Why Trump, the 'King of Debt,' Is Set to Change His Tune on the Deficit

Why Trump, the 'King of Debt,' Is Set to Change His Tune on the Deficit


President Trump “is about to get religion” on the deficit, Politico’s Andrew Restuccia and Nancy Cook reported in a Politico piece Friday evening: “[A]fter mostly brushing off deficit concerns while pushing through a costly tax-cut plan, the White House now plans to reposition itself as an unlikely enforcer of fiscal responsibility led by its new top budget official, a veteran of the conservative group Heritage Action.”

The president’s budget proposal, due March 11, will reportedly call for deep cuts in non-defense spending while also looking to further boost spending on the military, in large part by keeping much of that money off the books. “Administration officials have been meeting for weeks to devise a strategy to dramatically boost defense spending, fulfilling a promise to Trump’s base, while at the same time placing a strong new rhetorical emphasis on deficit concerns in a bid to undermine Democratic demands for more spending on nondefense programs like foreign aid, education and environmental protection,” Restuccia and Cook wrote.

In other words, the Trump administration’s newfound “religion” is less about reducing the deficit, which grew 17 percent last year to $779 billion, and more about blocking Democrats’ spending priorities. Underscoring the point, Restuccia and Cook report that, “Privately, many White House officials also dismiss the notion that the federal debt is a major problem.”

Given the track record of the Trump administration and the president, the White House’s approach to the nascent battles over the fiscal 2020 budget — outlined in a recent op-ed by Russ Vought, the former vice president of Heritage Action and acting head of the Office of Management and Budget — is a “certain to face accusations of hypocrisy,” the Politico piece notes.

One example: Fiscal conservatives have in the past decried the use of the off-the-books Overseas Contingency Operations fund for defense spending as a “gimmick.” Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney once sponsored legislation to prevent the fund from being used in the way that the White House now proposes. 

What fiscal hawks say: The administration still isn’t serious about tackling the deficit or reining in the national debt. The 2017 tax cuts are projected to add about $1.9 trillion to the debt over 10 years, and the spending deal that President Trump grudgingly signed last year will balloon the debt even further. But the administration still isn’t looking at the biggest drivers of our long-term debt, like entitlement spending. “The core structural problems remain and have not been addressed,” Michael Peterson, CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, told Politico. [The Fiscal Times is funded by Peterson but is editorially independent and separate from the Peterson Foundation.]

What fiscal doves say: The Politico piece “ignores the long history of GOP playing this same game,” Michael Linden of the liberal Roosevelt Institute said in a tweet.

The bottom line: With Democrats controlling the House, the president’s budget and its proposed spending cuts and budget maneuvers might not mean much. Congressional Republicans and Democrats can be expected to hammer out a deal of their own — lifting the debt ceiling and raising caps on defense and non-defense spending to do it. “Similar to last year, I think they will work out the agreement on the debt limit and an agreement to adjust the caps for 2020 and 2021,” William G. Hoagland, former Republican staff director of Senate Budget Committee, told Politico. “There will be pressure to try to make sure they don’t have to deal with it in an election year.”