The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump calls for 5 percent spending cut in some programs

President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.
President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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President Trump on Wednesday asked every major cabinet agency to draw up proposals to cut its budget by 5 percent next year, adding he could grant some exemptions to his request and suggesting he would not ask the Pentagon to cut the full 5 percent.

“Get rid of the fat, get rid of the waste,” Trump said at a meeting with cabinet members. “I’m sure everybody at this table can do it.”

Trump was likely referring to the planning process that will go into the White House’s budget request in the spring. But spending levels must be approved by Congress, and lawmakers have repeatedly dismissed the Trump administration’s budget proposals.

The push reflects the GOP’s extreme pivot in recent days to float ideas to address the widening budget deficit, which has ballooned since Republicans took control of Washington after spending years decrying deficits during the Obama administration.

A person briefed on Trump’s new plan who was not authorized to speak on the record said the goal was a 5 percent average reduction in discretionary spending across federal agencies.

Trump said he wanted the defense budget lowered from $716 billion to $700 billion, which would be a reduction of about 2 percent.

The U.S. government is projected to spend $4.47 trillion next year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Of that, roughly $1.36 trillion is “discretionary,” or run through cabinet agencies and appropriated by Congress each year. A five percent cut in that funding would amount to a $68 billion reduction.

A report Monday that showed the budget deficit had grown 17 percent last year to $779 billion, with projections that it would eclipse $1 trillion annually by 2020.

Budget experts believe the deficit is growing because of a big increase in spending on the military and other programs, as well as last year’s tax cut.

Because the government spends much more than it brings in through revenue, it must borrow money to cover the difference by issuing debt. Interest payments on the debt have already surpassed $300 billion a year and will grow rapidly as interest rates increase.

Trump’s push for a reduction in spending Wednesday contrasts with past and current calls for spending increases elsewhere.

The president has also repeatedly and successfully pushed for more defense spending. He has threatened to shut down the government if he doesn’t secure at least $5 billion in December for the construction of a border wall, a shift from his repeated campaign promise that the wall would be paid for by Mexico. Trump has also said Congress should appropriate money to deal with hurricanes and wildfires, breaking with a past GOP precedent to have any new spending should be offset by cuts elsewhere.

Trump in March signed a $1.3 trillion dollar spending bill that boosted both domestic and defense spending, though he said Wednesday that some of the domestic spending was “waste money” that he “would never have approved” had he not needed Democrats’ support for his boost in military spending.

Republicans in recent days have expressed new concern about the deficit, and some conservatives within the party are outside are pushing for spending reductions.

Republicans had spent much of the Obama administration complaining about the deficit and demanding spending cuts and fiscal restraint, but they have abandoned many of their pledges since Trump took office. Trump has not shown much interest in addressing the debt since taking over, saying tax cuts and higher spending will help grow the economy.

Trump’s comments came one day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said a much different approach was needed to address the deficit.

McConnell blamed programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security for driving the deficit, but he said changes to those programs can’t happen unless Democrats took control of either the House or the Senate, because it would take leadership from both parties.

Democrats are extremely unlikely to sign off on reductions to those programs’ benefits, and many of the party’s leaders are campaigning on expanding such programs.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump vowed not to pursue cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, which represent roughly 50 percent of the budget. Many Republicans have said the only way to curb future deficits is by restraining spending on those programs.

Since his election, Trump has backtracked and said he would seek big cuts in Medicaid, a health care program for the poor, but he has mostly refused reductions in Medicare and Social Security.

Told Tuesday that McConnell had said spending on social programs was driving the deficit, Trump told the Associated Press: “I’m leaving Social Security. I’m not touching Social Security.”

Trump has already signed a spending bill into law that funds most federal agencies, including the Pentagon, through Sept. 30, 2019. But spending on other programs, including homeland security, expires in less than two months, and he has threatened a partial government shutdown if he doesn’t secure more money for a border wall.