We learned this week that the deficit is rising faster than the Congressional Budget Office previously predicted and that it could hit $1 trillion as soon as this year. The GOP’s tax cuts haven’t created the growth it promised, which means less revenue is coming in to the federal government. Combine that with spending hikes, and the president who said he would not just balance the budget but also eliminate the entire national debt is on a very fiscally unconservative trajectory toward a massive broken promise.
Not to worry, though; he can just get around to fixing it after he wins reelection.
That’s the constant refrain emanating from the White House and GOP circles. Repeatedly, internal leaks and GOP lawmakers have suggested President Trump could get serious about this come January 2021.
Witness these new comments from GOP senators to the New York Times:
“I hope in a second term, he is interested,” Mr. Thune said of Mr. Trump. “With his leadership, I think we could start dealing with that crisis. And it is a crisis.” ...
Reducing the costs of Social Security, Medicare and other contributors to the debt is “usually best done during divided government,” said Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming. “We’ve brought it up with President Trump, who has talked about it being a second-term project.”
Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia, said that “it probably takes a second-term president” to prioritize the issue. “It’s politically difficult to say you’re going to save Social Security, because most people think, well that means cutting benefits,” he added.
The thoughts from these GOP senators match leaks from the White House, where aides say Trump has told them to prepare sweeping budget cuts for a second term, as The Washington Post reported last month.
Trump himself hasn’t publicly leaned into the idea quite so much, but he is nodding in its general direction. In an interview with CSPAN’s Steve Scully last month, Trump was asked about second-term spending cuts, and he said somewhat noncommittally that they were on the table. He suggested they just haven’t been possible yet because he had to rebuild the military first. “We now have a very strong military, a lot stronger after this last budget,” Trump said. “And then at some point very soon, I’ll be able to cut back."
There is truth to the idea that a president has greater political flexibility when they no longer have their reelection campaign to worry about. But the idea that Trump will follow through on anything amounting to significant budget cuts is pretty difficult to swallow. A cynic would suggest this idea is being pushed by Republicans who are embarrassed by their and Trump’s profligate spending and hypocritical deficits. If they lose the presidency, they can just say they didn’t really get their chance to cut; if they win, well, they can cross that bridge when they come to it (but either way, they’ll have another four years). If this is somehow genuine, on the other hand, the GOP lawmakers are probably deluding themselves by thinking Trump might engage in the difficult work of actually getting cuts done.
Trump has already declared entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare to be off-limits, and he seems to like the idea that he’s expanded the military budget substantially. (“As you know, we’re spending the biggest number of dollars we’ve ever spent,” he said proudly in April, adding: “Seven hundred billion my first year. I won’t even tell you how much higher than before we got here.”) If you take those off the table, or at least assume he’s not going to allow for precipitous cuts, more than half of the budget already appears to be off-limits.
Trump has also shown a real lack of ability (or will) to push through difficult legislation, which is what budget cuts would unquestionably be. The GOP’s tax cuts got through, but only because they didn’t need any Democratic votes. Even with the same setup, the GOP couldn’t replace Obamacare. In other instances, including most notably on immigration, lawmakers have needed Trump to lead the charge in passing something bipartisan, but Trump has vacillated on what he wants in ways that effectively killed a chance for compromise. Lawmakers need to know they have buy-in from the Oval Office before they go out on a limb and support cuts that could be used against them in their campaigns; Trump has shown he’s not exactly a reliable partner on such things.
And then there is what we’ve seen in the past few months from other lawmakers. Trump has expanded the budget with basically only token pushback from tea-party-oriented lawmakers who spent almost the entirety of Obama administration decrying rising deficits and government spending. At the very least, it was nothing close to the backlash other times Trump has flirted with bipartisan deals. Congress has had two-plus years of steady growth, which is generally when cuts become feasible, but Republican leaders didn’t really even try for them.
If they’re not pushing hard for it, it’s difficult to see why Trump ever would. Is the guy who called himself the “king of debt” and regularly hails his expansion in military spending really going to want to talk about cuts that he made? Is the guy who mused about just borrowing a bunch and then renegotiating if the economy falls into crisis (yes, he really said that, as if it were a bankruptcy proceeding), going to rein himself in? There’s no immediate payoff in that — only peril — and that’s not really been Trump’s M.O.
But apparently that won’t stop Republican lawmakers from openly fantasizing about a president who meant what he said in 2016 about budget cuts, and it apparently won’t stop GOP lawmakers from talking about doing difficult things … later.