President Donald Trump is set to release his first budget for the fiscal 2018 year on Thursday. But while the media has been portraying it as a battle royale between the left and the right, it may further divide a Republican Party already grappling with health care and tax reform.
Under normal conditions, conservatives would be happy that this budget beefs up the military (an expected increase of $54 billion in defense spending) and homeland security (possibly a wall)―but even here, there is conflict and consternation.
Over at The Weekly Standard, Thomas Donnelly and Gary Schmitt argue that “The White House has also been conducting a disinformation campaign in concert with the OMB announcement, claiming that the administration's proposal represents a 10-percent, $54 billion increase. But that is to measure the Trump budget by the spending limits set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, not by enacted budgets or Pentagon plans, let alone military necessity.”
But that won’t be the biggest gripe for conservatives. According to Alan D. Viard, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). this budget proposal “ignores the fundamental drivers of the long-run fiscal imbalance [entitlements] and instead focuses on non-defense discretionary spending.”
Many conservatives, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have long argued that fixing entitlements like Social Security, which accounted for about 24 percent of the budget last year, is our most pressing budgetary problem. According to the Heritage Foundation, “Without any changes, mandatory spending, including net interest, will consume three-fourths of the budget in just one decade.”
In fairness to Trump, he won the presidential election partly because he promised working-class voters he wouldn’t touch Social Security or Medicare. Still, by ignoring the money-rich portion of the budget and instead focusing on non-defense discretionary spending, Viard points out that Trump is “not grappling with the long-run fiscal problems.”
Once you take defense spending and entitlements off the table, and then factor in interest on the debt, you’re not left with much.
On top of all of this, we are being treated to another shoddy rollout. Team Trump has done almost nothing to sell this budget in advance. “He’s now going to propose cutting all kinds of things (and I agree with many of those cuts),” The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol tells me, “but [he] has done almost nothing to prepare the way by highlighting examples of waste [or] friendly studies.”
Kristol hypothesizes that Trump’s inadequate planning may be a product of his business experience. “It occurs to me that Trump's actual businesses have been privately held, so he makes deals… and he hasn't had to explain or defend those to anyone,” he adds.
There will be pushback. A breathless report in The Washington Post this week may serve as a harbinger of things to come: “President Trump’s budget proposal this week would shake the federal government to its core if enacted, culling back numerous programs and expediting a historic contraction of the federal workforce.”
To conservatives, though, shrinking the federal government and reining in the administrative state is a feature, not a bug. Trump deserves credit for actually attempting to do what even Republican presidents have failed to do—even if he has chosen an inelegant manner of doing it.
While it’s possible to mitigate the force of attacks, the best way to avoid them is to do nothing. That’s not Trump’s style. In many ways, he is fulfilling the promises he made on the campaign trail.
Steep cuts likely will affect federal departments such as the Environmental Protection Agency, which in turn will lead to predictable warnings that Republicans don’t care enough about the environment.
Even here, though, there is a possibility for an intraparty schism. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, is reportedly worried that EPA cuts will impact funding for a Great Lakes cleanup program in his state.
The State Department is also expected to take a hit.
Perhaps the only thing that could save the day for Trump would be if Democrats were to overreach, take a page from the Tea Party, and use this opportunity to engage in a government shutdown. It might sound like a ridiculous idea—like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory—but it’s a real possibility.