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Why Trump won't touch entitlement reform… yet

Fiscal Times logo Fiscal Times 3/2/2017 Edward Morrissey

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Will the White House bend to fiscal conservatives on entitlement reform? Their policy preferences say no, but their choices – and House Speaker Paul Ryan – hint at a yes … eventually. The crossed signals on this key issue portend a bumpy ride between now and the midterm elections.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump offered a clear answer about his goals when it came to the federal budget. He wanted more money for the military and homeland security, especially immigration enforcement, and less spending on most other domestic policy areas. Trump made clear that he had no interest in tinkering with Medicare and Social Security, retirement programs on which his working-class base have staked their own futures. In fact, Trump made that clear from the start of his presidential primary campaign in May 2015, in an interview with CBN News’ David Brody.

“I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican,” Trump declared, “and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.” Trump used that pledge to differentiate himself from the fiscally conservative GOP presidential field, all of whom cited the national debt and the coming crisis of tens of trillions in unfunded entitlement mandates as a need to act now. “Every other Republican’s going to cut,” Trump explained, “and even if they wouldn’t, they don’t know what to do, because they don’t know where the money is. I do.”

Brody pointed out on Monday that the new budget proposal from the White House, as well as remarks from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, shows that Trump plans to keep that promise. “Indeed, in a newly published blueprint of the budget that is set to hit government agencies Monday,” Brody writes, “there are no cuts at all to those programs.”

However, that message got muddied a bit on the same day. Newly confirmed budget director Mick Mulvaney, previously a fiscal conservative in the House of Representatives, briefed reporters on the White House budget proposal, emphasizing that it only contained “toplines” for each agency and entirely focused on discretionary spending. “So you're not going to see anything in here that has to do with mandatory spending, entitlement reforms, tax policies, revenue projections, or the infrastructure plan,” Mulvaney explained.

At the mention of entitlement reform, reporters pounced. “Why not address entitlements,” one asked, “which is the biggest driver of spending?” When Mulvaney noted that “skinny” budget plans rarely addressed “larger policy decisions,” the reporter wondered whether “down the line, could we see some type of budget that deals with entitlements?”

Press secretary Sean Spicer had to shoot down the speculation later in the briefing, noting twice that Trump had promised to leave Medicare and Social Security alone. “And so he’s going to keep his word to the American people.”

Paul Ryan didn’t quite buy it. In an interview Tuesday with Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show, Ryan said entitlement reform was inevitable – and Trump knows it. “Can he balance the budget without it?” Lauer asked. Ryan replied, “We have to reform them for the next generation,” at which Lauer pressed, “But does the President agree with that?” Ryan responded, “I believe he does.”

At the very least, someone’s confused. And that confusion could set up false expectations that will only deepen some bitterness within the Republican coalition, unless all members of leadership get on the same page, and focus on what’s possible rather than what isn’t.

Nothing has changed politically on this question since the election, except for the demonstration by Trump about the importance of sticking to his campaign pledges. A new Morning Consult/Politico poll shows almost 70% of voters acknowledging that Trump has either met or exceeded expectations on his campaign agenda in the first month.

A majority (56/27) credit him with keeping his promises. Given the lack of personal popularity Trump has and the hostile media environment in which he works, the White House has to understand that this will be his most potent form of political capital. Backtracking on Medicare and Social Security would strip Trump of his only political cover – the votes of middle America.

Furthermore, Democrats and their progressive base have already arrayed themselves into a “resistance” rather than an opposition. The numbers do not exist to pass meaningful entitlement reform, as Democrats have little incentive to work with Trump in any policy area, let alone one for which they routinely demagogue Republicans. Even if Paul Ryan doesn’t recall the ads in which Democrats showed him pushing Grandma off a cliff in a wheelchair, Trump and his team will. A round of speculation after the election that merely suggested that Trump might be open to entitlement reform was enough for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to revive that campaign.

Even if Trump agrees with Ryan, as the Speaker claimed in his interview with Lauer, that doesn’t put entitlement reform on the table in this session. Mulvaney hinted, and Spicer made explicitly clear, that the Trump administration wants to focus on discretionary spending in its first budget plan. That part of the budget gives Trump wide latitude for cutting government; even if Congress appropriates funds, the White House does not have to spend all of it in each policy area. Fights over legislative turf have already begun to crop up, which should keep both sides of Capitol Hill busy for the next several months on more routine fiscal matters.

A focus on keeping campaign promises could boost entitlement reform in the longer run, though. Trump will get his first test with the electorate in the 2018 midterms. Traditionally, first-term presidents do poorly, but Republicans have a huge structural advantage in the Senate races, defending only eight of the 33 seats up for election.

Democrats have to defend ten seats in states Trump won in November, and Republicans could end up with a filibuster-proof majority in the next session of Congress. Success depends on Trump keeping that political capital in play by delivering on his 2016 campaign pledges.

After that, combined with two years of efforts to reduce spending and debt through the discretionary process, may give Trump and Republicans an opportunity to pull everyone together for a serious effort and success at entitlement reform. Until then, the opening won’t exist. Republicans might want to swallow hard and stop talking about it rather than miss the chance to get a lot more accomplished. 

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