The next budget battle is underway and it’s taking on a familiar look. On the one hand, the president wants to make serious cuts and is not afraid to act boldly. On the other, Republicans in Congress know they will have to answer for rolling back programs and provisions that are popular back home. Members of the president’s own party may see the futility of supporting substantial cuts. His budget could be declared D.O.A. Washington has been down this road before, but never with a president like President Trump who consistently disproves conventional wisdom.
When an ambitious White House promotes ideas that are politically difficult and legislatively impossible, members of Congress become boxed in. They begrudgingly advocate tough positions for a while, knowing full well that they are unlikely to pass as originally proposed. But why would a member think he or she should support these budget cuts if they have little chance of being enacted? Lee Atwater said the first rule of politics is to “be for what is going to happen.” Well, if Republicans in Congress are not convinced the president’s budget or anything like it is going to pass, they won’t see any purpose in investing their political capital and risking defeat back home. If they campaign for unpopular cuts that aren’t reflected in the final budget, they’ve stuck out their necks for nothing.
The question at hand is whether President Trump can shake up the status quo and do something different to avoid what usually happens. It doesn’t help that every dollar spent has an engaged constituency fighting for its inclusion in the budget. Neither does the fact that spending advocates have been so successful in bringing a kinder, gentler vocabulary to budget battles. They’ve eroded support for budget realism. “Slowing the rate of spending increases” has become “cruel budget cuts.” Every dollar spent is now deceptively characterized as an “investment.” And it’s not just the usual tax-and-spend Democrats who are guilty of this. Republicans are, too. Matthew Slaughter, dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and a member of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued that “what’s subtle is relative to what America could be in the next several years in terms of making more substantial investments in infrastructure, science research, and public investments that we have historically made.” What? If you put it like that, endless spending doesn’t seem all that bad – it doesn’t sound like money going down a rat hole. I’m sure most government spending is some sort of “public investment.” Whatever that means. The problem is that there are more good ideas than there is money to fund them. This is nothing new. In his 1989 inaugural address, President George H.W. Bush said, “We have more will than wallet, but will is what we need.” He couldn’t have been more correct.
We just can’t afford to keep spending at the rate that we are, not when each taxpayer is now responsible for $166,000 of the nation’s $19 trillion debt. I’m sure the spending is doing some marginal good, but is it worth borrowing money from the Chinese to keep supporting our debt? Republicans have led the charge in sounding this alarm. It’s clear that we must seriously reevaluate what has become the normal way of government. But will we? Until now, the rule in Washington has been whoever wants to spend the most money wins.
Perhaps President Trump can break this vicious cycle. Maybe he can change the calculus that members of Congress have traditionally been forced to make when budget season comes around. If he’s serious about deconstruction, it starts with the budget. It’s certain that Trump’s budget will receive zero Democratic votes, so he needs the Republicans to stand in unison. Is that realistic? History would suggest it is not. If he pitches the budget as a catalyst for change and deconstruction, as an opportunity for Americans to shake up the status quo, well at least the debate won’t be over before it starts, as most budget battles are. I am hoping the president and his core group of allies can set the country on a stable, financially solvent footing. The consequence of failure to do exactly that would be severe and pronounced. I know it sounds like crying wolf, but eventually our budget chickens will come home to roost.