WASHINGTON — Confronted with trillion-dollar-plus deficits for as far as the eye can see, President Donald Trump is offering a budget plan that rehashes previously rejected spending cuts while leaving Social Security and Medicare benefits untouched.
Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget plan, expected to be released Monday, isn’t likely to generate a serious Washington dialogue about what to do, if anything this election year, about entrenched fiscal problems that have deficits surging despite a healthy economy. It was being released on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, a move that minimizes attention.
A blueprint written as if Trump could enact it without congressional approval, the budget proposal relies on rosy economic projections and fanciful claims of future cuts to domestic programs to show that it is possible to bend the deficit curve in the right direction.
The reality is that no one — Trump, the Democratic-controlled House or the GOP-held Senate — has any interest in tackling a chronic budget gap that forces the government to borrow 22 cents of every dollar it spends.
Trump’s reelection campaign, meanwhile, is focused on the economy and the historically low jobless rate while ignoring the government’s budget.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats controlling the House have seen their number of deficit-conscious “Blue Dogs” shrink while the roster of lawmakers favoring costly “Medicare for All” and “Green New Deal” proposals has swelled. Tea party Republicans have abandoned the cause that defined, at least in part, their successful takeover of the House a decade ago.
Trump has succumbed to the Washington temptation to deliver spending increases and tax cuts first and then deal — or not — with their impact on the deficit. Trump and key administration figures such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had promised that Trump’s signature cuts to corporate and individual tax rates would pay for themselves; instead the deficit spiked by more than $300 billion over 2017 to 2019, falling just short of $1 trillion.
Trump has also signed two broader budget deals worked out by Democrats and Republicans to get rid of spending cuts left over from a failed 2011 budget accord. The result has been eye-popping spending levels for defense — to about $750 billion this year — and comparable gains for domestic programs favored by Democrats.
The White House hasn’t done much to draw attention to this year’s budget release, though Trump has revealed initiatives of interest to key 2020 battleground states, such as an increase to $250 million to restore Florida’s Everglades and a move to finally abandon a multibillion-dollar, never used, nuclear waste dump that’s political poison in Nevada. The White House also leaked word of a $25 billion proposal for “Revitalizing Rural America” with grants for broadband Internet access and other traditional infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges.
The Trump budget also promises a $3 billion increase — to $25 billion — for NASA in hopes of returning astronauts to the moon and on to Mars. It also is likely to reprise his small-bore infrastructure initiative — proposed in prior years to provide just $200 billion in new federal contributions — while proposing a modest parental leave plan.
Trump took to Twitter on Saturday to promise voters that his budget “will not be touching your Social Security or Medicare” in keeping with his longstanding 2016 campaign promise.
Trump had made a bit of a stir last month at a meeting of global economic elites in Davos, Switzerland, when he told a CNBC interviewer that “at some point” he would consider curbs to popular benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security.
“At the right time, we will take a look at that,” Trump said. “You know, that’s actually the easiest of all things.” After Saturday’s tweet, an administration official said, “Every current beneficiary will keep their benefits as the President has always promised.”
Trump has proposed modest adjustments to eligibility for Social Security disability benefits and he’s proposed cuts to Medicare providers such as hospitals, but the real cost driver of Medicare and Social Security is the ongoing retirement surge of the baby boom-generation and health care costs that continue to outpace inflation.
With Medicare and Social Security largely off the table, Trump has instead focused on Medicaid, which provides care to more than 70 million poor and disabled people. President Barack Obama successfully expanded Medicaid when passing the Affordable Care Act a decade ago, but Trump has endorsed GOP plans — they failed spectacularly in the Senate two years ago — to dramatically curb the program.