There’s a common, curious political phenomenon that you’ll likely find depressingly familiar if you’re a conservative activist. You’ll see someone run for office as a die-hard fiscal conservative who wants to slash spending. If they’re brave, they’ll actually propose real, substantive cuts and reforms that would shrink government; if they’re a more typical politician, they’ll just make vague promises about cutting spending and cutting taxes (both magically at the same time, of course).
Then, once they get elected, their tune changes, practically overnight. Their bold proposals fall by the wayside, and the only part of their promises of fiscal discipline they remember are cutting taxes, with a few cuts of programs that don’t actually spend as much money as people think.
Donald Trump, during his campaign, skipped over the middle part of having any bold proposals to cut spending. Instead, he promised dramatic cuts while simultaneously pledging to leave Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid untouched. He also repeatedly promised to increase defense spending as a means of fulfilling his promise to make America great again. The problem, of course, is that those three promises are completely contradictory.
If Trump were to increase defense spending while leaving our largest entitlement programs untouched, he’d need massive cuts in non-defense discretionary spending — which is what he’s proposed in his recently-released budget outline. The problem is that category of spending — which includes everything from the Department of Justice to foreign aid to Homeland Security, and much more — accounts for less than 15 percent of total federal spending. One could completely erase that category and you’d barely eliminate the federal budget deficit.
Democrats have taken instant delight in the release of specific cuts. They’re trying to make every single congressional Republican the owner of this budget outline — which is, of course, a hysterical partisan overreaction. They know, just as Republicans did when President Barack Obama introduced his last budget, that the document has virtually no chance of being enacted into law as is. Congress hasn’t actually followed through on the regular process for passing and enacting a budget in over a decade, and that’s unlikely to to change now. So, blaming an individual Republican in Congress for Trump’s budget outline is about as logical as a student giving a professor a bad rating because they failed the class. The budget process in D.C. is completely broken, and that’s beyond embarrassing for both parties.
Things are a little better at the state level. At least in Augusta legislators are in fact required to produce a budget, and a balanced one at that — they can’t muddle through on endless continuing resolutions. Moreover, that budget (usually) needs a two-thirds majority to pass, so there has to be at least some bipartisan support for whatever gets done. All of that creates a better, more functional process for governmental budgeting than the mess down in D.C.
Unfortunately, that has not led to a better outcome of late. Thanks to a sharply divided Legislature, the biannual budget initially proposed by the governor is usually treated as no more than a guideline. That’s a shame, because Gov. Paul LePage has included some bold ideas in his budget proposals of late. Rather than using those ideas as the starting point for a bipartisan discussion, Democrats have immediately attacked them, using them as campaign talking points. Republicans, to their credit, have resisted LePage’s proposals to broaden the sales tax. However, that’s led to a series of compromise budgets that haven’t done much more than maintain the status quo, instead of any major bipartisan fixes for the state’s fiscal woes.
In Augusta, the hands of our state government are tied not only by the requirement that the budget be balanced, but by unfunded federal mandates. That, unfortunately, limits the fiscal innovation that can be pursued at the state level — curtailing the role of states as the “laboratory of democracy.”
This should be an area where we could find some common ground for reform at the federal level, as doing away with some of these mandates would allow for liberal and conservatives alike to experiment.
Sadly, Washington, D.C., seems to be too paralyzed by partisanship to even consider that kind of common-sense reform. After all, it’s far easier to use the budget for political attacks than it is to come up with solutions. Maine and the country need real solutions to our fiscal problems, not an endless continuation of the broken status quo.
Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]