President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021, which begins in October, is a dishonest exercise. In some respects, that’s not unusual. Mr. Trump is hardly the first president to obey his legal requirement to present a spending plan to Congress by sending one that has no chance of passing. In fact, Mr. Trump signed legislation – a 2-year budget agreement last August – that would have to be repealed if this budget proposal were to become operative.
Nor is he the first to engage in rosy forecasting – but in this case, the exaggeration is especially flagrant. Mr. Trump misleadingly projects a future of declining federal deficits in part by claiming economic growth significantly exceeding consensus forecasts. The Trump budget beats the Congressional Budget Office’s projection for the annual growth rate a decade hence by more than a percentage point, enabling him to claim an extra $4.5 trillion in 10-year deficit reduction, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
Also not forthright is the underlying assumption of the budget, which is that the country’s structural fiscal deficits (to the extent Mr. Trump considers them a priority, which his record to date shows he does not) can be addressed almost entirely through cuts to nondefense discretionary spending, such as the 13 percent cut Mr. Trump would administer to the Interior Department or the 21 percent cut he seeks for foreign aid. In fact, additional revenue, too, is necessary, yet Mr. Trump’s budget adds $1.5 trillion to the next 10 years’ debt by assuming that the individual income tax cut he and a GOP Congress enacted in December 2017 will be extended beyond their scheduled December 2025 sunset.
Inevitably, perhaps, this much dishonesty leads to what can only be called cruel inequities. Upper-income tax cuts are preserved, so Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits must be denied to those who cannot meet tightened work requirements, and redefined to include boxes of preselected foods rather than spendable funds (savings: nearly $182 billion over 10 years). Low-income housing assistance would also be conditioned on work requirements and sliced from $44.8 billion to $41.3 billion. The last vestiges of federal cash anti-poverty benefits, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant – a $16.5 billion annual item that has not been increased in real terms this century – would get cumulative cuts totaling $15.2 billion by 2030.
This country badly needs an honest debate about equitable tax and spending reforms. What we are getting instead from the administration is this fiscal 2021 budget, which serves but one useful purpose: to record the warped priorities upon which Mr. Trump is willing to campaign for a second term.