Russ Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, was ready to give his first official press conference. The soft-spoken policy wonk with the thick-rimmed glasses stepped to the podium in the White House briefing room Monday and wished the press corps “Happy Budget Day.”
The occasion was the presentation of the president’s fiscal 2020 budget blueprint, an aspirational document that proposes $4.7 trillion in spending and recommends $2.7 trillion in cuts.
“Our national debt nearly doubled under the previous administration and now stands at more than $22 trillion,” Vought told reporters. This budget, he continued, “shows that we can return to fiscal sanity without halting our economic resurgence while continuing to invest in critical priorities.”
The White House calls it “A Budget for a Better America.” Congress calls it dead on arrival. This is because everyone in Washington knows the document is essentially a wish list, and the unveiling is part of a longstanding D.C. ritual whereby opposition party lawmakers dismiss presidential budgets as quickly as administrations deliver them.
This was not, however, an empty exercise in wonkery. Vought was outlining the president’s 2020 re-election platform as much as he was laying out Trump spending priorities. Congress may axe the document entirely in the coming months. At least on paper, though, voters will know where he stands when they enter the voting booth.
The top lines reflect two major promises Trump made on the campaign trail in 2016. First, rebuilding the armed forces. The budget ask Congress to boost military spending to $750 billion, a 5 percent increase from the current $716 billion, more than even the Pentagon requested. Second, border security. The budget seeks $8.6 billion — $5 billion from the Department of Homeland Security and $3.6 billion from the Pentagon’s military construction budget.
Both are obvious base-pleasers. Trump regularly brings the conservative faithful to their feet at his rallies when he mentions the military and the border wall. He might not get the sought-after funding for either, but he will get the political credit he needs by fighting for them.
And with this budget proposal, the White House has set the stage for another border brawl.
The president lost the last round when Congress wouldn’t sign off on $5.7 billion to continue building his wall. The government went dark for 35 days, the longest shutdown in history. The White House walked away with a fraction of its initial ask: just $1.37 billion for 55 miles of border barriers. Trump then declared a national emergency, redirecting $7 billion in already appropriated funds.
Now, by seeking additional money, he all but guarantees another showdown come September. Federal funding will run out at the end of that month and campaigning will be approaching full swing. Whatever the outcome, Trump can credibly tell his base that he still fights.
The spending proposal, however, would not eliminate budget deficits, another Trump campaign promise. In fact, according to the administration’s own numbers, the federal government would spend trillions more than it takes in over the next four years. But here the administration has opened up another political front.
The White House is betting that the economy will keep revving enough to bring in increased tax revenues that will balance the budget in 15 years. In the meantime, officials plan on slashing $2.7 trillion in non-defense spending from the budgets of agencies like the EPA. The proposed cuts, the White House brags, are higher than those made by any other administration in history.
Vought told reporters that this kind of fiscal responsibility is possible if Congress swallows the prescribed medicine. The president has called for spending reductions in each of his budget requests; the difference this time, the OMB official argued, is that Democrats now want “a conversation about the national debt.” That’s a discussion the White House is willing to have, and it is a decidedly anti-establishment conversation that will likely dovetail with the president’s campaign rhetoric.
“What has happened for far too long is that Congress has blamed mandatory spending and then increased discretionary spending, which they have a vote on every single year, by large degrees,” Vought said.
“They continue to let a paradigm exist in this country that says: For every dollar in defense spending, we’re going to increase non-defense spending by a dollar. We think we need to break that paradigm,” he concluded.
Vought stepped away from the podium after about 15 minutes’ worth of detailed questions and even more intricate answers. The 150-page outline he unveiled will be followed by more in-depth numbers. Combined, they amount to a GOP battle plan.
Trump is staying the course with his promise to build the wall and continue rebooting the military, the White House argued. And the president will attack Congress, officials signaled, if lawmakers don’t abide by his prescribed spending cuts.