President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal is shocking on two fronts, and both will have denizens of the Washington swamp tearing their hair out.
Backgrounding supporters on a Monday conference call, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney referred to the budget proposal as a “Taxpayer First Budget,” and said, “I imagined myself standing in front of a taxpayer asking him for his money.” Could Mulvaney justify asking any taxpayer to hand over money to pay for health services for disabled veterans, he asked? Yes, of course. Could he justify asking that taxpayer for money to pay for a program that takes college graduates and helps them get graduate degrees, a program that’s been documented to have a 6 percent success rate? No, he could not. Consequently, programs for disabled veterans get funding, and programs with a 6 percent success rate do not.
Indeed. This “taxpayer first” perspective turns conventional Washington standard operating procedure on its head. As such, it is perhaps the most revolutionary of the changes President Trump seeks.
Under the current system – as practiced by both parties over the last several decades – the federal government sees citizens not as taxpayers, but as members of groups, groups that can be bought off with government benefits. Democrats prefer spending programs, Republicans prefer targeted tax incentives. Under this system, the government doesn’t think of the national interest, it thinks of smaller group interests, and, depending on which party is in power, seeks to use those government benefits to build and sustain a majority governing coalition.
It’s quite effective. It’s also extraordinarily expensive, and it relies on money stolen from future generations – I say “stolen” rather than “borrowed” because “borrowing” requires the assent of those from whom the money is taken, and no one in government bothers to ask future generations if they’d be willing to hand over money to spend on government programs now.
Reversing that approach by putting the taxpayer first ends the incentives to spend money. Rather than luxuriate in a system in which bureaucrats can count on ever-expanding budgets where the two parties bid to see which can offer the most benefits to the largest number – that is, one in which the operative question is “How much can we spend?” – such a taxpayer-first mentality rewards a different kind of thinking, and substitutes a different operative question – “How much should we spend, if any at all?”
But putting taxpayers first isn’t the only shocking thing about the proposed Trump budget.
OMB Director Mulvaney went on to explain a second shocking aspect: The proposed budget attacks waste in government by employing a simple test – if Congress has not authorized a program, it should not be funded. That is, if Congress itself doesn’t deem the program worthy enough of funding to take the time to authorize it, the program isn’t worth the money Congress is spending on it.
This rather obvious observation will most definitely come as a shock to the system, because Congress appropriates more money for unauthorized spending than you might think. In fact, it spends so much on unauthorized programs every year that even Mulvaney acknowledged he couldn’t say exactly how much it comes to on an annual basis.
But Congressman Ken Buck, in his new book, “Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption Is Worse Than You Think,” says unauthorized programs “absorb about one-third of discretionary spending without genuine congressional oversight.”
About one-third of discretionary spending works out to about $300 billion per year. Given that the federal budget deficit in fiscal year 2016 was almost $600 billion, that means that roughly half of the budget deficit could be eliminated if Congress simply hewed to the law and refused to appropriate funds for programs it obviously deems unworthy.
Putting taxpayers first and refusing to illegally spend money on unauthorized programs are shocks to the system. They’re also proof of the political axiom that elections have consequences – and even more proof, for anyone who needed it, that President Trump aims to end business as usual in Washington, and live up to his promise to drain the swamp.