America Needs to Exercise Budgetary Restraint Before It's Too Late

President Trump's Budget for the U.S. Government for the Fiscal Year 2019 is released in Washington

But the notion that Congress should reject any cuts is simply not realistic.

President Donald Trump released his fiscal year 2019 budget this week—and foreign-policy experts and prominent voices on Capitol Hill were quick to criticize the depth of his budget cuts.

For the most part, Trump’s request for the Department of State and other international programs, including both base discretionary funding and supplementary funding through overseas contingency operations (OCO), mirrored the request made in the fiscal year 2018 budget. The 2018 budget requested $40.2 billion for the Department of State. This was approximately 32 percent below the $59.1 enacted for fiscal year 2017. In comparison, the 2019 budget requested $40.3 billion, only slightly higher than the 2018 budget.

The reaction of Trump’s critics, however, was muted compared to last year when they asserted that the budget would destroy soft power, end foreign aid as we know it and endanger U.S. diplomats.

During the Trump presidency, reactions to administration proposals and policies has tended toward hyperbole, so the shift is a welcome embrace of perspective. After all, any president’s budget request is merely the first part of the budget process. In the end, Congress must authorize and appropriate funding and will assert its views accordingly.

To predict what will happen next, we need only look to last year. The House of Representatives passed appropriations for the International Affairs budget, which funds the State Department and other international programs, totaling $48.9 billion—$10.2 billion less than fiscal year 2017 and $8.4 billion more that the president’s request. The Senate passed a budget of $53 billion—$6.1 billion less than 2017 and $12.5 billion more than Trump’s request.

Thus far, fiscal year 2018 funding has been provided through successive continuing resolutions rather than normal appropriations bills. However, if normal process had been followed, the final appropriation would have been between the House and Senate levels—in other words, a reduction from 2017, but higher than the president’s request.

Looking forward, we can expect a similar process for fiscal year 2019, albeit one impacted by the higher budget levels following the enactment of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Heritage analysts have expressed concern that immediately implementing cuts to the State Department and USAID of the size proposed by the administration could be too disruptive.

But the notion that Congress should reject any cuts is simply not realistic. Although many policymakers prefer to ignore it, America cannot continue its current budgetary trajectory. The tax reforms will contribute to increased economic growth, but growth must be accompanied by budgetary restraint if our fiscal house is to be brought to order.

Cutting the budget for State won’t solve this problem—the real drivers are the rising costs of interest on the federal debt and entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—but must be part of the solution.

With this in mind, the administration should urge Congress to adhere closely to the FY 2018 appropriations adopted by the House.

Congress should also seriously consider the reforms outlined in the president’s budget. Although details differ, bipartisan congressional interest in reforming the State Department, USAID and food aid has existed for years. The Trump administration has signaled that it is ready to press for reforms, and Congress should maintain or implement the positive policies and reforms outlined in the budget:

- Reform America’s Antiquated Foreign-Assistance Programs