Editorial: Debate budget cuts, but keep discipline

The Detroit News

Only four times since 1960 has the United States managed to post a balanced federal budget, and that was 1998-2001, at the tail end of the Clinton administration when Congress and the president made a joint commitment to fiscal discipline. The first budget submitted by President Donald Trump doesn’t put the country back in the black, but it at least makes a feint in that direction.

Trump calls this a “skinny budget,” but that’s a generous description of a spending document that will still total roughly $4 trillion and is not likely to reduce by very much the anticipated $488 billion deficit.

Total expenditures and the exact size of the deficit can’t be calculated because the document the White House released covers only discretionary spending, which makes up about 30 percent of the total federal budget. Mandatory spending on programs including Social Security and Medicare takes up the rest.

At the heart of the proposal is a $54 billion increase for the military, as Trump seeks to restock and re-equip the armed services. That’s a major hike and reflects the new president’s national security priority.

Whether that’s the right allocation of federal resources should be vigorously debated in Congress.

But give Trump credit for having the will to offset that giant hike for defense with deep cuts elsewhere in the budget, instead of adding it to the deficit as has been the norm in recent years.

The cuts Trump is asking for are severe, and would touch many vital programs. The State Department and Environmental Protection Agency are set for reductions of 28 and 31 percent respectively, and every department other than defense will get less money. Nineteen federal agencies will be completely defunded.

Every dollar spent by the federal government has a constituency, so making any cuts to any program is usually considered not worth the political cost.

But the United States can’t continue the reckless spending path it’s been on for a decade and a half. Four times during the Obama years the deficit topped $1 trillion, and it was never less than $435 billion. The federal debt now stands at $20 trillion.

Except for that brief period in the late 1990s, deficits have been the accepted norm even in periods of economic growth.

Deficit spending allows presidents and Congress to give the people all that they want, including tax cuts, while charging the tab to future generations. It’s irresponsible, and we can’t pretend any longer that it can go on forever without a reckoning.

Trump’s budget doesn’t fully bring that accounting, as it continues the mega deficits and promises tax cuts to boot. But it does begin to instill the discipline that if the government wants something, it must cut something else to pay for it.

That doesn’t mean Congress should simply accept this spending formula as offered. The priorities should be thoroughly examined. For example, it would be better to continue funding Great Lakes restoration, a modest program Trump proposes to cut, rather than waste billions on a useless border wall.

Congress hopefully will have that debate and come up with a spending mix that best serves the needs of the nation. But it should preserve the commitment to making hard choices.