Presidential budgets are political statements. A few are designed to set out a negotiating position, to pull members of both parties closer to the White House’s view of how the government should be spending the taxpayers money. Most are simply statements of political priorities, attempts at making policy points that the president feels are important or often overlooked. President Trump’s budget melds both of these concepts to make a powerful point: We can’t have it all.
Notably, this is the exact opposite message that President Obama used his budgets to promote. Take, for instance, this Washington Post commentary on Obama’s 2014 budget proposal:
U.S. government spending is mostly on autopilot. The government is scheduled to lay out $3.8 trillion this fiscal year — 70 percent of which will go to mandatory-spending programs, chiefly Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the federal debt. Mr. Obama’s plan for fiscal 2015 does not change this; it would increase overall spending slightly, paying for it with selected tax increases, while shifting money among priorities here and there. But these tweaks would take place within the same 30 percent of discretionary spending that the current budget contains.
In the place of budgetary realities, President Obama proposed spending vast amounts of money on pet projects that would benefit his party’s electoral prospects. Democrats treated budgets like pinatas – they gave them a vague resemblance to their real life counterparts, papered over any imperfections, then stuffed them full of goodies that would fall to the floor anytime they were poked or prodded. Obama’s budgets were fantasy, or politics, depending on who you ask. But either way they were cynical documents that failed to address our problems.
But President Trump’s budget is far from a political stunt, and it surely has nothing to do with firing up the base. Instead, it is a serious document that demonstrates the difficult choices and trade offs we now face after years of fiscal neglect.
The choices are plain to see. Do you want to maintain our current system of entitlements, in which case you’ll need to make dramatic tax increases that are likely to harm economic growth? That seems like a path to a death spiral of ever-higher taxes to achieve the same level of revenue in order to fund services. Or do you prioritize economic growth on the belief that a rising tide lifts all boats, in which case you’ll reduce taxes, but also have to make some substantial cuts to government programs?
President Trump has chosen the latter, which, truth be told comes with some significant trade offs. Namely, he’s decided to live up to his campaign promise to maintain, to the extent possible, Medicare and Social Security benefits while also making strategic investments in national defense. These so-called mandatory programs make up a tremendous percentage of our budget so Trump’s efforts to avoid cuts in those areas necessitates the need for reductions in other areas of the budget.
This may be harsh reality, but it’s better than previous presidents’ fictional budgets. As Jake Novak writes for CNBC:
“[R]idiculous” is really the best word to describe anyone who thinks continuing to promise the American people unicorns like the massive increases to the budgets of all the above-mentioned programs aren’t going to crowd out spending for almost anything else. The truth can be harsh, but ultimately it’s kinder than having our presidents and members of Congress continue to lie to us. The unicorns aren’t coming, and it’s time for our elected leaders to stop pretending only the politically easy-to-cut programs should go.
Or, as Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney described it yesterday, “Yes, you have to have compassion for folks who are receiving the federal funds, but also you have to have compassion for the folks who are paying for it.” Moreover, there is absolutely nothing compassion about making promises beyond our ability to pay for it. Spending money right up to the point that the Medicare trust fund runs out, leaving beneficiaries to experience an enormous cut, is not compassionate.
And so, we have to make some hard choices. We shouldn’t bemoan a president who is willing to be transparent about the difficulties we face, we should be thankful we finally stumbled across someone brave enough to level with us.