During his presidential campaign and even in the early days of his administration, Donald Trump has avoided specifics. He's promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, boost economic growth, build new and better infrastructure, and defeat radical Islamic terrorism in the Middle East—but he was vague on how he'd do all that, or else contradicted himself from one week to the next. But by March, he'll have to submit a budget for Congress's approval, and a budget is nothing but specifics. Candidates can hide behind platitudes and attack ads; presidents have to govern. And this week, as Trump drops hints about what's going to be in his budget, it's becoming clearer where his priorities lie.
On Monday, Trump told a gathering of the nation's governors that he planned to increase the military budget by $54 billion and spend more on infrastructure and law enforcement as well. This would be paid for not by loans or tax increases but by equivalent cuts to other departments. The big question is: What's going to get the ax?
It shouldn't be a surprise that Trump is talking about ramping up defense spending. He's spent a lot of time complaining about how America's incredibly large and powerful military is allegedly falling apart—for instance advocating loudly for a bigger naval fleet, talking about "peace through strength," and complaining (as he did Monday) that America can't win wars anymore. And $54 billion isn't a staggering sum in context. In 2016, the federal government spent $3.9 trillion total—$2.4 trillion was mandatory spending, including payments for entitlement programs like Medicaid and Medicare. Military spending made up nearly half of the $1.2 trillion discretionary budget, at $584 billion. Adding $54 billion to that is less than a 10 percent increase. (Besides mandatory and discretionary spending, there are also interest payments on the debt.)
But how do you find $54 billion in the rest of the budget to take away? Republicans tend to rag on foreign aid, but it costs the country only $50 billion a year—and is Trump going to stop sending the $3.8 billion in military aid the US gives Israel every year? Or the $1.3 billion that Egypt gets?
Similarly, slimming down the domestic budget involves a lot of incredibly difficult decisions. Last month, the Hill reported that the Trump administration was using a document from the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation as a blueprint for its budget. That document promised to cut $10.5 trillion in spending in ten years, a huge amount even by the Brobdingnagian standards of the federal budget. Heritage wonks got there by attacking not just traditional right-wing targets like programs that fight climate change—they advise saving over $3.6 billion a year by eliminating nine such programs—but grants that provide money to local fire departments and cops. The rationale is that states and cities should pay for those services, but can you imagine a politician actually using that logic to defend taking money away from first responders? Other rumored cuts would save the government teensy-tiny amounts—eliminating both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities would save only a combined $300 million; privatizing the Corporation of Public Broadcasting frees up less than $450 million.
It's nearly impossible to effectively cut government without enraging people, which is probably why spending has risen under presidents of both parties for decades. And though Trump has argued that he's saved a lot of money already on renegotiating contracts (he said that he trimmed over $700 million off the F-35 project, which is disputed), his budget isn't going to touch the big sources of spending. His administration has promised not to cut entitlements, and he's obviously promising to spend more on the military.
If Trump wants to actually reduce spending, or even just pay for his defense expansion and his promised tax cuts, he's going to have to go after the remaining items in the budget. There is surely fat to be cut here and there, but a lot of those items pay for scientific research, protect clean air and water, provide assistance to the poor, or other praiseworthy aims. The administration will soon have to officially admit it wants to gut these governmental functions entirely, or walk back Trump's promises to fund infrastructure spending, military buildup, and a tax cut. In other words, pretty soon we'll all get to see what "making America great again" actually looks like.
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