White House releases budget, forecasts a decade of mounting debt

  • President Donald Trump's fiscal year 2019 budget proposals are being delivered to the House Budget Committee on Monday, February 12, 2018 at the Longworth building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
  • The Capitol Dome of the Capitol Building at sunrise, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
  • President Donald Trump speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, during a meeting with state and local officials about infrastructure. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • Chart of deficit projections under the White House budget proposal. Tribune News Service 2018

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration proposed a $4.4 trillion spending plan Monday that projects deficits as far as the eye can see, giving up the longtime Republican goal of a balanced budget to champion a spending plan replete with cash for a host of military programs and some domestic ones the president’s supporters might admire.

The budget calls for about $716 billion in annual defense spending, more than $100 billion above the level Trump requested last year. Add in the tax cut Republicans pushed through in December and the extra spending Congress approved just last week, and the result is a flood of red ink projected to send the national debt ever higher.

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Trump’s budget anticipates deficits throughout the next 10 years, even if Congress were to approve some $3 trillion in cuts over that same time period that he’s proposing for a wide range of federal programs. Both parties already rejected most of those cuts last year and have shown little interest in pursuing them.

The deficits persist even though the White House is forecasting extremely optimistic levels of economic growth. If growth falls short of those projections — most economists think it will — deficits would be higher still.

As a result, the budget marks something of a milestone — the Trump administration’s abandonment of the quest for budget balance that the Republican Party has claimed as a guiding light for years, at least rhetorically.

In reality, deficits have often soared under Republican presidents as the party has put cutting taxes ahead of balancing budgets on its list of priorities. In the past, however, Republican administrations have taken pains to at least come up with a budget that would balance on paper.

The budget unveiling led off with the administration’s infrastructure plan, released with a statement from the president promising to build gleaming new roads, bridges and highways “all across our land.”

Despite the bold promise, the plan involves a relatively small amount of new federal spending — $200 billion offset, at least partially, by cuts to other programs. The administration claims the new money would spur some $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investments from state, local and private sources, but that would depend to a large degree on the willingness of local and state officials to raise taxes for transportation projects.

“Washington no longer will be a roadblock to progress,” Trump told a group of state and local officials gathered at the White House.

Progress, as laid out in the budget, means building and spending on projects important to Trump’s core supporters. The president proposes investment in popular causes like fighting the opioid epidemic and bolstering medical care for veterans.

He is also asking for $1.6 billion to build 65 miles of border wall in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, just one installment of the massive larger project that helped propel him to the Oval Office. He also proposes pouring more money into immigration enforcement.

But Trump’s plan also defines progress as cutting programs his base voters don’t like, including climate change research programs at the Environmental Protection Agency and the health care law known as Obamacare. His budget would slash almost $700 billion in federal health care spending that helps low- and moderate-income Americans who rely on insurance marketplaces created by the 2010 health care law.

The spending blueprint also outlines nearly $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade to Medicaid, the government health plan for the poor. The administration said the sweeping changes reflect a goal to cut regulation and “empower patients and doctors,” but studies suggest that cuts of this magnitude would likely leave tens of millions more Americans without health coverage.

Likewise, diplomats warned of the fallout from drastic cuts to the State Department and USAID. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted he is not “hollowing out” the State Department, which has lost scores of diplomats through attrition, resignations and dismissals, but making it more efficient. But the Senate Appropriations Committee last fall said that dramatic reductions like these “serve only to weaken America’s standing in the world.”

As Washington pored over the budget proposal, the president’s fellow Republicans emphasized the rough-draft nature of the proposal, particularly in terms of its costs.

“It is just that, a first step,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chair of the Senate Budget Committee.

“Balancing the budget should always be the goal,” added Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., Enzi’s counterpart in the House.

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But Democrats bemoaned a world in which the administration would even take the time to write down such drastic cuts to social programs for the poor and aged — especially so soon on the heels of generous tax cuts to rich people and corporations.

“While corporations reap billions in tax giveaways, older Americans who at least knew if they got sick when they got older they’d be taken care of, now have to worry,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the chamber’s minority leader.

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