Late last week, the White House released President Trump’s so-called “Skinny Budget” for 2018, which proposes cuts of $54 billion to domestic programs including more than $6.2 billion (13%) to HUD programs and likely deep cuts to USDA’s housing programs. In addition to eliminating the valuable Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program ($357 million for California) and making deep cuts to the already underfunded public housing capital and operating funds, the HUD cuts would include the long-feared elimination of the last remaining HOME funding ($130 million), which many California jurisdictions and developers have used to create new affordable housing over the years. Even worse would be the projected loss of nearly 10% of our state’s share of Housing Choice Vouchers (27,000 out of about 300,000), which would come on top of a 5% cut that HUD has just implemented for 2017.1
There is no question that if enacted such a budget would have devastating consequences for low-income families, seniors, and the hundreds of thousands of California households who currently benefit from these programs. But before we rush to call or members of Congress, we should ask ourselves two critical questions: (1) How likely is the Trump budget to become law and (2) What is it that I, my organization, and/or my community in California can do that would be effective in achieving a better outcome?
How likely is the Trump budget to become law?
Just because Trump’s party controls both houses of Congress does not mean that his budget will become law. An important law called the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), known without affection as “sequestration,” stands in Trump’s way. The BCA was a law signed by President Obama, who gambled that he could persuade members of Congress to increase taxes to avoid 1% annual cuts for ten years on both defense and non-defense discretionary spending. The gamble did not work and the BCA has been squeezing down affordable housing and other critical discretionary domestic spending ever since. The BCA is a bad law that should be changed by increasing or even eliminating caps on domestic discretionary programs. But there’s a silver lining that the BCA is still in effect in that Trump needs 60 out of 100 votes in the Senate to get his budget proposal adopted because it conflicts with the BCA. Twice during the past six years, the Senate has mustered the 60 votes to change the BCA, both times to increase temporarily its spending caps on both domestic non-discretionary and defense funding.
Trump’s proposal would end the parity between defense and non-defense spending cuts that was the linchpin in Congress’ prior two changes to the BCA caps. The breaking of the parity principle along with the sheer size of the unbalanced cut is uniting defenders of all domestic discretionary programs together in steadfast opposition. As a result, Trump is nowhere close to having 60 votes in the Senate for his budget proposal. Even though Trump’s allies believe he can pick up the votes of a number of opposition party Senators running for re-election in 2018 in states that Trump carried in 2016, I predict he will not get them.
What should I, my organization, and my community in California do that would be effective in this situation?
With many important opportunities at stake in Sacramento as well as threats in Washington, we need to be smart about how we spend our limited time and the time of our elected representatives and their staff. Both California Senators are already firmly committed to opposing these cuts and to lifting the BCA caps on discretionary spending whenever there is an opportunity. We should take every opportunity to reinforce these positions and to thank them briefly, but we should not repeat to them the same messages that some national advocates are urging on Senators supporting Trump’s proposed cuts.
What I would urge us all not to do is to inundate the phone lines and email inboxes of all the California members of Congress we know are already planning to vigorously oppose these cuts. As anyone can attest who has worked in a Congressional office or visited one during such a moment of strong feeling and activism as this, a flood of communications will have the unfortunate effect of distracting, slowing down and even, in some extreme cases, temporarily bringing to a halt the work of key staff who are our allies in Congress on these issues. I think we can all agree that this is the very opposite of what we want to achieve in communicating with members of Congress who have already announced their opposition to the Trump cuts and their desire to lift the BCA caps.
What should we be doing instead? Here are my suggestions:
- If you live and/or work in the district of a Republican member of Congress, focus on both federal advocacy with Congress and state advocacy with California legislators. For federal advocacy in these districts, please follow the appeals you are receiving from various national partners, including the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which is working closely with an umbrella group called the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding, and the Rental Housing ACTION Coalition, which is working to defend and improve the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Communicate early and often with both your local district office and the Washington office, ideally in person as well as by email and phone, using Enterprise Community Partners handy contact database. Additionally, respond to the requests for help at a state level from the California Housing Consortium and Housing California, as well as regional and local requests from the nonprofit affordable housing and tenant associations you belong to, which are leading efforts to persuade the Legislature and the Governor to approve new state investments in affordable housing described below.
- If you live/work elsewhere in California, focus first on supporting state advocacy efforts for increased funding and protections for affordable housing. Examples of new funding sources include supporting Senator Atkins’ Building Homes and Jobs Act (SB2), Assemblymember Chiu’s Bring California Home Act (AB 71) and Senator Beall’s Affordable Housing Bond Act of 2018 (SB3). An example of a bill that would protect existing affordable housing from federal cuts is Assemblymember Bloom’s AB 1521. With any remaining time you have for federal advocacy, follow the steps above in #1.
1 Thanks to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for these numbers.