Biden seeks huge budget increases for education, health care, environmental protection

President Joe Biden on Friday asked Congress to authorize a massive $1.5 trillion federal spending plan in 2022, seeking to invest heavily in government agencies to boost education, expand public housing, revamp federal health agencies and confront climate change.

The request marks Biden’s first-ever proposal for discretionary spending, a precursor to a fuller, annual budget slated later in the spring that will also address programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The president’s early blueprint calls for a nearly 16% increase in funding across non-defense domestic programs, reflecting the White House’s guiding belief that bigger government—and spending—can close the country’s persistent economic gaps.

Many of the agencies Biden seeks to fund at higher levels are programs that now-former President Donald Trump had unsuccessfully sought to slash while in the White House. In a further break with Trump, Biden’s plan also calls for keeping military spending relatively flat. Combined, the budget would increase all federal discretionary spending by roughly 8% in 2022.

Under the proposal, the Department of Education would see a roughly 41% increase over its current allocation, potentially reaching $102 billion next fiscal year, with an emphasis on schools in low-income communities. Most of the funds contribute to the largest-ever expansion in Title I grants, which seek to help students and improve education in high-poverty schools, the Biden administration said.

The plan also proposes a roughly 23% boost to the Department of Health and Human Services, including more than $8.7 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which the administration says is the highest funding level for the public-health agency in two decades. It would create a new federal agency under the National Institutes of Health, called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, focused initially on innovative research into cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The budget envisions nearly $69 billion in federal money towards addressing public housing, a 15% increase from the amounts enacted in 2021, to help low-income families obtain access to affordable living accommodations. And the Biden administration hopes to sets aside a total of $14 billion in new sums across government to protect the environment, including new efforts to reduce carbon emissions and research clean-energy technology.

“Together, America has a chance not simply to go back to the way things were before the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn struck, but to begin building a better, stronger, more secure, more inclusive America,” the White House’s acting budget chief, Shalanda Young, said in a letter accompanying the blueprint Friday.

In releasing the spending document, the White House set off what is an annual, often bitterly partisan fight in Washington, as lawmakers race to fund the government before the current spending agreement expires at the end of September. The vast increases Biden seek comes in addition to the $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package he signed into law last month, and the roughly $2 trillion plan to upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure the White House asked Congress to adopt last week.

But setting federal spending at such high levels may prove difficult for Democrats, who maintain only narrow congressional majorities in the House and Senate. They likely must rely on Republicans, who maintain filibuster power in the Senate, and some GOP lawmakers already have shown a renewed interest in tightening the federal purse strings—and addressing the the budget deficit—after largely ignoring the issue during Trump’s presidency.

Anticipating the fight ahead, a senior administration official on Friday acknowledged they are only at “the beginning of a long appropriations process” on Capitol Hill. But the aide, who briefed reporters on the budget in advance of its release on condition of anonymity, said the document for now serves as a “great marker” of the White House’s priorities—and its belief that the country in recent years has under-invested in domestic agencies and programs.

For the past decade, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have been beholden to spending caps as a result of the budget-balancing law Congress adopted in 2011. That has taken its greatest toll on domestic agencies, limiting federal spending across government even as defense funding continued to rise. But those caps expire entering the 2022 fiscal year, allowing Biden broad latitude to seek major increases in areas including education, commerce, energy and health.

Under Biden’s blueprint, the country would spend $769 billion on non-defense programs. The education dollars include new boosts to Pell Grants, which offer support to low-income college students, though the $400 increase the president has proposed is smaller than he initially endorsed on the campaign trail. Other new funding at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, meanwhile, includes a major expansion to voucher programs that might help more than 200,000 families, the administration estimates.

Some of the budget proposals seek to expand initiatives under the $1.9 trillion stimulus, the American Rescue Plan, that Biden signed into law last month. That includes new money to help homeless families and veterans, and new federal funding on public-health programs targeting racial and ethnic minorities. The budget also proposes roughly $100 million to aid states so that they can further improve their unemployment benefits systems in the wake of crushing demand earlier in the pandemic.

Other proposed increases track long-held Democratic policy priorities. There’s more money proposed for police reform and changes to the criminal justice system, for example, and other new investments—totaling $2.1 billion—to try to combat gun violence. And the Biden administration has recommended a significant increase in funding to fight the opioid epidemic, hoping to devote $10.7 billion to the cause next fiscal year.

Biden’s budget marks a dramatic reversal in approach from Trump, under whom federal spending largely stayed flat until 2020 forced Congress to authorize sweeping new federal aid to combat the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The gap between government spending and revenue eclipsed $3.1 trillion in 2020 after running above $1 trillion for several years.

To finance these deficits, the Treasury Department issues debt to borrow money. Federal Reserve officials and others encouraged the White House to borrow money last year to help the recovery and because interest rates remained low, but the government must still pay interest on large borrowing levels. Last year, total government debt eclipsed the entire size of the American economy—and over the life of Trump’s presidency it grew from around $14 trillion to more than $21 trillion over four years.

During his less than three months in office, Biden has not shown any inclination to pivot towards austerity. He has already signed a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill into law, proposed more than $2 trillion in infrastructure spending, and then added new domestic spending as part of his budget plan on Friday.

Biden’s new budget plan does not include new ideas for how to change the tax code. Earlier in the week, the Treasury Department unveiled a $2.5 trillion plan to raise corporate taxes as a way to finance infrastructure changes, but Biden has not specified yet whether he will seek further changes to the tax code to offset other areas of new spending.

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