President Donald Trump, as we’ve learned by now, is unlike most presidents. In that respect, did we really expect him to offer up a “traditional” budget?
“There aren’t a lost of examples of presidents coming in and saying, ‘I’m going to eliminate this program and that program and cut a whole bunch of programs back anywhere from 10 to 30 percent,’” former CBO director Robert Reischauer told the Washington Post. “This is quite unusual.”
Unusual, perhaps, but far from unique.
We can look back to George H.W. Bush, who told us that “[t]he old solution, the old way, was to think that public money alone could end [society’s] problems.”
“We have more will than wallet, but will is what we need. We will make the hard choices, looking at what we have and perhaps allocating it different, making our decisions based on honest need and prudent safety,” Bush said.
Or we can go back a little further to Ronald Reagan, who believed that the “federal budget is out of control,” while dealing with deficits of $80 million.
“Some government programs seemed so worthwhile that borrowing to fund them didn’t bother us,” Reagan said of the years following World War II. “By 1960 our national debt stood at $284 billion. Congress in 1971 decided to put a ceiling of $400 billion on our ability to borrow. Today the debt is $934 billion.”
How quaint that figure seems now that we’re approaching a national debt of $20 trillion. Nevertheless, Reagan viewed it as an extravagance, funded by borrowing and taxes, both of which harmed Americans’ ability to prosper.
“Let us cut through the fog for a moment. The answer to a government that’s too big is to stop feeding its growth,” Reagan offered. “The old and comfortable way is to shave a little here and a little there. Well, that’s not acceptable anymore.”
Heck, even President Bill Clinton promised to reorganize the government to improve efficiency and eliminate wasteful spending.
“Our goal is to make the entire federal government both less expensive and more efficient, and to change the culture of our national bureaucracy away from complacency and entitlement toward initiative and empowerment,” Clinton said.
In spite of the words and deeds of each of these presidents the government continued to grow, the budget continued to grow, and so did the federal deficit and the national debt.
Granted that President Trump’s off-the-cuff style and his bullish nature seem to amplify his actions in a way that past presidents didn’t suffer from. But in the end, President Trump’s budget outline, which was released earlier this week, falls well within the promises he made in the campaign and the pledges of past leaders.
The budget outline can be broken down into two numbers. First, it increases the Pentagon’s budget by $54 billion. Out of context, that sounds like a tremendous amount, but it would still put Department of Defense funding below what it was from 2007 to 2012 under President Obama before budget sequestration took effect. It would also put defense spending at 3.1 percent of GDP, the lowest it has been in years.
Second, it gives a concomitant cut of $54 billion to domestic discretionary programs. This would lead to reductions in most agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (31 percent), the Department of State (29 percent) and the Department of Agriculture (21 percent). Again, this sounds like a big number, but it is a tiny fraction of the overall budget, which is increasingly being eaten up by entitlement spending on Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. Indeed, those programs—which go untouched in President Trump’s proposal—make up roughly three-quarters of overall federal spending.
And that’s the big problem. Democrats seem to want to have it all. They want to expand levels of domestic discretionary spending, they want to grow entitlement spending, and they want to keep middle-class taxes where they are. President Trump’s budget recognizes the impossibility of the task and makes decisions accordingly. That’s not “inhumane” or “disgusting” or “brutal and wasteful” as some liberals have called it. In fact, it’s well within the norms of history. In reality then the only thing that separates Trump from his predecessors is that he’s not hiding his cuts behind nice-sounding rhetoric.