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On the federal deficit, candidates stay mostly vague

Rising entitlement costs and Iraq war expenses take a back seat to shorter-term stimulus plans.

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On the Republican side, most of the candidates pledge to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. (Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and US Rep. Ron Paul would eliminate the income tax altogether.) Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee have promised to eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, while Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, would index it to inflation.

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On spending, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney says he would allow the US discretionary spending budget to increase at only the rate of inflation, minus one percent. Mr. McCain vows all-out war against congressional earmarks, the local projects lawmakers insert into appropriations bills to win the favor of voters at home. Mr. Giuliani's self-described "plan to restore fiscal discipline" includes the reduction of the civilian federal work force by 20 percent through attrition and retirement.

Mr. Paul, who advocates extremely limited government, proposes to eliminate entire executive branch departments.

Most of the GOP contenders acknowledge the need to reform the big entitlement programs, while avoiding specifics. However, in the past McCain has said he would be willing to lift the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes as part of an entitlement reform deal. And Mr. Thompson has produced a fairly detailed response to the entitlement problem, which includes a reduction in future Social Security benefits produced by linking benefit increases to the rate of inflation, not wage growth.

The Democratic candidates say they would all repeal the Bush tax cuts, to varying degrees. Mrs. Clinton has talked about changing, but not eliminating, the AMT.

Mr. Obama calls for the enforcement of congressional pay-as-you-go budgeting rules, in which new programs or tax cuts are paid for by reductions in other programs, or new revenue. He also vows to end to what he judges wasteful spending, including subsidies to the oil and gas and private student loan industries. And the first move to make to strengthen Social Security, he says, is to raise the Social Security tax income cap, currently $97,500 per worker.

Clinton would also restore pay-as-you-go discipline, she says. She criticizes Obama's proposal to raise the cap on income subject to the Social Security payroll tax, calling it a "trillion-dollar increase on middle-class families." If elected, she will call for a bipartisan commission to address entitlement program problems.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina says he is committed to not making the deficit worse, but that he does not view deficit reduction as important as universal health care or global warming. On Social Security, he says he is opposed to raising the retirement age or cutting current or future benefits.

In general, the 2008 presidential candidates are talking about taxes and spending as separate propositions, complains Mr. Bixby of the Concord Coalition.

Rolling back the Bush tax cuts would pay for only a relatively small portion of the projected future rise in entitlements, he says, and given the sheer size of Social Security, Medicare, and defense spending, ending earmarked local projects would have little overall fiscal effect.

"What voters should look for" in a candidate he says, is, "Is there an acknowledgement that there are hard choices ahead?"