National Review Online
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Ahead of his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, President Trump has released the first details of his broad budget goals for fiscal year 2018, the headline-grabbing element of which is a proposed 10 percent increase in defense spending. To offset this additional $54 billion for the Pentagon, the president is recommending across-the-board cuts in as-yet-unspecified discretionary-spending programs.
The specifics are still forthcoming, but the president’s budget preliminaries suggest that his fanciful campaign promises — to solve the nation’s pecuniary woes by targeting “waste, fraud, and abuse” and cutting foreign aid — have not been adapted to fiscal reality. It’s still in the earliest stages, but his plan portends a significant increase to an already massive federal debt.
It goes without saying that the federal government is chock-full of waste. Bureaucracies are beset with bloat — duplicative or ineffective programs, overstaffing, and more — that can and ought to be trimmed. However, deep cuts to the EPA, the Department of Education, the Department of State, and the rest, which the White House’s budget outline partly relies on, are not only politically unrealistic but also unlikely to balance out the administration’s proposed spending.
Beyond the $54 billion heading to the Pentagon — which is welcome after the neglect of the Obama years — the president continues to promote large-scale infrastructure spending. On Monday, meeting with several governors at the White House, he promised: “We’re going to start spending on infrastructure — big.” (On the campaign trail, Trump proposed $1 trillion in roads, bridges, and more.)
Again, where the money is to come from is anyone’s guess, especially as the White House and congressional Republicans pursue tax cuts. If reports are accurate, the administration seems to be predicating its budget on optimistic annual growth projections.
In reality, the specter looming over America’s financial prospects is not waste or foreign aid. Foreign aid amount to $42.4 billion per year, or less than 1 percent of the federal budget; but some of this aid is in the interest of the U.S, and not the uniform waste the president sometimes suggests. The graver menace is our entitlement programs, which at present constitute 60 percent of federal government spending; they are expected to reach two-thirds of federal spending within a decade. The president’s budget, though, is designed to protect the largest of those programs — and not just from cuts to benefit levels, but from any cuts at all. This is silly. Ensuring that Social Security benefits are paid out at expected levels (for many current beneficiaries, a sudden cut would be untenable) should not mean that the Social Security Administration is exempted from budgetary oversight.
What is ultimately needed, of course, is long-term entitlement reform. Until Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and our host of other unsustainable programs are reconfigured, the country will continue adding to its debt burden.
From what we know so far, though, the administration is proposing no change in the trajectory of the federal budget. In the meantime, an increase in (disciplined) defense spending and an aggressive approach to administrative excess are fine priorities. But without setting itself to the country’s most pressing financial problems, the White House will never succeed in making its math add up.