Critics of Trump suggested that slashing taxes and, therefore, revenue was much of the point — that by increasing the deficit Trump could then argue about the need for cutting government spending. It would be win-win for Republicans: lower corporate taxes and lower government spending. Perhaps the unrealistic assertions that economic growth would make up the difference, assertions rebutted by nonpartisan government analysts even before the bill was passed, were themselves insincere.
All of that context is necessary so that I may present to you one of the most cynical, disingenuous opinion pieces I’ve ever seen from a government official. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe I’m forgetting something egregious. But I doubt it.
Russ Vought is the acting head of the president’s Office of Management and Budget (acting because the titular head of the department is Mick Mulvaney, now serving as Trump’s acting chief of staff). As such, Vought is in charge of Trump’s annual budget, which, if it mirrors previous years, will propose lots of cuts to government programs.
"Congress Must Join the President in Cutting Spending," the article is titled. Here's how it begins:
“Recently, the Congressional Budget Office released a report on the fiscal state of the union. Its findings should sound alarms in Washington. Annual deficits are on the verge of exceeding $1 trillion each year for the foreseeable future, and interest payments on the national debt are projected to exceed military spending by 2025. The national debt nearly doubled under the prior administration, and is now over $22 trillion. Unfortunately, too many lawmakers on Capitol Hill don’t see this as a reason for caution.”
That CBO report looks at how the budget will change from 2019 to 2029, finding that revenue and spending will both increase in parallel, meaning static deficits that continue to add to the debt. What Vought skips over, though, is that the $1 trillion in deficits were precisely what the CBO expected would happen shortly after the tax cuts passed, thanks in part to the drop in projected revenue from tax receipts. Before the bill was passed, the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation estimated an increase of $1.4 trillion in the deficit over a decade from the tax bill alone, with increased economic activity offsetting $500 billion of that.
We can compare the CBO’s projections of federal debt held by the public from its 2017 projection with the 2019 projection — the last projection before the tax cuts to the most recent. In the 2017 projection, the CBO figured that the federal debt would hit $24.9 trillion by 2027. In the most recent projection that Vought is citing, it hits $25.9 trillion. (This is only part of the total debt, mind you. Over a quarter of the current debt is intragovernmental holdings, which is debt held by various government funds.) Publicly held debt alone was projected to equal 88.9 percent of GDP in the 2017 report; now it’s expected to equal 90 percent.
That change, remember, occurred under unified Republican control of Washington.
The debt is indeed now more than $22 trillion, as Vought writes, but 9 percent of that debt has been added under Trump alone. Yes, debt doubled under President Barack Obama, but it has grown at a faster clip during Trump’s two years in office than during an equivalent period at the end of Obama’s second term.
Congress members “simply cannot admit that Washington has a spending problem and they have not worked with President Trump to address it,” Vought writes. It takes significant chutzpah to place the entire brunt of the debt increase on spending after hand-wringing about new deficit figures that the analysts you cite attribute in part to a bill that slashed projected revenue.
Vought’s central argument is that Congress should not eliminate caps on discretionary spending — spending that, he writes, makes up “much of the current federal deficit in the near term.” Well, yes, it does, but the majority of spending is not discretionary but instead mandatory, spending on safety-net programs such as Medicaid and Social Security. In fact, the very same CBO report Vought cites in his first sentence shows discretionary spending declining as a percentage of GDP over the short term.
Mandatory spending is increasing in part because the United States is getting older. More people older than 65, more spending on Social Security and Medicare.
Vought at least indirectly acknowledges that the administration is only concerned about certain kinds of discretionary spending.
"Democrats in Congress," he writes, "held defense spending increases hostage for increases in domestic spending. We should expect more of the same from Democrats this year." The Democrats wouldn't give Republicans spending increases in their priority areas unless Republicans supported increases in priority areas for the Democrats? Imagine the gall.
“The president came to Washington with a sound understanding of desperate spending problem in Washington. His budgets reflect that,” Vought writes, despite clear indicators that Trump doesn’t really understand how the deficit works. And, we’ll add, despite reporting that Trump has explicitly dismissed concern about running up the federal debt because he “won’t be here” when it really explodes.
"Time and again," Vought concludes, "Congress has ignored presidential cost-saving recommendations and plowed ahead with irresponsible budgets that increase both spending and the size of government. This needs to stop."
If you take those last two sentences, snip them free from context and drop them into a textbook about the history of U.S. governance, they would fit in neatly as complaints just about anywhere. Drop them here, in the context of a president that championed a massive cut in projected revenue and who signed into law spending bills passed by a Congress his own party controlled?
It rings a little hollow.