By Tom Elias
Time and again, President Trump threatens to withhold federal grants from California cities, universities and the state itself unless they accept policies he wants to pursue, from large-scale deportation of undocumented immigrants to bashing the heads of campus protestors.
“California is in many ways out of control,” he said in one recent interview. Out of his control, he seemed to mean. Then, asked if “defunding is your weapon of choice” to force the state into line, he allowed that “It’s a weapon. We give them a hell of a lot of money. I don’t want to defund a state or a city. I don’t want to defund anybody…If they’re going to have sanctuary cities, we may have to do that. Certainly, that would be a weapon.”
Two questions he wasn’t asked: Whose money is he talking about? And, who gets most of that money?
The answer to the second question is easy: Most federal money arriving here goes to ordinary people, via Social Security payments, Medicare and Medi-Cal payments. That accounts for the vast majority of the $367.8 billion the federal government spends in California every year. (The figure comes from a Tax Foundation study.)
Meanwhile, Californians pay in much more than that in income, Social Security and Medicare taxes. So we’re really talking about our own money here, with the federal government mostly acting as a conduit.
Should California adopt a wide “sanctuary state” policy requiring all cities and counties to follow the practice of police in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Ana and other California cities that – among other things – don’t inquire about the immigration status of most people they arrest, Trump says, “If we have to, we’ll defund.”
He plainly thinks he can take any federal funds he likes from California and its cities. Does he also propose to cut off Social Security benefits to Californians if legislators adopt the plan they’re now considering?
No one knows precisely what Trump intends. But he plainly believes he can withhold funds at his will.
But that’s not how most federal grants work. Repeated court decisions, like the 1987 case of South Dakota v. Dole, say there has to be some link between the purpose for withholding federal grants and whatever program they’re being taken from.
This means that Trump cannot withhold Pell Grant money from California students just because he didn’t like it when police failed to beat black-clad marauders who violently took over a demonstration at UC Berkeley that began as a peaceful protest over a scheduled speech by an editor of the alternative right website Breitbart News. Nor can he out of pique withhold cancer research funding.
He also can’t take money from sewer or mass transit projects if he’s unhappy with policing in sanctuary cities getting those grants.
But the decisions probably do mean that if Berkeley again cancels a similar sort of speech, Trump could halt grants used in part to pay campus speakers – although there is no record of federal funds paying for this.
A significant question is why Trump singles out California, which contains a relatively small minority of the nation’s 106 sanctuary cities. Why, for example, did he not threaten Tucson, Ariz., whose sanctuary policy is one of the oldest, dating from the 1980s?
Might it be relate to the fact he carried Arizona last fall while losing California by more than 4.5 million votes? Is this more a matter of revenge than policy?
Only Trump knows what he intends and why, just as only he knows why he left Saudi Arabia off the list of nations whose citizens he’s trying to deny admission to the United States, when most perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, the most significant terror ever on American soil, came from there.
Like much of Trump’s agenda, widely defunding California would require action from Congress. It’s doubtful many California Republican House members would meekly acquiesce in withholding funds from the state in a general, non-targeted way that could severely affect their constituents.
All of which makes it highly unlikely that Trump alone can deny much money to California, even if he tries. That’s only fair, since the money he’s talking about actually comes from Californians, even if it is later mingled with other funds while in the Treasury.