A chart buried on page 245 of President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget analysis looks alarming: It shows a massive decrease in funding over 10 years for federal programs that aid survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.
The 93 percent cut appeared to confirm the worst fears of survivor advocates and women’s activists. They’d been hearing reports that the Trump administration might slash federal funding for counseling services, shelter, legal help and other programs under the bipartisan Violence Against Women Act.
Yet the White House says that just isn’t so. Don’t believe what you read.
After the budget came out this week, the Trump administration rushed to reassure advocates. It advised them to ignore the chart that shows funding for the programs holding steady in 2018, then plummeting from $460 million to eventually $30 million annually within a decade. They said the White House had no plans to gut the Violence Against Women grant programs.
Most of this year’s budget for the programs comes from the federal Crime Victims Fund. In future years, though, the budgets do not assume that money will be transferred from the fund. The administration has yet to determine how it will pay for the programs after this year.
As a result, the chart “does not reflect a plan to cut” the money, the White House budget office said in a statement. Rather it “allows the administration flexibility to determine the appropriate source of funding beyond fiscal 2018.”
The whole process, according to the budget office, is a “technical maneuver.”
All this confusion is not that unusual in the days after a presidential budget is released. It’s Washington math at its most baffling, and at the moment no one really knows what’s likely to happen. They do know it’s the sort of budget muddle that leaves people who often rely on government-funded programs worried and upset.
“It’s totally disingenuous,” said Kathy Spillar, executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation, a nationwide women’s rights group.
“They say don’t worry about it, but you can see with your own eyes that line in the budget. It goes from an inadequate amount to virtually nothing,” Spillar said. “It clearly reflects where they’re headed with their policy that they would choose to gut these kinds of programs, all in service to tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and for corporations.”
Heightening the concern is Trump’s recent political history. Democrat Hillary Clinton topped Trump among women by 54 to 41 percent in last year’s election, according to network exit polls.
Trump stirred controversy in October when a 2005 video surfaced showing him bragging about grabbing women by the “p---y.”
The day after his inauguration, an estimated 500,000 participated in the Women’s March on Washington, widely regarded as a protest against many Trump policies.
Top members of his administration have in the past opposed federal funding for programs aimed at helping people who’ve been abused, raped or stalked.
“I feel like I’m getting your assurances on the phone, but in black and white this looks really appalling,” one victim’s advocate, Monica McLaughlin, recalled telling an official with the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“They knew that this looked bad, but they wanted to reassure us that it wasn’t a policy decision,” said McLaughlin, deputy director of public policy at the nonpartisan National Network to End Domestic Violence.
The impact of a 93 percent cut in funding to these programs would be devastating, said Ruth Glenn, executive director, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “We would not be able to survive that.”
But, Glenn said of the White House, “They’ve assured us that it’s a technical issue and not a defunding issue.”
The Department of Justice, which administers the grants, did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, voted against a bill to reauthorize the programs in 2013, when he was a senator from Alabama. So did Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina. The bill passed without their support, renewing the programs through 2018.
The Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks have argued in the past that Violence Against Women programs should be eliminated or reduced. They say such efforts should be funded at the state or local level.
It’s common for presidential budgets to use fuzzy math. Sometimes the dollar numbers assigned to federal programs after the current budget year are not very meaningful, said David Reich, a senior fellow who works on federal fiscal policy at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“But I do not know whether or not that’s the case here,” Reich said. “This could be an issue of the technical presentation or it could be a real intention to drastically cut the number in 2019.”
The backup tables for former President Barack Obama’s budgets seem to show a similar but smaller drop in funding for Violence Against Women Act programs, from $460 million in fiscal 2016 to $155 million in fiscal 2017.
McLaughlin said advocates had complained to the Obama administration and Congress at the time that the budget-writers were relying on a gimmick to fund the Violence Against Women programs from the Crime Victims Fund rather than the core Department of Justice budget. By doing so, they could show a smaller amount being allocated, because the rest of the money was made up from the fund.
That strategy, though, risks depleting the Crime Victims Fund, which is used for other purposes as well. Doing so could also leave the women’s programs without a reliable source of cash in the future. That’s why advocates want a specific budget allocation.
At least some members of Congress took Trump’s budget chart at face value this week.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat, said it appeared to specifically target Violence Against Women program funding.
“Slashing support for the Violence Against Women Act is absolutely unconscionable and I will do everything in my power to fight for its full restoration,” he said in a statement.
Cleaver and Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas signed a letter to Mulvaney in February expressing “our deep concern” about reports that the Trump administration was preparing to eliminate Violence Against Women Act grants at the Department of Justice.
After Trump released his full budget Tuesday, Yoder issued a statement stressing that the Violence Against Women Act programs are “vitally important and must be preserved.”
Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, a former Jackson County, Missouri, prosecutor, said she’d seen the programs funded by the Violence Against Women Act “literally save lives.”
“Stripping those vital resources is a nonstarter with me,” McCaskill said.
Janeé Hanzlick, the president and CEO of SAFEHOME, the largest domestic violence agency in Kansas, said she was nervous.
SAFEHOME, in Johnson County, Kansas, provides shelter as well as legal advocacy, community education, professional therapy, and help finding housing and employment so that people can rebuild their lives after they’ve survived domestic violence. More than 9,200 people used its services last year.
“It would have a major impact on our ability to provide services because about 40 percent of our budget is federal funding,” Hanzlick said. SAFEHOME would have to reduce or eliminate shelter beds, advocacy and counseling services, she said.