Budget Watchdog To Candidates: Back Up Tough Talk

Feb 23, 2012

Republican presidential hopefuls have had a field day attacking President Obama for the federal government's trillion-dollar deficits and promising things will be different when the GOP is in charge.

But while the candidates talk a good game about stemming the tide of red ink, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says their proposals don't necessarily add up.

"So far what we have is four candidates who are all serious about cutting spending, but are also very serious about cutting taxes," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan organization. "And in most cases they would cut taxes by more than their spending cuts, which would make the overall deficit situation worse."

The lone exception is Texas Congressman Ron Paul, whose plans would actually shrink the debt by more than $2 trillion over the next decade.

"He tops the group in terms of the kinds of spending cuts he's talking about — at over $7 trillion in cuts, which is by far the greatest amount of any specific cuts that anybody has offered," MacGuineas says.

Specific is the operative word there. The budget watchdogs give more credit to candidates who spell out specific cuts than those who offer vague targets, like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who pledged to limit government spending to 20 percent of the overall economy.

"Gov. Romney puts forth cuts in spending and cuts in taxes," MacGuineas says. "Neither of them kind of drastically change the budget, but overall the effects of those tax cuts would outweigh the spending cuts, from what he's offered so far."

The committee estimates that Romney's proposals would add $250 billion to the debt over the next decade.

That's nothing, though, compared to the red ink that would be spilled by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Santorum wants to cut personal income taxes while preserving costly deductions and tripling the tax break for children. So far, he's offered little to balance those cuts, except $5 trillion in unspecified spending reductions.

"This is the big wildcard for Sen. Santorum so far," MacGuineas says. "He has said he'll cut $5 trillion. That would have a significant effect on the overall fiscal effects of his plan. But he has yet to say where that $5 trillion would come from."

The committee also dings Gingrich for his optional 15 percent flat tax; because everyone would have the option of paying less, government revenues would take a big hit.

"Who's going to be the person who says I'll take the system where I'll pay more?" MacGuineas says. "So in the end, it might be a more desirable tax system for a number of other reasons, but it usually winds up losing revenues and significant revenues in this case."

The committee estimates that over 10 years, the Gingrich plan would add $7 trillion to the federal debt.

MacGuineas says this report is not intended to be the last word on GOP proposals, but to illustrate the challenge of backing up tough fiscal talk and to encourage the candidates to get specific.

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