Candidates' deficit plans don't add up, critics say

By Andrew Taylor

Republicans have trouble with the accuracy of President Barack Obama's claims of more than $4 trillion in deficit savings through the next decade.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Here's the rap on the presidential candidates' plans for cutting federal deficits: Mitt Romney's is too bold and the numbers don't add up, while President Barack Obama's is too timid and his numbers don't add up, either.

As the government closes the books today with a $1.1 trillion deficit for the year, which required borrowing 32 cents for every dollar it spent, budget analysts have little confidence in either man's plan to address the accumulating debt, now at about $16 trillion.

The Republican nominee promises to balance the budget in eight years to 10 years, but he also offers a mix of budgetary contradictions: higher Pentagon spending, restoring cuts that Democrats made in Medicare and an absolute refusal to consider tax increases.

To fulfill his promise, Romney would require cuts to other programs so deep — under one calculation requiring cutting many areas of the domestic budget by one-third within four years — that they could never get through Congress.

In other words, it wouldn't work.

Obama claims more than $4 trillion in deficit savings over the coming decade. But it you peel away accounting tricks and debatable claims on spending cuts, it's more like $1.1 trillion. Republicans say it's even less because of creative bookkeeping used to mask spending on Medicare reimbursements to doctors.

The accounting gets tricky, but the biggest faults with Obama's math are his claims of more than $2 trillion in savings from earlier budget deals with Republicans and an additional $848 billion in savings from winding down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"You can't find a $4 trillion number," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a conservative who once led the Congressional Budget Office.

Obama promises relatively small cuts of $597 billion from big federal benefit programs such as Medicare and Medicaid over the next decade while proposing tax increases of $1.9 trillion that he couldn't push through Congress when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate.

Obama's performance on the deficit should be his Achilles heel. The deficit has exceeded $1 trillion each year on his watch. He gave a cold shoulder to his own special deficit commission. Whatever efforts have occurred over the past two years to curb the deficit have come under pressure by Republicans.

Romney offers a set of principles and promises rather than a detailed plan. He pledges to shrink the government to 20 percent of the size of the economy, as opposed to more than 23 percent of gross domestic product now, by the end of his first term. The Romney campaign estimates that would require cuts of $500 billion from the 2016 budget alone.

Romney proposes saving hundreds of billions of dollars over the coming decade by following House Republicans' plan to sharply cut federal spending on Medicaid health care for the poor and disabled, and turn it over to state governments. He pledges to cut the federal workforce by 10 percent.

But Romney also promises large budget increases for the Pentagon and rejects a plan by his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that endorses more than $700 billion in cuts to Medicare that were made as part of Obama's health care law. Social Security is off the table.

That means big cuts to what's left over: nuts-and-bolts government agencies including the FBI, Federal Aviation Administration and Border Patrol; programs such as food inspection and space exploration; and popular subsidy and benefit programs for farmers, veterans and college students.

The liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that Romney's budget outline could require a one-third cut in domestic programs by 2016, excluding Social Security and Medicare, to make the math work. By 2022, such programs would have to be cut by more than half.

"You have to have large cuts in the rest of the non-defense budget, very large cuts," said Paul Van De Water, an analyst at the budget think tank. "Whether it's politically and practically achievable is subject to question."

Romney also is light on details on his tax cut proposal.

He says he wants to cut rates by 20 percent, but won't specify how he'll find the $5 trillion required to pay for it. For all the rhetoric of tax loopholes and cleaning up the tax code, finding that kind of money would require looking at popular deductions and tax breaks for the middle class.

Those include deductions for mortgage interest, charitable contributions and state and local taxes, and breaks for college savings, employer-paid health insurance and families with children.

Tax experts say he could very well come up short.

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