WASHINGTON ― Fourteen months before he was elected president, Donald Trump vowed to make sure the country would never again run a $400 billion budget deficit.
“Well, he’s right about that,” laughed Capitol Hill budget veteran Stan Collender on Monday.
Because, as it turns out, Trump kept his promise ― only not in the way his supporters might have hoped.
In the first budget cycle fully under their control, Trump and the Republican-run Congress are likely to run a deficit that will top $1 trillion, some two-and-a-half times as big as the one Trump had complained about at his Sept. 30, 2015, rally in Keene, New Hampshire.
And given how sharply the just-passed tax cuts will reduce revenue in the coming years, those $1 trillion annual deficits could well extend through Trump’s remaining three-to-seven years in office.
“He tried to make it seem that he could cut taxes, raise spending and eliminate deficits all at the same time, to make it seem like he’s a miracle worker,” said Collender, a longtime former congressional budget committee staffer. “It’s impossible. People who believed him really don’t understand how things work.”
Avoiding $400 billion annual deficits was just one of several promises Trump made on the campaign trail regarding federal spending. Trump told conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in December 2015 that if the country didn’t “balance up” its budget soon, “we’re not going to have a nation anymore.”
And in a March 2016 interview with The Washington Post, Trump said he would not only eliminate annual deficits, but actually pay off the entire national debt ― at the time, $20 trillion ― within eight years.
Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said that pledge was clearly ill-informed and not plausible. “What was plausible was that he would get into office and not be complicit in adding to the debt,” she said.
But with a tax-cut plan that the Congressional Budget Office estimated will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years and a new spending plan that will add another $400 billion or so, Trump is, indeed, adding to the problem, she said.
“They are catapulting us toward trillion dollar deficits,” she said. “The president has no interest in leading on hard choices.”
Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said at a White House briefing Monday that the administration’s budget proposal is telling Congress that lawmakers don’t have to spend all the new money called for in the recent two-year government funding agreement that the president signed into law.
“We do not have to have trillion dollar deficits forever,” Mulvaney said.
According to critics, though, that is exactly what Trump and congressional Republicans have guaranteed. Trump’s own budget proposal, even relying on a 3-percent growth rate in the economy that many experts call unrealistic, projects a deficit of $969 billion next year unless Congress cuts programs.
“His budget has nothing to do with reality,” Collender said
“We’re looking at oceans of red ink as far as we can see,” said Jared Bernstein, once the top economic adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden and President Barack Obama were hammered, year after year, by Republicans for running annual budget deficits and doubling the national debt ― even though they took office facing a deficit of $1.3 trillion in the depth of the financial crisis. In the coming years, it fell to as little as $438 billion before increasing again to $588 billion by the time Obama and Biden left office.
Trump’s trillion-dollar deficits will come in a strong economy, and could rapidly reach record levels in the event of a recession.
“We’ve seen the deficit hypocrisy ever since Obama left the White House,” Bernstein said. “Republicans love to cut taxes, but their constituents don’t want to lose the government services that they’re using.”