The Spending Cut Fairy

Fri, 22 Aug 2008 12:56:27 +0000

US Budget Watch, a project of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, has released "Promises, Promises: A Fiscal Voter's Guide to the 2008 Election." From the Introduction:

The two major political parties’ presidential candidates are campaigning on a lengthy list of policy initiatives, most of which would have significant impact on the federal budget. While not all of these proposals will become law, they do reflect the candidates’ values and priorities, and the policies each candidate is likely to pursue once in office. In addition to these new initiatives, a number of outstanding tax and budget issues exist that will need to be addressed, such as which of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts should be made permanent, how to fix the Alternative Minimum Tax, what to do about growing entitlement spending, how to control health care cost growth, and how to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The next president will face difficult fiscal challenges. It is therefore critical that voters understand the potential budgetary impacts of the candidates’ plans.

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US Budget Watch’s report, Promises, Promises: A Fiscal Voter Guide to the 2008 Election, will help voters find their way through the thicket of policy proposals put forward by the likely Republican candidate for president, Senator John McCain, and the likely Democratic candidate for president, Senator Barack Obama. It presents a capsule summary of the candidates’ major policy proposals and includes an estimate of the likely fiscal impact of each proposal. The guide is not intended to express a view for or against either candidate or any specific policy proposal. This report will be followed by other more detailed reports on the candidates’ tax and spending proposals.

The document seeks to compare the fiscal impact in a given year, 2013, of the two candidates' proposals for taxation, health care, energy, and other spending policy. If one were to compare the summaries of the two candidates' proposals on pages 4-5, it looks like McCain's policies add $275 - $367 billion to that year's deficit, compared to $387 billion for Obama's policies.

But within the summaries are entries, "Implement Unspecified to Balance the Budget" and "Implement Unspecified Cuts to Slow Spending." Taking them out--$159 billion for McCain and $50 billion for Obama--yields a comparison of $434 - $526 billion for McCain and $437 billion for Obama. (Both totals would be higher by about $40 billion if we similarly discounted entries like "Reduce Health Care Costs.")

So if we take this guide as accurate, each of the candidates will propose to spend another 3% of GDP or more at the expense of future taxpayers. Very little of what's being proposed could be properly classified as investment as opposed to current consumption by today's taxpayers. So complaint #1 is the continued refusal to elevate balancing the budget as a policy objective. No candidate who is this indifferent to that policy objective gets my active support.

Complaint #2 is that, once again, candidates think that specificity is appropriate when cutting taxes or raising spending, but $100 - $200 billion in unspecified spending cuts are supposed to just magically appear. Maybe the candidates believe in the "Spending Cut Fairy," but I don't. No candidate who claims that budget balance will be restored or improved through spending cuts without specifying where the cuts will happen gets my active support.