Former top military leaders who served on the frontlines and congressional leaders in the president’s party are all speaking out, trying to stop the administration from slashing funds for foreign aid and American diplomacy.
“It’s going nowhere,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of the likelihood that Congress would approve such a budget.
“Probably not,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The White House announced Monday that it wants a 10 percent increase in military spending, roughly equal to $54 billion, with an equal amount of cuts from the “non-defense” budget — historic levels not seen since the early Reagan administration.
Executive agencies, including the State Department, are reviewing the plan now before the White House submits a final budget to Congress by March 16, but there have been reports that the plan could include up to a 30 percent cut to the State Department’s budget or the elimination of whole divisions, such as the envoys for climate change and anti-Semitism.
His budget is wholly unacceptable even to members of Trump’s own party and will go nowhere. But does it matter, if Trump’s budget, like President Obama’s budgets, won’t see the light of day after landing in Congress? In some meaningful ways, it does.
For starters, the ludicrous numbers must demoralize Cabinet members like Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, who is being told the president would just as soon see his department and American diplomacy more broadly hollowed out. His department employees see how little importance the White House places on what they do and the lack of real resources their secretary will have. Even if not passed, the budget is a morale-crusher. That in turn may spark more resignations — and more leaks — as foreign service veterans rebel against the destruction of their department.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took to the floor of the Senate to denounce foreign aid and diplomacy cuts:
I think it’s critical for us as leaders to explain to the American people just exactly what it is we’re talking about. We always want to put America first. We always want to think about the American people first. That’s our obligation. But I think this is part of that. If you really want to help the American people, you have to ensure that the world that we live in is a more stable place. Now, I will close by saying well, this gets back to the argument some make, well, why does that have to be us? We have been doing this for so long. We have been involved in this for so long. We spent so much money, so much blood and treasure around the world for the cause of freedom, democracy, humanitarianism and the like. Why does it have to be America?
I think that gets to the fundamental question of what kind of a country do we want to be? And the choice before us is, it has to be America because there is no alternative. That’s the point I hope people will remember and understand. There is no alternative for America in the world today. If America decides to withdraw from the world, if America decides to step back, if America declines and our influence around the world becomes less palpable, what will replace it? And there are only two things that can replace it. not the U.N., not — there is only two things that can step in whatever America leaves that it steps back. Number one is totalitarianism. For the growing movement around the world led by China and Russia and North Korea and Iran, totalitarian regimes. That is the first thing that could step in and fill the vacuum. . . . The other alternative to America is nothing. It is a vacuum. And that vacuum leads to instability, and that instability will lead to violence, and that violence will lead to war, and that will ultimately come back and impact us, whether we want it to or not. This is the choice before us.
Second, the nonsensical cuts highlight how untenable the Trump budget approach really is. One cannot slice a tiny elements of the budget like foreign aid (a significant chunk of which goes to Israel, raising the question as to just how pro-Israel Trump really is), less than 1 percent of the budget, or the Environmental Protection Agency (which totals slightly more than $8 billion) while passing massive tax cuts, increasing defense spending and ignoring entitlements. Well, you could, but the debt would explode. Trump, we clearly see, has not begun to grasp budget fundamentals, continuing to operate in campaign mode when his low-information voters would buy ridiculous propositions (e.g. entitlements are sustainable without reform simply by cutting “fraud, waste and abuse”). What will he do when he has to choose, say, between big tax cuts and increasing the defense budget?
Third, his budget will galvanize Democrats, giving them the perfect talking points: He wants to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. He wants to militarize our foreign policy by gutting aid and diplomacy. He doesn’t care about clean air and water. Moreover, Democrats will have a field day extracting plenty of examples of cuts that will hurt Trump’s Rust Belt, working-class voters.
Finally, Trump’s irresponsible, non-reality-based budget likely makes it more difficult to pass a budget — any budget — and increases the chances we will drift along from continuing resolution to continuing resolution. The president apparently wants to force Congress to make all the hard choices, but it doesn’t work that way. Without presidential leadership Congress usually becomes paralyzed. Lawmakers who want to make hard choices get undercut by the White House (Well, President Trump says we don’t need entitlement cuts!) and those who want to grandstand are encouraged to do so.
In sum, Trump never thought he’d be president. Right now he’s not acting like one, and unless he screws up some courage and faces reality, he and Republicans won’t get much of anything done. On second thought, that might be the good news.