This story from today’s The Washington Post about President Trump’s complete lack of understanding about the federal budget is both fascinating and very scary.
It shows that, two years in to his presidency, Trump still doesn’t understand enough about the federal budget to make informed choices about what it will take to reduce the deficit as he said before the election he wants to do.
(For the record, what it will take to reduce the deficit is my first on the first day of the graduate course I teach at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.)
It also demonstrates a complete failure by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and the rest of the Trump administration’s economic team. How is it possible that they have had so little influence with and impact on the president that, almost two years after he took the oath of office, he is so clueless?
But I have to wonder whether this thinking is based on the very false premise that Trump wants to propose real deficit reductions. He may instead be looking for gimmicks and a “drain-the-swamp”-like slogan that can be repeated at his rallies. This would allow him to look like he cares about the deficit without taking any of the political risks of proposing the things that would actually reduce it.
Remember, this is the same Trump who was very comfortable embracing dynamic scoring to justify his big tax cut when mainstream fiscal policy and tax experts were adamant that it would spike the deficit (which it has).
This is also the Trump that had no problem sending others in his administration and his House Freedom Caucus allies to try to destroy the Congressional Budget Office when he thought CBO’s analyses would hurt what he wanted to do on health care and taxes.
Trump was also perfectly happy to grossly underestimate the cost of his military parade, continues to refuse to provide a detailed cost estimate for the wall he wants built between the U.S. and Mexico, still hasn’t said what his space force will cost and was happy to take credit for a $1.5 trillion federal infrastructure plan that relied on state and local governments to provide most of the money.
It would not be at all surprising, therefore, if Trump is looking for the same type of budget gimmicks now. For example:
- A plan for the federal government to sell and then lease back some of the national parks.
- A big sale of other government-owned assets.
- Changing the definition of the budget deficit so certain big federal expenditures — such as the Defense Department and interest on the national debt — are excluded.
- Changing the federal fiscal year so it’s 18 months for revenues but only 12 months for spending.
- Renegotiating interest payments on the national debt.
These are all substantively and procedurally ridiculous. Then again, so was Trump’s bald-faced lie during the 2016 campaign that Mexico was going to pay for the wall and he easily got away with that.
All of this is the Trump version of the scene from the movie “Animal House” where, when faced with the realization that the fraternity he wants to expel is already on probation and there’s not much more he can do using established protocol, the dean invents something new — “double secret probation” — to deal with his problem.
Watch the clip below from the movie and tell me that you can’t see Trump and Mulvaney having that exact conversation.