By Tara Golshan
Donald Trump promised the American people he would eliminate the federal deficit in a speedy eight years — and somehow do it while raising defense spending, cutting taxes, and leaving large entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare unscathed.
“That can’t happen,” Republican Rep. Tom Cole (OK), who holds a coveted position on the House Budget and Appropriations Committees, said.
“You can’t increase defense spending, which the president proposes, cut taxes, which the president proposes, and leave entitlements untouched, which the president has proposed, and think you are going to have a balanced budget,” Cole said.
In other words, he’s saying what many Republicans have been reticent to admit in recent months: The president has promised the American people the impossible, and in doing so, he’s set Congress up to fail.
“I don’t think [Trump] was particularly well-versed on the realities of the federal budget when he was running,” Cole said.
In the coming months, Republicans will have to figure out a way to deliver a legislative win on tax reform. Despite broad consensus to cut taxes, the majority party is facing a mountain of promises that are simply incompatible with each other. If they want to get something done, something has got to give.
Republicans are trying to achieve the impossible
Trump’s campaign, like that of many politicians, was founded on lofty promises. But his presidency has been no different. In the past month, Trump has reinforced promises — and introduced new ones — that simply cannot be achieved en masse.
He’s called for dramatic increases in defense spending along with tax cuts to benefit corporations and the middle class. He’s said Medicare and Social Security won’t be touched (even though he’s proposed slashing Social Security Disability Insurance). And on top of it all, he’s maintained a longtime Republican promise to balance the federal budget.
As Matt Yglesias writes, it’s forced Republicans to coalesce around principles on tax reform that are incompatible:
1) They want to deliver big cuts to the taxation of investment income. This is something conservatives strongly believe will boost economic growth as well as reduce the unfairness inherent in the idea of a society in which the government redistributes economic resources from the haves to the have nots.
2) They want to deliver meaningful tax cuts to the middle class — the core of the GOP’s electoral pitch since at least the days of Ronald Reagan.
3) Then there’s the impossible third goal: They want to avoid increasing the budget deficit — or at least keep the deficit increase limited to something they can plausibly waive away with dynamic scoring.
To accomplish something, Republicans are going to have to break from one or more of Trump’s directives or abandon their core party principle of the deficit.
Already, both the House and Senate have signaled in their budget proposals they are willing to touch Medicare and Social Security, in spite of Trump’s promises. But nothing has been set in stone.