President Donald Trump embraces simplistic math and the wrong priorities with an unworkable budget proposal that Congress should ignore. His pitch to increase defense spending by $54 billion, or nearly 10 percent, and offset the increase with cuts to domestic programs and foreign aid without touching entitlements is unwarranted and unrealistic. It will be up to Congress to set the president's heavy-handed approach aside and pursue a more responsible budget that better balances the nation's priorities.
Trump's spending proposal marks the opening bid in what will be a difficult debate in the coming months over next year's budget. While the president has not detailed the specific purposes for his proposed surge in military spending or detailed what cuts he would make to domestic and other programs to pay for it, White House officials have indicated that big cuts are expected to foreign aid, environmental protection and other nonmilitary areas of the discretionary budget. Trump was expected to focus on his budget priorities Tuesday night in his first address to a joint session of Congress.
The president will have a hard time arguing the military needs so much additional money. America spends nearly $600 billion a year on defense, more than the next seven nations combined. Its reduction of forces in Afghanistan and Iraq has given the military budget some breathing room and the opportunity for the Pentagon to visualize the type of force needed to confront the modern-day threats from terror groups and other nonstate actors. Trump's call to send billions more to the military also is at odds with his argument that America's allies need to pay more for their own security and that the United States should redirect its attention back home. With U.S. forces still overseas and the nation's economy still recovering, Americans have no appetite for new arms races or new wars.
The numbers also don't work. Trump would not touch entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that take the lion's share of the federal budget. That means the cuts would fall to areas already lagging, from the State Department to NASA to the Environmental Protection Agency. The White House is also poised to target the foreign aid budget. Broadly defined, the United States spends more than $42 billion annually on assistance for development projects, security and disaster relief, about 1 percent of the total federal budget. That minor investment more than pays for itself, and wiping it out would have a disproportionate impact that would hurt U.S. relations worldwide.
Shortchanging diplomacy for the sake of a military buildup makes no sense. As Defense Secretary James Mattis said in 2013 in testimony to Congress as head of U.S. Central Command: "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition." Foreign aid protects American interests by giving host nations a larger role in providing for their own security and development.
By forgoing entitlements and tax increases, Trump's budget outline only postpones the day when House Speaker Paul Ryan and others can seriously engage Congress and the public in a debate over reforming Social Security and Medicare. Trump also wants to push a tax cut measure and a big spending package — up to $1 trillion — for roads, bridges and other public works. The administration would seek additional funds later this year for a border wall with Mexico (a wall Trump had insisted that Mexico would pay for).
It is fantasy for anyone to propose increasing military spending by 10 percent and paying for it with deep cuts in discretionary spending while protecting entitlements, cutting taxes and investing in infrastructure. For a president who should know better, it is irresponsible.