WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When President Donald Trump proposes his 2020 federal budget on Monday, official Washington will likely have a quick look, shrug and move on, marking another stage in the quiet decay of the U.S. government’s traditional policy-making processes.
U.S. President Donald Trump walks out to talk to reporters as he departs for travel to Alabama and Florida from the White House in Washington, U.S. March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
There was a time when the release of the president’s budget was a red-letter day on the calendar of Washington wonkery, with policy experts and fiscal hawks delving into spreadsheets and expounding upon new spending plans and the national debt.
But the hoopla of budget day is gone, a relic of a time when politics were less polarized, the federal deficit drove political decisions and the White House and Congress still took the budget process seriously.
“It has seemed to me that budget day ain’t what it used to be,” said Robert Bixby, who has pored over the budget for more than 25 years at the Concord Coalition, a fiscal responsibility advocacy group.
Last year’s budget weighed in at a whopping $4.4 trillion. It was not balanced and was panned for relying on rosy economic projections and for not doing enough to cut the federal deficit.
The 2020 Trump budget will land a month after a deadline established in law, a lag blamed on the recent five-week partial shutdown of the federal government over a funding dispute.
Congress, which controls federal spending, is likely to dismiss Trump’s proposal, if recent history is any guide.
The Democratic-ruled House of Representatives and Republican-majority Senate also are unlikely to agree on a joint budget resolution of their own. Instead, they probably will stumble forward until fiscal 2019 ends and a spending deadline arrives on Oct. 1, forcing them to produce a last-minute deal or face another government shutdown.
“The entire process has become one of missed deadlines, make-believe budgets filled with gimmicks and magic asterisks,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
MacGuineas remembers in years gone by “scurrying around” to read through the budget as fast as possible so that she could answer a flurry of calls from reporters. These days, the budget is a blip on the news cycle, a process that is neither serious nor effective.
“I think it feels like a bit of kabuki theater at this point, for everybody,” MacGuineas said.
The White House disagreed. The budget process helps the administration set priorities for agencies for the year ahead and lays down a marker on issues, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Of course, Congress has the power of the purse but the president’s budget plants a flag to define terms of the tax and spending debate in Washington,” the official said.
BUDGET ON A STRETCHER
The traditional budget and appropriations process was limping along well before Trump took office.
One of former President Ronald Reagan’s budgets in the 1980s was brought out on a stretcher as a stunt to show the document was alive and well, ahead of it being declared dead-on-arrival in Congress, recalled Stephen Moore, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“What we have right now is essentially government by automatic pilot and that’s not healthy,” Moore said, describing the cycle of last-minute massive omnibus spending bills agreed on only when deadlines loom.
The budget and spending process has been further hobbled by lawmakers’ unwillingness to compromise and tendency to put off hard decisions while hoping for a shift in the next election cycle, said Kenneth Baer, an associate director in the Office of Management and Budget under former President Barack Obama.
Trump’s budget office has accelerated the downward slide of the process by using more gimmicks to make up for shortfalls, Baer said. “All the normal ways of operating the government have just been thrown out of the window,” he said.
Trump’s acting budget director, Russell Vought, has said the budget aims to cut non-defense spending and cap spending under levels set in the 2011 Budget Control Act – a feat made possible only with an increase in an emergency account called the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund to cover Trump’s plan to increase defense spending.
The tactic makes a mockery of the budget process, said Bixby of the Concord Coalition.
“It’s nothing but an astronomical gimmick! It’s over the top! It’s so over the top, it’s clownish!” Bixby said.
With the national debt now topping $22 trillion and the deficit at $900 billion in 2019, it is unlikely that Washington will find its way to fiscal discipline without an overhaul of the process, Bixby said.
He said he is frustrated and worried that it could take a crisis to jolt change, like a recession or a failure to raise the government’s debt limit – something that needs to happen in coming months to avoid stumbling into a first-ever default.
“If they act as dysfunctionally this fall as they did last fall and throw the debt limit into the mix, it’s very, very toxic,” Bixby said.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Bill Trott and Sonya Hepinstall
Exit poll has Thai opposition winning most seats but not enough for government
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai voters flocked to the polls on Sunday for the first election since a 2014 coup, and an exit poll indicated the populist party linked to exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra would win the most seats, but not enough to form a government.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (L) prepares to vote in the general election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
The race has pitted military junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha seeking to retain power and stay on as prime minister against a “democratic front” led by the Pheu Thai Party loyal to Thaksin.
Thailand has been under direct military rule since then-army chief Prayuth overthrew an elected pro-Thaksin government in 2014. Former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin was thrown out by the army in 2006 and has lived in self-exile since 2008.
Unofficial results of Thailand’s first general election since 2011, from the Election Commission, were not due for several hours.
However, immediately after polls closed at 5 p.m. (1000 GMT) the Thai PBS channel aired an exit poll by Thai research center Super Poll that indicated Pheu Thai would win 163 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives.
The same exit poll indicated junta chief’s Palang Pracharat would win 96 seats, the establishment Democrat Party 77 seats, the Bhumjaithai Party 59 seats and the new Future Forward Party 40 seats.
If correct, the projection would mean that Pheu Thai would not have enough votes to form a majority government in its hoped-for “democratic front” with other parties.
Prayuth’s Palang Pracharat party also could not form a government on its own, but it would have a better chance to form a coalition needed to elect a prime minister due to junta-written electoral rules that favor it.
