allies, and 3 potential allies if not treated with such hostility. One of them, Russia, has cut its military in the past 3 years from $70 billion to $48 billion. Somehow that’s the government considered so terrifying in Washington, D.C., that all you’d have to do to stop Trump’s budget would be to claim 1,000 times on television that a Russian wrote it.

That’s going to be my Plan B. First let’s try this. I suggest we cut the President some slack. Let him go golfing more often. The public can handle the government just fine.

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  • I like this proposal. I also want to point out that smaller steps like
    1) Making all budget discussion in Congress public, no closed session or after additions
    2) Allowing the public to submit informed position papers/proposals
    3) Hosting an official website where the public can comment on particular aspects of any proposed legislation.

    Would
    be positive steps in the right direction that go beyond what we have
    now. In the case of the DOD budget, there are major additional
    problems:

    4) the DOD/CIA/NSA/FBI is allowed to keep what it actually does with the money secret from the public
    5) the DOD/CIA/NSA/FBI is allowed to blatantly lie to the public
    6)
    the DOD/CIA is allowed to spend big chunks of the money to produce
    professional propaganda that lies to the public about what it is
    actually doing
    7) the DOD/CIA/NSA/FBI is allowed to imprison people
    and silence them for the crime of telling the public what is actually
    happening behind the scenes.

    Ending those practices would be a huge step as well.

    • Eric Ackley

      To expand on points 1,2 and 3: I have often thought that, using the internet, everyday citizens should be able to comment on bills before the congress and President. What if the bills under consideration could be posted to a site, and everyone have a week or more to comment on it. No more secret bills and backroom deals. Then, the congress could revise the bill to reflect the will of the people they represent.

      • Yeah it takes some thought. If everyone just added a comment it would be a free-for-all and most would stay unread. But there could be processes to summarize arguments – e.g. someone to judge whether a new comment was a new argument or an old one, already covered, with different words…then the arguments/facts could be written up and presented in some organized way so that the essential points were highlighted.

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