Measuring Trump's Budget Against Past Spending

In percentage terms, the president’s proposal offsets a modest increase in military funding with historic cuts to domestic programs.

Andrew McGill / The Atlantic

To afford a beefier military, Donald Trump intends to substantially cut a slew of government departments, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor.

Since the president has promised to maintain spending on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, he intends to shift the burden of paying for his defense program to the government’s smaller agencies, some of which are responsible for keeping workplaces safe, monitoring air and water quality, and making sure the government’s bills are paid on time. Nearly two-thirds of the cuts come from departments that constitute only 20 percent of the budget.

His budget outline, released today, would fund some federal departments at the lowest level since the 1980s, when adjusted for inflation.

On first glance, Trump’s push to increase military spending might seem reasonable. After accounting for inflation, his proposal would fund the Department of Defense at 2016 levels1—which, you know, was only two years ago. Granted, the U.S. no longer has hundreds of thousands of troops fighting overseas, as was the case for most of the last decade. Nor does it have a belligerent rival superpower to outspend, as it did with the USSR.

That said, by electing Trump—who made no secret of his ambition to increase military spending—perhaps voters have shown they support a modest increase.

But here’s the problem with Trump’s 10 percent spending bump. If he offered that increase to the Department of Justice or HUD, no big deal. But the defense budget is massive.  Every percentage point of extra military spending costs American taxpayers $6 billion. In total, Trump wants $52 billion, which is more than the U.S. spends on highway safety, national parks, and public housing combined.

With the country’s major entitlements locked down, Trump has instead turned to smaller departments for savings, taking the opportunity to slice a bit deeper into the ones Republicans don’t particularly like, including the Department of Education. Some, including the Department of Labor, haven’t seen budget allocations this low since the 1980s.

Here’s the full rundown:

Trump reportedly hopes a surge in the economy could save him from making some of these cuts. But his off-the-cuff projection of 3 percent growth in gross domestic product is unlikely; the Congressional Budget Office projects GDP growth will remain flat, at around 2 percent, through 2026.

The president’s proposed military spending won’t break any records. But the amount he’s cutting from domestic departments will. During the campaign, Trump  promised to project strength at home and abroad, to bolster America’s hard power overseas while rebuilding its national infrastructure. This budget shows how hard it is to do both at once.

  1. Meaning the fiscal year, not the calendar year—so half of this time period was actually in 2015.