It was inevitable that a populist president would make many, many promises as he swept up the national mood in a great pledge to “make America great again.” Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and the Budget, has done his level best to turn President Trump’s campaign promises into a feasible budget blueprint. This is essentially the role of the Republicans in Congress as well - turn Trump’s campaign promises into successful legislation. When Mike Pence returned the Capitol as Vice President, he summed it up in a simple message for his former colleagues: “buckle up.”
But House Republicans couldn’t even reach a deal to make good on their promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the health care bill that helped them turn opposition against the Democrats into a winning coalition. The first real test of turning tough talk into legislative action failed dramatically, in part because the consensus was an illusion. Some Republicans couldn’t bare to face the consequences of repealing a federal entitlement and President Trump grew weary of negotiating with hardline conservatives that would accept nothing less. Eager to notch a big win, President Trump has pledged to move on and revisit the fight when Obamacare “explodes” sometime in the future.
The first rule of politics applies more than ever: it’s easier to make promises than pay for them.
2017 is going to set a new record in government revenue, following the trend over the previous four years, but with more money than ever coming into the federal government, there’s very little to show for it. The country is still projected to run a national deficit of $488 billion and “autopilot” spending mandated under federal law is set to consume no less than 82% of the budget in the next ten years. It’s going to be nearly impossible to pay for any other spending with that much required of the treasury. Unfortunately, Trump promised he won’t touch mandatory spending and his first budget blueprint doesn’t cover it.
Surprisingly, Republicans are actually counting on tax increases to help fund the government. With the failure to repeal the ACA, including its $840 billion in increased taxes, Republicans have less room to reduce rates and broaden the tax base. To offset the cost of cutting corporate and personal income taxes, some are looking to impose a new “border-adjusted” tax on imports. When Republicans have been accused of wanting to cut taxes for the rich and shift the burden to the poor and middle class, they would respond, “we will cut taxes for everyone!” But now, faced with an anti-free trade president promising to slap tariffs on products made overseas, they’re embracing a new tax that will, in fact, fall heavily on consumers, all so they can boast of the U.S. having “the most competitive tax system in the world.”
It’s to their credit that, for once, Republicans are looking at spending and revenue, aside from the promise of tax cuts that “pay for themselves.” Still, they should be prepared to face the reality that all of the economic growth and new taxes they envision might provide less than needed to cover current spending. That would be challenging enough, but President Trump has promised to increase spending, particularly investing $1 trillion in infrastructure and an additional $54 billion for the military. The details matter, but the budget blueprint shepherded by Mulvaney indicates they intend to offset such spending by reducing the discretionary spending budget controlled by Congress.
Republicans might be prepared to cut discretionary spending but they know they have to do more. This is is the party that elevated Paul Ryan to Speaker of the House but it seems the Path to Prosperity, his “austerity budget” that proposed reducing future spending by 2.5% in order to balance the budget by 2023, hasn’t come with him. It wasn’t just a budget document but a presidential-level platform that provided a comprehensive roadmap to economic growth and fiscal solvency, a plan to reform government permanently and cap its growth before the private sector suffocates under the weight of massive debts and taxes. As Ryan and the conservatives, including Vice President Pence, continue to navigate the road ahead, they face more sobering reminders that they aren’t in the driver’s seat. Conservatives, including fiscal conservatives, are in the passenger seat of this coalition. For conservatives to achieve everything they’ve promised, they have to convince the populist president to embrace their platform. If they can’t, they risk losing their place to the Democrats.
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