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In our opinion: The false promise of Trump’s budget proposal

President Donald Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2021 arrives at the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020.
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

In concept, President Donald Trump’s budget recommendation for 2021, which purports to cut the annual deficit and set the nation on a course toward a balance budget in 15 years, is welcomed news. We haven’t heard anyone in Washington talk about fiscal responsibility since the days when fiscal cliffs loomed on the horizon and the tea party wandered the land.

But look a little closer and the optimism goes away.

Much of what the president proposes assumes Congress would somehow reverse spending the president already has signed into law. Trump recently reached a two-year deal with congressional Democrats that is projected to add $2 trillion to the nation’s debt over the next decade.

In addition, his proposal relies on economic prosperity many experts say is unrealistic. The Congressional Budget Office’s baseline predictions instead have the annual budget deficit reaching 98% of the gross domestic product, or the nation’s total economic output, under Trump’s budget by 2030.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of Mr. Trump’s budget is that it would affect mostly discretionary spending, which accounts for about one-third of the total budget. In order to enact real, meaningful budget reform and deficit reduction, Congress and the president would have to enact major changes to entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — that are on autopilot.

Spending for these programs increases automatically. Military spending, while discretionary, also has a tendency to increase with little meaningful oversight.

The president is proposing some cuts to these programs, including changes to prescription drug pricing and $24 billion in eventual cuts to Social Security. And yet he has assured Americans he intends to essentially not touch either entitlement.

A New York Times analysis of federal spending found that, since Mr. Trump took office, spending for Social Security has increased by $210 per capita, while Medicare increased by $299. Military spending has risen by $171.

Not since President Obama appointed a deficit-reduction task force under the leadership of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, then promptly dismissed their hard work, has anyone in Washington spoken seriously about reducing this spending.

President Trump’s budget proposal outlines many of his own priorities. It would cut foreign aid, which currently makes up less than 1% of the total budget. It would cut other domestic programs and increase military spending.

The details are hardly worth mentioning because, as with other budgets proposed by presidents going back decades, it isn’t going to receive any serious consideration by Congress.

Its juxtaposition to what the president already has signed into law makes it little more than a political statement.

The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget issued a statement saying it hoped “policymakers could use (this budget) as a starting point for bipartisan efforts to lower health care costs, improve tax compliance, reduce waste and enact other reforms.”

But, it added, “We don’t need more false promises about rapid economic growth or tax cuts that will pay for themselves. We need action to reverse our trillion-dollar deficits, save our largest trust funds and prevent debt from reaching new record highs.”

Good economic times have, historically, led to reductions in deficit spending. That the deficit continues to climb during the current boom is a troubling sign. We hope the president and Congress will begin the real work of getting the nation’s books in line before hard times, which surely will come, force them to do so in drastic ways.