Trillion-dollar annual deficits are “a national security risk of the highest order,” Donald Trump wrote on Twitter in 2012, long before anyone was taking him seriously as a presidential candidate.
By 2016, when he was a serious presidential candidate, Trump was still worried about overspending. If elected, candidate Trump told The Washington Post, he would try to eliminate the national debt “over a period of eight years.” A noble goal, if likely an impossible one.
In 2018, now-President Trump was presented with a bipartisan budget deal that smashed spending caps and hiked federal outlays by $400 billion. He fumed about the cost and threatened to veto the package. He eventually signed it, but said publicly that he was “disappointed” with the final bill and vowed to “never sign another bill like this again.”
Trump is not known for being highly consistent on matters of public policy or personal behavior. Often, he seems to want one set of rules for himself and another for everyone else. His ability to shamelessly tell one group of people one thing and another group something totally different is a sort of political superpower, according to Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich.). [Is there a pithy Amash quote you can use here?]
And Trump is, of course, a self-described “king of debt.“
But as Trump evolved from reality TV star to leader of the free world, a general concern about the nation’s growing mountain of debt was one of his more consistent positions—and, unlike his feelings towards Mexican immigrants, it is one area where his worry is justified. When Trump issued that 2012 tweet, America had $17 trillion in debt. In 2016, when he promised to wipe out the debt in eight years, the country was carrying $19 trillion. Today, in no small part due to the 2018 budget bill Trump signed, the national debt has soared past $22 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that current policies will add another $11 trillion by the end of 2029.
But instead of doing anything about it, Trump seems prepared to make things worse.
On Monday, the president announced a new bipartisan budget deal that would again hike spending and lift budget caps. Congress is set to vote on the $320 billion spending increase—one that will add $1.7 trillion to the national debt over the next decade—sometime next week. Here’s how the new spending levels would compare to the Obama-era caps imposed by congressional Republicans.
Based on initial estimates of the new deal, here is the Budget Control Act's legacy – the original pre-BCA discretionary spending baseline (black), the original BCA caps (blue), and the subsequent weakening of those caps (red). pic.twitter.com/ZWof4VgPg5
— Brian Riedl (@Brian_Riedl) July 23, 2019
There is little reason to think the budget deal won’t make its way to the president’s desk. When it does, Trump will have to make a decision that will likely define a portion of his legacy. Will he sign the bill, or keep the promise he made in 2018?
One variable that might prove interesting: the influence of the House Freedom Caucus, which is run by some of Trump’s closest congressional allies.
The splinter group was founded in 2015 to push for institutional reforms in the House and to agitate for reducing the size and cost of the federal government. In the Trump years, the group has largely turned into a sycophantic cheering section for the president’s interests—but the last time it played a significant role in a major policy debate was, yes, during the passage of the 2018 budget deal.
The House Freedom Caucus could now be relevant again. Its membership is not large enough to realistically complicate the passage of the budget deal through Congress, but as Rep. Mark Meadows (R–N.C.), the group’s chairman, told Politico, he will vote against the bill. Rep. Jim Jordan (R–Ohio), another Freedom Caucus member and Trump ally, reportedly will do the same. It remains unclear how strongly they will lobby Trump to oppose the deal, but House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Chip Roy (R–Texas) is circulating a letter among his colleagues that calls for Trump to veto the plan. And as Politico reports, one of the signers is another key Trump ally, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–Fla.).
Other House Republicans are also expressing outrage over the bipartisan spending deal.
Budget deal. pic.twitter.com/PHa754iGRJ
— Rep. Mark Walker (@RepMarkWalker) July 22, 2019
The big question is whether Trump will listen. For most presidents, the announcement of a budget deal would be the same as an acknowledgement that he would sign the deal. But Trump has a history of acting erratically even when all the ducks appear to be lined up. He nearly torpedoed the 2018 budget deal at the last minute. In December, he did blow up a smaller budget deal over the lack of spending for his border wall—resulting in a 35-day government shutdown.
It’s really anyone’s guess whether Trump was previously sincere in his desire to reduce America’s deficit and rein in the debt. Perhaps he was merely reading the Tea (Party) leaves and following the GOP’s impulse—an impulse that’s now largely dead—to cut spending.
There are certainly indications that Trump no longer cares. He signed the 2018 budget bill. Reportedly, he’s privately dismissed the debt issue because it won’t get really bad until he’s out of office. On Tuesday, Maggie Haberman of The New York Times reported that Trump was telling aids he would “focus on spending cuts in next term as a way to get [fiscal conservatives] to stop bugging him.”
It’s very likely this awful budget deal will become law. After all, about the only thing everyone in Washington, D.C., seems to agree about is spending more money.
But if the president wishes to make his mark in the all-important battle to restore some fiscal sanity to the federal government, now is the time for him to listen to the Freedom Caucus. He—and they—may never get another, better chance.
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