Trimming Big Government
Written by Charles Scaliger
When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, a strident theme of his campaign — to cut government waste and finally rein in out-of-control spending — kindled hope among his supporters that, at last, America’s mammoth and unsustainable federal debt could be brought under control. The 45th president is, after all, known for his business acumen, and made one of many fortunes with a television show in which he displayed his gimlet-eyed approach to business by unsympathetically firing subordinates who failed to make the grade. Surely the man who turned “You’re fired!” into a popular usage was equal to the task of trimming Big Government down to size.
Yet here we are, near the end of President Trump’s first tumultuous term in office, and the results have been mixed, to put it charitably. The president has drastically cut federal regulations, as promised, and cut taxes as well. The economy has responded enthusiastically to more favorable investment conditions, resulting in millions of new jobs and substantial growth in the long-stagnant manufacturing sector. All of this is certainly praiseworthy.
But the national debt has continued to balloon under President Trump, with the president’s successive budget proposals, including the most recent, giving little evidence of a will to cut government spending in a meaningful way. According to official statistics, the national debt now stands above $23 trillion (although the total amount of federal of liabilities, including “off-budget” entitlements, is much higher), and shows no signs of shrinking, or even leveling off, anytime soon.
In fairness to the president (and to all of his presidential predecessors), Congress is mostly to blame for out-of-control government spending and the utter lack of budgetary discipline. This is because, per Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress controls the purse strings; all bills for raising revenue must originate in the House, and the powers of taxation, borrowing money, issuing credit, and coining money, and all other fiscal and monetary powers, are granted by the Constitution to the legislative branch, not the executive. To the extent that the president gives rhetorical countenance to unsound and unconstitutional spending, or fails to veto legislation authorizing the same, he certainly bears a share of the blame. But it is Congress that must primarily be held to account for the growing crisis of debt and unrestrained spending, a crisis which, if not soon remedied, will bring America to its knees.
Nevertheless, it is the president who normally issues a detailed budget proposal each year (Congress has passed a budget only seven times in the last 15 years, the most recent two being in 2016 and 2010; more often, it simply spends money by seat-of-the-pants legislation called “continuing resolutions”), so it is the president’s perspective that usually is reckoned as typical of the fiscal climate in Washington. President Trump’s recently released budget proposal for fiscal year 2021 is the best indicator of fiscal trends that we are likely to see anytime soon.
The president’s introduction to the budget proposal lists a selection of budgetary priorities, namely, better trade deals, preserving peace through strength, overcoming the opioid crisis, regulation relief, and American energy independence. Some of these objectives are laudable: A strong military, regulation relief, and energy independence are all certainly ingredients in maintaining American strength, prosperity, and independence. On the other hand, the constitutionality of federal involvement in opioid addiction is dubious, and the much-touted new North American trade deal that has replaced NAFTA is, as amply documented in the pages of The New American, a dangerous surrender of American sovereignty under the guise of “fair trade.”
True to his reputation as a businessman concerned about bottom-line discipline, President Trump has once again produced a budget that unabashedly highlights “stopping wasteful and unnecessary spending.” The criteria given for assessing spending priorities are:
First, all Government programs should have a direct, clear, and immediate purpose and not duplicate other programs.
Second, all Federal spending should provide a necessary public service and serve a clear national interest. American taxpayers deserve a Government that is not spending taxpayer dollars to support a Muppet Retrospectacle in New Zealand or millions to prepare religions for discovering extraterrestrial life (which are real, and unfortunate, examples of wasteful spending).
Third, all spending should fund its intended purpose and reach its intended recipient. That is, there should not be improper payments that result in monetary loss to the Government, such as when beneficiaries receive an incorrect amount, or deceased individuals continue to receive assistance.
Fourth, the Government should be frugal and strive to avoid overpaying for items.
Fifth, the Federal Government should spend only the amount necessary to achieve intended goals, and all expenditures should be assessed on that basis.
Sixth, each dollar spent should be measured by its effect on actual outcomes.
Accordingly, the Trump budget directs its energy toward “eliminating duplicative programs,” “eliminating programs with no proper federal role,” “putting an end to improper payments,” “conducting oversight of spending categories,” and “stopping improper end-of-year spending.” For those of us accustomed to decades of budget proposals that seldom pay even lip service to fiscal restraint, this is heady stuff. Of particular note is the goal of “eliminating programs with no proper federal role.” While we would prefer even less ambiguous language, such as “unconstitutional programs,” the mere acknowledgment that many programs exceed the powers delegated to the federal government is a refreshing change. And while the other budget criteria are certainly prudent, the essential condition of true federal spending reduction must be the elimination of unconstitutional programs.
This article appears in the March 23, 2020, issue of The New American. To download the issue and continue reading this story, or to subscribe, click here.
Courtesy of The New American