A decorated vehicle is seen in the parking lot before U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Henderson, Nevada October 5, 2016.  REUTERS/David Becker - RTSQX4K
Up Front

Trump’s bumper sticker budget won’t play well with Congress

David Wessel

A few (very) early observations on the first chapter of the Trump budget, the first time the new president has actually put forward dollars-and-cents proposals.

  1. “America First” has translated into spending more on defense and veterans and less on everything else.  That may please the small-government wing of congressional Republicans and their most ideologically committed supporters, but it may not play so well with ordinary Trump voters when they see rural airports close, or get turned away from federal job training programs, or lose federal aid for paying heating bills, or see delays in cleaning up contaminated land in their communities.  Many Americans favor less government spending in general, but object when specific government services on which they rely are cut – even those who may approve of Mr. Trump’s proposals to increase defense spending.
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  3. The politics of this will be, to say the least, intriguing.  When past Republican presidents have taken the knife to domestic spending, they’ve often paired that pain with the salve of tax cuts.  By releasing only one piece of his budget, the painful part, Mr. Trump has given his opponents an easy target.  Indeed, it’s far from clear that Congress will go along with the proposals Mr. Trump is making. Getting Congress to slash federal support for medical research? Fuggetaboutit.
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  5. By focusing exclusively on shrinking the one-sixth of federal spending that is annually appropriated for non-defense programs, the president has forgone any effort to sketch an overall fiscal policy and missed an opportunity to learn (himself) or teach (the American people) some basic fiscal realities. This is budgeting by bumper sticker slogan. It gives the president some applause lines for his rallies: We are going to stop sending your tax money to National Public Radio. We are cutting foreign aid.  This approach obscures the facts: The  U.S. government’s debt, swollen by the Great Recession, will grow to historically unprecedented levels not because of increases in annually appropriated discretionary spending, but because of rising federal spending on retirement and health programs, largely driven by the aging of our society. Maybe Mr. Trump should spend 15 minutes playing The Fiscal Ship, our online computer game on the federal budget at fiscalship.org
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  7. Little if anything in this chapter of the budget would use the government budget to boost to the pace of economic growth now or, more importantly, in the future.  And that big increase in infrastructure spending? We’ll have to wait a bit longer to see what that looks like.