It’s a longstanding joke in Washington that when politicians are asked how they will pay for grand policy proposals, they reflexively pledge to make the necessary funds appear by slashing “waste, fraud, and abuse,” as though those are line items that can be excised from the federal budget.
Republican nominee Donald Trump claims to be running as an “outsider” but when he talks about his plan to increase spending on the U.S. military while preserving all entitlement spending, he sounds an awful lot like that stereotypical pol.
In remarks in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Trump pledged, “As soon as I take office I will ask Congress to fully eliminate the defense sequester and will submit a new budget to rebuild our military. It is so depleted. We will rebuild our military.”
He continued, “This will increase certainty in the defense community as to funding and will allow military leaders to plan for our future defense needs and most importantly, we will be defended because without defense we don’t have a country.”
The sequester, a mandatory cut in spending that was split evenly between defense and non-defense spending that arose out of a 2012 budget dispute, has had a major impact on the ability of the military to train and equip U.S. troops. But ending it without increasing the federal deficit would require harsh cuts to other government programs. That’s where Trump’s promises get predictably vague.
“As part of removing the defense sequester, I will ask Congress to fully offset the costs of increased military spending,” he said. “In the process we will make government leaner and more responsive to the public.”
So far so good. But then he came to this:
“I will ask that savings be accomplished through common sense reforms that eliminate government waste and budget gimmicks and that protect, absolutely protect hard-earned benefits for Americans.”
“Common sense” of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and if anything has become clear in recent years, it’s that a president can’t wave a magic wand and suddenly get members of Congress to work together in harmony.
Trump did hit on two legitimate sources of funding, identifying the billions of dollars in improper payments that the federal government doles out every year and the hundreds of billions in uncollected taxes that the Treasury never receives.
However, he ignores the fact that Congress has known about the improper payments problem for years -- the issue is spread across dozens of federal agencies -- and has done little or nothing to address it. There is no obvious reason why lawmakers would spring into action just because President Trump told them to.
Also, the idea that a Congress that has spent the past decade beating down the Internal Revenue Service with budget cuts and investigations -- and which is currently considering impeachment of its commissioner -- would provide that agency with new authority to investigate non-payment of taxes and to go after the lost revenue doesn’t pass the laugh test.
When Trump appears at a town hall event addressing National Security Wednesday night, he’s already going to have a lot to talk about. But getting him to provide a clearer path to the level of military spending he envisions would be especially informative.