President Donald Trump's speech to a Joint Session of Congress Tuesday night will be a de facto State of the Union address where he will discuss his specific budget and tax plans for this year and beyond. And from what we know about those plans already, the key components of that plan will be increases in defense and infrastructure spending, tax cuts, repealing and replacing Obamacare, and paying for all of that with significant spending cuts to other federal agencies and programs.
Yeah, that's an ambitious lineup. But it's that last part about spending cuts that probably has a lot of inside the Beltway types laughing out loud. Hey, any given president can convince Congress to pass a tax cut and increase spending. Presidents can arm the military and win wars. A president can even inspire and successfully get this country to land a human on the moon. But, make major cuts to government spending almost across the board? Good luck.
That's because no White House team in modern history has made any significant and enduring cut to the federal budget or the size of official Washington. Ronald Reagan couldn't do it, George W. and George H.W. Bush couldn't do it. And most of the Democrats in office since FDR sure didn't seem like they even wanted to do it.
President Reagan couldn't drop the ax in D.C. in a lasting way because he was a little too trusting of the Democrats in Congress. The result was a couple of compromises that Reagan regretted later because they boosted the size of the government and its deficits. The Bushes were too much a product of establishment Washington to slap it down too harshly. The result of that was the first President Bush caving into Democrat tax hike demands in 1990 and the second President Bush responding to the 9/11 attacks by expanding the size of the government massively with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Even the more combative and nasty Richard Nixon couldn't resist expanding the overall size of government when he saw that doing so would help him beat the Democrats at their own entitlement game.
But the Trump team might be on to something experts on the political class have known for years. That is: The real reason why major cuts don't get made is that establishment figures in Washington have convinced themselves and all the "experts" that the American people won't stand for any real cutbacks or eliminations of government programs. Of course that's not true. Look closer at polls that suggest that myth and you see that voters reject options like "cutting government aid to defense, education or health care." Those statements are simply too general in nature. A deeper dive into years of surveys shows that most Americans do support eliminating individual programs within the defense, education, and health and human services departments. And they even back supposedly more controversial ideas like increasing the age requirements for Social Security and Medicare. The political class has protected itself and its desire for ever-expanding government by glossing over this truth.
The Trump team seems to be aware of this fact. In hopes of making surgical cuts within departments, it has reportedly connected with the conservative Heritage Foundation and its blueprint for doing just that. That blueprint includes slashing "corporate welfare" programs like the Economic Development Administration, and the Minority Business Development Agency. Also on the block in the Heritage plan are cuts for Justice Department programs like the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Environment and Natural Resources divisions.
And the Department of Energy would flat out eliminate the Office of Electricity, and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The Heritage plan targets a lot of other programs within different departments, but you get the idea.