By Kurt Couchman
President Trump’s "America First" budget blueprint for fiscal year 2018 reveals a serious political strategy. The blueprint proposes to increase spending at the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs with offsetting reductions elsewhere.
The blueprint, like every president's budget request, kicks off negotiations over priorities. Many current federal activities should be returned to the states or to the private sector, as the blueprint states. The domestic policy proposals would be an excellent start to restore local control and to re-focus the federal government on problems that can only be addressed at the national level. National security is the core responsibility of the federal government, so it should be the top priority.
The blueprint calls for ending defense sequestration—more precisely, the reduction in the Budget Control Act’s defense caps following the failure of the “supercommittee” and the 2013 sequestration. President Trump promised to end the defense cuts, and the blueprint advances that objective.
Yet the proposed defense increase isn’t properly explained. The details needed for a full evaluation aren't in the blueprint. It offers no clues about intentions to scale back missions that don't advance our security or to shift funds from non-core DoD activities to readiness and modernization.
The details will be revealed in May when the full budget request is sent to Congress. It will be accompanied by a classified national security strategy, perhaps with an unclassified summary released to the public. The strategy will explain the vision connecting the additional resources to the missions for the U.S. armed forces to pursue. Only then will it be clear whether President Trump’s healthy skepticism about global entanglements has survived the transition from campaigning to governing.
It seems clear, however, that the blueprint would not improve our imbalanced foreign policy. Roughly speaking, the Pentagon’s job is to be ready to kill people and break things to achieve military victory. Improving governance, reducing corruption, reforming institutions, and promoting reconciliation are more appropriate for the Department of State and other foreign relations activities in partnership with local actors. They are already stretched thin, at least for vital functions, but the blueprint calls for a 28 percent cut to State and USAID.
Chairman Royce and Ranking Member Engel in the House and Chairman Corker and Ranking Member Cardin in the Senate have each expressed concerns about the blueprint’s vision for programs within their committees’ jurisdiction. They would be on more solid ground if more than 5 percent of spending covered by the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Act were for currently authorized programs. Maybe being considered for the chopping block will motivate the foreign affairs committees to update programs for the modern world and to eliminate wasteful and outdated activities.
The blueprint also discounts the power of voluntary exchange—trade—as a civilizing and conflict-reducing force in the world.
Historian Albert Hirschmann’s “doux commerce” thesis (literally “sweet commerce”) explains how increasing the scope of voluntary, mutually beneficial transactions advances a more peaceful, prosperous society by making coercive gain through theft, fraud, or conquest less attractive. Considering the Middle East’s violent and turbulent history, it’s unfortunate that the last Republican president’s efforts to expand interdependence through the Middle East Free Trade Area Initiative didn’t get further.
Turning to the politics of the blueprint, Members of Congress and budget experts consider it unrealistic. So what is the president up to?
It’s an opening bid for a budget deal.
For years, conservatives have complained about congressional leadership’s “negotiations with ourselves.” They say Republicans should start with strong demands and give up only what they must to reach a deal. Seasoned deal-maker President Trump is doing that: taking a tough stand knowing that the eventual deal will be entirely different.
With only 52 Republican senators, the Senate’s 60-vote rule for advancing legislation gives Democrats a veto on most spending and policy bills. In recent years, Congress has passed a series of fiscally irresponsible budget deals that boost both defense and non-defense discretionary spending caps with insufficient offsets.
The federal government’s ruinous path requires serious reforms, not tweaks and gimmicks.
Democrats have unanimously supported the bad budget deals. Republicans have split between fiscal conservatives on the one side and moderates and defense hawks on the other.
The question is whether President Trump’s blueprint can change the dynamics.
Focusing attention on tradeoffs in discretionary spending is a smart strategy. It provokes interest groups and their patrons in Congress into defending programs that will mostly survive, even those that shouldn’t.
This may create the political space for making reasonable reforms to the primary drivers of our exploding national debt: welfare and entitlement programs, especially for health care.
The entire point of the Budget Control Act was to put government on a sustainable fiscal path. With four years of caps left, time is running out. If the smart thinking continues, however, that may be all it takes for President Trump to make America solvent again.
Kurt Couchman is the vice president of public policy at Defense Priorities and has served as a congressional legislative director.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on March 17, 2017. Read more HERE.