Turnout was estimated to be high as 80 percent among the 51.4 million Thais eligible to vote, the Election Commission said about an hour before the polls closed.
Critics have said a new, junta-written electoral system gives a built-in advantage to pro-military parties and appears designed to prevent the Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai Party from returning to power.
Voters are choosing the 500-seat House of Representatives. The lower house of parliament and an upper house Senate, which is appointed entirely by the ruling junta, will select the next government.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election since 2001, but the past 15 years have seen crippling street protests both by his opponents and supporters that destabilized governments and hamstrung business.
Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Patpicha Tanakasempipat, Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by John Chalmers, Robert Birsel
Thousands attend NZ vigil, rally to fight racism, remember Christchurch victims
CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) – Thousands gathered in New Zealand’s cities on Sunday to protest racism and remember the 50 Muslims killed by a gunman in Christchurch and as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a national remembrance service to be held later this week.
People attend a vigil for victims of the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su
About 15,000 turned out for an evening vigil in Christchurch in a park near the Al Noor mosque, where a suspected white supremacist killed more than 40 of the victims. Several more people were killed at the nearby Linwood mosque.
Many non-Muslim women wore headscarves at the vigil, some made by members of Christchurch’s Muslim community, to show their support for those of Islamic faith as they had at similar events last week.
Ardern said on Sunday that a national remembrance service would be held on March 29 to honor the victims, most of whom were migrants or refugees.
“The service will be a chance to once again show that New Zealanders are compassionate, inclusive and diverse, and that we will protect those values,” Ardern said in a statement.
The prime minister has been praised for her leadership following the attack. She swiftly moved to denounce the incident as terrorism, toughen gun laws and express national solidarity with the victims and their families.
The vigil started with an Islamic prayer, followed by a reading of the names of the victims, which included students from the nearby Cashmere High School.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness only light can,” Okirano Tilaia, one of the school’s pupils, told the crowd. “Hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can.”
Earlier in the day more than 1,000 people marched in a rally against racism in central Auckland, carrying “Migrant lives matters” and “Refugees welcome here,” placards.
Muslims account for just over 1 percent of New Zealand’s 4.8-million population, a 2013 census showed, most of whom were born overseas.
As New Zealand continued to mourn and ask questions about how such an attack could have happened in the peaceful Pacific nation, the victims’ families spoke about their losses.
Shahadat Hossain, whose brother Mojammel Haque was killed in the attack, arrived in New Zealand on Saturday to bring his brother’s body back to Bangladesh.
“I can’t describe how I felt when I saw my brother’s lifeless body,” he told Reuters. “I was devastated.”
Farid Ahmed, who was at the Al Noor mosque when the shooting took place, escaped but his wife, Husna, was killed. On Sunday, he went door-to-door, thanking his neighbors for their support.
“They came running… they were crying, they were in tears,” he said of his neighbors when they found out that Husna had died.
“That was a wonderful support and expression of love, and I am feeling that I should also take the opportunity to say to them that I also love them.”
Reporting by Jill Gralow Natasha Howitt, Charlotte Greenfield in Christchurch, Ruma Paul in Dhaka, James Redmayne and Tom Westbrook in Sydney; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Sam Holmes
Almost 400 people winched from stricken cruise liner off Norway
OSLO (Reuters) – Rescue services had airlifted 397 people to safety from a luxury cruise liner with engine trouble off the coast of Norway by Sunday morning and were preparing to tow the vessel to a nearby port.
The Viking Sky, with 1,373 passengers and crew on board, sent out a mayday signal on Saturday as it drifted towards land in the Norwegian Sea.
The ship was carrying 915 passengers, of whom “a large number” were from the United States and Britain, according to the rescue services.
Some 17 injured passengers had been taken to hospital, a local rescue coordinator told a news conference early on Sunday, while others suffered minor cuts and bruises.
One was taken to St. Olav’s Hospital in the town of Trondheim, which is central Norway’s most advanced medical facility. Others were taken to local hospitals in the region.
“Many have also been traumatized by the experience and need care when they arrive on shore,” the Norwegian Red Cross said in a statement.
The airlift had gone on through the night. The ship has been able to restart three of its four engines on Sunday morning but still needed assistance.
“The evacuation continues at the request of the vessel … they need tugboats to get to port,” rescue service spokesman Per Fjeld said, adding that the plan was to bring the Viking Sky to the town of Molde.
Rescue services have begun to attach lines to the ship from tugboats to begin towing it towards the port.
Stormy weather conditions had improved in the early hours of Sunday, with winds blowing at 14 meters per second, down from 24 meters per second previously, according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. The wind speeds are expected to fall further during Sunday.
Images and film posted by passengers on social media showed furniture sliding around as the vessel drifted in waves of up to eight meters (26 feet), and passengers earlier described the ordeal.
“We were having lunch when it began to shake. Window panes were broken and water came in. It was just chaos. The trip on the helicopter, I would rather forget. It was not fun,” American passenger John Curry told public broadcaster NRK on Saturday.
The stretch of water known as Hustadvika and surrounding areas are known for fierce weather and shallow waters dotted with reefs.
Viking Cruises, which owns the ship, on Saturday said the safety of passengers was its top priority. The company was not immediately available for further comment on Sunday.
Reporting by Terje Solsvik and Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Jane Merriman/Keith Weir
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