There’s a saying about government: The budget is policy. No other document, from legislation to campaign materials, represents an administration’s vision and priorities with the breadth and depth of its plan for spending tax dollars.
All $4.1 trillion of it, in the case of President Donald Trump’s first budget.
Trump’s budget for the 12 months beginning Oct. 1 represents a slight uptick in overall spending, not that you’d know it from most of what has been written or said about it. The focus has been on programs that would be cut, from food stamps to Medicaid. Indeed, Trump called it a plan for “streamlined government.” His budget director, Mick Mulvaney, added:
“We’re no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs, but by the number of people we help get off those programs.”
This is a fine and traditionally conservative way to evaluate what the federal government does. Too much of what it does has created dependency and even trapped people below steep “welfare cliffs,” as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It is right to want to help people out of those traps, into lives of self-sufficiency.
You may sense a “but” is coming …
But it is one thing to “get people off those programs” by taking the programs away, and another thing to first make changes that help them rise out of dependency on their own.
No prizes for guessing which one is most likely to produce sustainable, even medium-term success. And not only because top congressional Republicans declared Trump’s approach “basically dead on arrival,” as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas put it.
The policy-first approach isn’t tried very often; it’s harder work and requires reformers to have the courage of their convictions. But it was done successfully in Georgia. We called it criminal justice reform.
When Gov. Nathan Deal took office in 2011 amid a budget crisis, he could have simply announced sharp budget cuts to the Corrections Department and told prison wardens to figure out how to make ends meet. Instead, he said the state would take a different tack to the costly problem of jailing non-violent, low-level offenders: identifying and codifying new policies over several years.
It was clear that, done correctly, these changes would produce fiscal savings for the state. But that wasn’t the main point. The main point was to make changes that would better address the problems these would-be inmates faced — substance abuse chief among them — so they could pay their debts to society appropriately and then get on with the business of becoming productive citizens.
And it was done correctly. The number of Georgians sent to prison in 2015 was 16 percent lower than in 2009 (it was a 25 percent decline for black men). Some 4,100 people suffering from addiction or mental illness were diverted to accountability courts where those underlying issues could be treated and monitored. Juvenile jailings, which cost the state as much as $91,000 per inmate per year, are also down sharply.
As a result, it is estimated the state has saved at least $260 million thanks to the changes. Given the current trajectory, which seems sustainable, that total should only grow.
Washington could take some lessons from our experience — in criminal justice reform specifically, but most important when it comes to the budget and policy. A federal budget that takes 10 years to balance anyway has time to implement reforms and let the savings materialize.