What the President Values

By: Andrew Swick, Columnist

Photo Credit: Boston University

It’s often said that you show what you value in how you spend your time; it’s just as true that a government shows what it values in how it spends its money. With the release of the Trump administration’s first budget proposal last month, President Trump made clear what he values. As articulated by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney, it is a “hard-power budget” that prioritizes increases in defense spending over continued funding of domestic social services and foreign aid.[i] More than just expressing the president’s priorities, however, the FY18 proposal revealed his administration’s relatively unsophisticated policymaking. Ultimately, President Trump may further imperil his administration’s continued influence by outlining legislative proposals with few political constituencies and little chance of passage.

The Trump administration budget proposal, boldly titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” follows through on Trump’s campaign promises to strengthen the military with a sizable defense spending increase.[ii] During the budget roll-out, OMB Director Mulvaney explained that its architects referred back to President Trump’s campaign speeches when designing the budget’s specific components.[iii] Notably, the Trump budget proposal would increase DoD Base spending by about 10%, or $52.3 billion, to a total of $574 billion.[iv]

The president’s spending increases are only significant, however, in context of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which set austere caps on federal spending. While President Trump’s budget would remove the caps and increase defense spending by 10%, his funding levels would not even reach the projected FY18 spending in President Obama’s FY12 and FY13 budgets—both of which called for a removal of the caps.[v] Moreover, Trump’s proposal falls far short of a Senator John McCain’s proposed defense budget released in January.[vi]

The cuts to the US soft-power arsenal are even more indicative of the president’s priorities than the increases to the defense budget. Most significantly, the Trump budget lowers funding for the State Department and foreign aid by $10.9 billion, or 29%.[vii] The administration justifies these cuts a few ways; first, by arguing that significant reductions are required in non-defense discretionary spending to offset the increase in DoD funds. This argument only goes so far, though, as the president’s proposed budget still operates at a deficit and continues to add to the national debt. Mulvaney’s previous comments are more compelling when he argues the administration’s proposal is a “hard-power budget…not a soft-power budget.”[viii] Rather than honestly seeking to limit federal spending and scale back the debt, President Trump and his advisers seem determined to build US military power, while eschewing other forms of American engagement abroad, and simultaneously—in the words of Steve Bannon—“deconstruct[ing] the administrative state.”[ix]

The administration’s policy priorities are most striking, though, in their departure from the advice of defense and security experts. Most strikingly, over 120 retired generals and admirals—including former Army General David Petraeus—signed a letter arguing against the Trump budget’s proposed cuts to the State Department, noting its critical role in “preventing conflict.”[x] Current Secretary of Defense James Mattis famously argued in 2013 that without a fully-funded State Department, he would “need to buy more ammunition.”[xi] Mattis’ next sentence, though lesser known, was even more declarative—that “the more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully, the less we have to put into a military budget.”[xii]

As the Trump proposal diverges from foreign policy orthodoxy, it also reveals the administration’s political naiveté. While the full budget proposal (scheduled for release later this Spring) may go further in satisfying individual political constituencies, the current budget summary has drawn many detractors, even within the Republican Party. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham even went so far as to say the plan was “dead on arrival” [to Congress].[xiii]

The Trump budget proposal, in displaying the priorities of the Trump presidency, shows that President Trump largely intends to govern in line with many of his campaign promises. Notably, the proposal marks a determination to bolster the capacity of the military, while limiting overall US involvement overseas. The President’s deteriorating support in Congress, however—especially following the collapse of the American Health Care Act—may prevent the administration from ever succeeding in carrying through on these proposals, and what the president really seems to value.

[i] Jessica Taylor, Danielle Kurtzleben, and Scott Horsley, “Trump Unveils ‘Hard Power’ Budget That Boosts Military Spending,” NPR, March 16, 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/03/16/520305293/trump-to-unveil-hard-power-budget-that-boosts-military-spending.

[ii] “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/budget/fy2018/2018_blueprint.pdf.

[iii] Jessica Taylor, Danielle Kurtzleben, and Scott Horsley, “Trump Unveils ‘Hard Power’ Budget That Boosts Military Spending.”

[iv] Alicia Parlapiano and Gregor Aisch, “Who Wins and Loses in Trump’s Proposed Budget,” The New York Times, March 16, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/03/15/us/politics/trump-budget-proposal.html.

[v] Todd Harrison, “Comparison of Defense Budget Proposals,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 16, 2017, https://twitter.com/ToddHarrisonDC/status/842334633203187713/photo/1.

[vi] Lawrence J. Korb, “A closer look at McCain’s proposed defense budget,” The Hill, January 23, 2017, http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/315585-a-closer-look-at-mccains-proposed-defense-budget.

[vii] Alicia Parlapiano and Gregor Aisch, “Who Wins and Loses in Trump’s Proposed Budget.”

[viii] Jessica Taylor, Danielle Kurtzleben, and Scott Horsley, “Trump Unveils ‘Hard Power’ Budget That Boosts Military Spending.”

[ix] Phillip Rucker and Robert Costa, “Bannon vows a daily fight for ‘deconstruction of the administrative state,’ The Washington Post, February 23, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/top-wh-strategist-vows-a-daily-fight-for-deconstruction-of-the-administrative-state/2017/02/23/03f6b8da-f9ea-11e6-bf01-d47f8cf9b643_story.html.

[x] Nicole Gaouette, “Retired generals: Don’t cut State Department,” CNN, February 27, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/27/politics/generals-letter-state-department-budget-cuts.

[xi] Kevin Baron, “Brass tone down the ask for foreign aid,” Foreign Policy, March 6, 2013, http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/06/brass-tone-down-the-ask-for-foreign-aid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Sylvan Lane, “GOP Senator: Trump budget dead on arrival,” The Hill, February 28, 2017, http://thehill.com/policy/finance/321576-gop-senator-trump-budget-dead-on-arrival.

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