Republicans Hope to Enlist Trump in Entitlement Reforms
Republicans in Congress are hopeful that despite his campaign promises to the contrary, President Trump will at some point embrace reforms to major entitlement programs long sought by GOP lawmakers to rein in federal spending and debt.
Trump campaigned on preserving Medicare and Social Security, putting him at odds with most of his GOP primary opponents and the majority of the party. Entitlement reforms didn’t get a mention when he laid out his governing vision in his first joint address to Congress Tuesday, and his slimmed-down budget proposal announced this week won’t tackle mandatory spending, making clear that reforming entitlements, the biggest portion of federal government spending, isn’t a top priority.
But Republican lawmakers believe there’s still a chance the president will alter his positions now that he’s taken office.
“[Trump] made pretty clear that he doesn’t want to start down that path right now,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, told RealClearPolitics. “My hope is that at some point that he will because, as you know, that’s where the money is … I understand he said he wouldn’t do that during the campaign, and I think this is consistent with that. But that’s a debate we need to have, and we need to come up with a better way to deal with it."
It isn’t clear when those proposals could be taken up, even if the president and lawmakers found agreement. While most Republicans on Capitol Hill still support changes to entitlement programs – many consider them to be an urgent priority – few see any opening for action in the near future. Their aggressive agenda of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and enacting major tax reform this year is likely to soak up most of the legislating time this year, and both efforts have already hit early stumbling blocks.
It would also be difficult to approach the issue next year, as members begin to focus on their re-election campaigns and would likely be wary of tough votes on popular safety net programs.
Mandatory spending – including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs – is about two-thirds of total government spending, while discretionary funds appropriated annually by Congress are only about one-third, split between defense and non-defense. Safety net programs are also in financial straits – the Social Security trust fund is expected to be insolvent by 2034, and the Medicare trust fund by 2028.
Trump’s early budget proposal would increase military spending while seeking cuts in other discretionary areas. John Czwartaki, communications director for the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement earlier this week that they “expect mandatory and tax proposals will be included in the full budget submission later in the year."
For many Republicans in Congress, that wasn’t enough.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said that until entitlement reform was put on the table, cost savings in the budget were “just gimmicks.”
“If he doesn’t change his view on entitlements it won’t be a successful presidency in terms of debt,” Graham said.
Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, former chairman of the appropriations committee, said the panel cut hundreds of billions in spending during his tenure, but that entitlement were “zooming skyward.”
“It concerns me that he’s not focusing on cutting entitlement spending,” he said. Because of Trump’s campaign statements on preserving Social Security and Medicare, the two biggest drivers of entitlement spending, Rogers said Trump was “politically tied” to his position. But he said it was possible the president would embrace cuts to other mandatory programs.
And some Republicans point out that anticipated changes to Medicaid in their repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act would qualify as entitlement reform.
“We are well on our way to reforming entitlements by repealing and replacing Obamacare,” Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday. “So I think that's a pretty darn good start.”
But for Ryan, further entitlement reforms, particularly with Medicare but also Social Security, remain long-term priorities. He became a national figure with his budget proposal that would significantly alter those programs. He said earlier this week that he would not “give up on a dream.”
Ryan later told reporters that Trump does not want to cut Medicare benefits for those currently on the program, but that it was an “open question” whether other changes were possible, according to CNN.
Other Republicans on Capitol Hill view Trump’s myriad campaign promises on Medicare through the lens of current beneficiaries, not that the president was against any and all entitlement reforms.
“What he said was we’re going to protect the people who are receiving the benefits, and I fully subscribe to that and every Republican I know fully subscribes to that,” said Sen. David Perdue of Georgia. He labeled it a “long-term issue. I hope to get a solution in the next two years, but the solutions will be over the next 20 or 30 years.”
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said he wasn’t bothered that Trump didn’t mention entitlement spending in his address to Congress; he said there’s often “misinformation” around those programs and thought it wasn’t the proper venue for that discussion. Like Perdue, he said he viewed Trump’s statements as referring to current beneficiaries.
“You only have to take a look at the basic numbers of these programs and recognize if we don’t get them on sound financial footing, we’re not going to be able to fulfill the promises,” he said. “He’s about fulfilling promises.”
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said he thought it was possible Trump could become more informed about the issues surrounding mandatory spending and debt after taking office and surrounding himself with staff with deep knowledge of the issue. He said he’s talked with Trump about entitlements, and he spoke with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about the subject earlier this week.
“I know there are a number of things they want to get done right now,” Corker said. “Maybe this is something that at some point they will turn to, but it is the central driver of our deficits today."
Most Republicans pointed to Trump’s OMB director, former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a budget hawk, as evidence he’s willing to embrace reforms. During his confirmation hearing, Mulvaney said he had no basis to believe Trump changed his mind on entitlement campaign promises, but that his job was to “be completely and brutally honest with him.”
One Senate Republican aide said it was unlikely there would be a major legislative push on entitlements because of the packed agenda this year and difficult politics next year. But the aide said some form of commission, similar to what President Obama created with Simpson-Bowles in 2010, could grease the wheels for reforms and bring the president around to supporting them.
“You can’t kick open the door,” the aide said. “You have to slowly crack it open, let a little sunshine in. And it’s all about the rollout, it’s all about the presentation.”
Cornyn also hinted that Trump’s love of a deal could be the selling point.
“Maybe there’s a grand bargain out there that would put Medicare and Social Security on a sustainable path that it’s not currently on and help us resolve our structural fiscal problems. Maybe he’d like to be a part of that,” Cornyn said. “That’s the only reason to run for office or hold office … to solve problems, and I think the president would like to be part of that."
Others, however, were less certain. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a former rival of Trump’s during the presidential campaign, said debt is the “No. 1 problem facing our country” and that entitlements were critical to addressing that.
“Even if you eliminate discretionary spending, military and everything else, you still wouldn’t balance the budget,” Paul said. “You have to look at entitlements. I’ve been a proponent that you have to fix Medicare and fix Social Security or it’s going to drag us all under.”
Asked if he thought it was likely the president would come around to that position, Paul responded: “I don’t know.”