Today, the White House released details on the President’s budget proposal, and it is a serious blow to hopes that the administration would target big spending across government.
The budget proposes a $54 billion increase to Pentagon spending, while leaving untouched major spending drivers including Social Security and Medicare. Not to worry, though, because these eye-popping increases will be made up for by a series of deep offsets to non-Defense discretionary spending.
While full details have yet to be released, these targeted programs are said to include the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department, as well as non-mandatory social welfare programs and foreign aid.
This news should be disquieting for all fiscal conservatives.
Over the next decade, mandatory spending (ie. that spending that rarely gets voted on) will be more than $32.4 trillion — that’s nearly 65% of all federal spending.
Meanwhile, Pentagon spending currently makes up about half of discretionary spending — that is, what Congress regularly does take votes on.
In other words, this budget will hold steady the largest portion of all federal spending and dramatically increase the largest portion of discretionary spending, while suggesting dramatic cuts to what is around 15% of 2017 federal outlays.
Fiscal conservatives should be glad for any belt-tightening and realize how difficult it is to cut any spending, but these numbers just don’t add up.
For context, President Trump is proposing a $54 billion increase, a number that – by itself – is more than all but six countries spend on their entire military budgets.
This total is more than the entire budgets of Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Energy, the Department of Justice, the State Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Even if the entire State Department and EPA base budgets were to be cut to zero, the shortfall would not be made up.
There is certainly an argument to be made that Pentagon spending should dwarf other agencies and countries. That question is not for us to decide.
But however one falls in that debate, new spending must be paid for — because the national debt is also a national security threat.
When General Mattis himself has previously warned against State Department cuts, the idea that this level of offsets from non-Defense discretionary can even be achieved is dubious, to say the least.
Make no mistake: All areas of the federal budget must be open for reforms and belt-tightening.
And the case can certainly be made that, thanks to the Budget Control Act, Pentagon spending has been significantly squeezed in recent years. Perhaps, even to the point where such major changes are necessary – although maybe it’s worth starting with the $125 billion in waste the Pentagon itself identified and promptly covered up in 2015.
But strategy must drive dollars, not the other way around. An administration memo released before the budget was drafted all but says the opposite: “The amendment will also include offsets from lower priority programs where appropriate, but will be a net increase over the FY 2017 topline requested by the previous Administration.”
In other words, no matter what, the topline will go up.
Fiscal conservatives are right to question this type of approach.
There are real consequences to deficits and debt out of control, and Republicans often do not keep their promises to rein in big spending drivers, reform entitlements, and trim the fat.
But it is still remarkably disheartening to see a budget that by and large does not even make these promises to begin with.
Updated note: A version of this piece appears in Rare.us. Read here!