First, implementation of the debt limit deal means more and more whacks at a discretionary budget that overall is less than a third of total spending, with half of that coming from the domestic spending side. Already in next year’s budget, that means troubling reductions in areas such as health research, environmental protection and space exploration; other areas, including food safety and port security, can brace for their own whacks in years to come unless a comprehensive long-term deal is reached.
Second, the Obama budget does not look seriously at the major spending driver of future deficits, health care costs reflected in Medicare, Medicaid and veterans health. That is a political decision, and an unfortunate one.
The Obama budget is already being ripped by Republicans as a political document and by deficit hawks for its failure to attack the debt problem vigorously enough. But in context, it is worth a brief comparison to the Romney and Santorum visions.
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has put flesh on the Romney proposals’ bones. Romney, he says, “has pledged to cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP. He has pledged to cut taxes to about 17 percent of GDP. He has pledged to a floor on defense spending at 4 percent of GDP. And he has pledged to balance the budget.” As Klein notes, Romney has pledged to cut twice as much from the budget as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which means, over the next 10 years, cutting more than 35 percent from every program in the nondefense budget, including Social Security and Medicare. And at the same time, taxes on the poor would go up even as the safety net he has promised to strengthen would be shredded, while taxes on the highest earners would plummet.
Santorum’s pledge, however, makes Romney’s promises look tepid by comparison. Santorum’s even more radical tax plan not only extends all the Bush tax cuts but takes an additional trillion dollars in revenue away annually by 2015 through additional tax cuts. Balancing the budget in five years would thus mean spending cuts of even more than $1 trillion a year, and since Santorum has the most aggressive approach to defense spending of all the candidates, my back-of-the-envelope calculations say that would mean immediate evisceration of every federal program — including the biggies of Social Security and Medicare — by nearly 50 percent, or cuts of 75 percent or more if Social Security and Medicare are spared for several years.
Of course, these pledges are also political — no surprise in a presidential election year. But presidents try very hard to keep their pledges. The contrasts between the detailed Obama budget and the budget outlines of Romney and Santorum, especially when they are embellished by the forthcoming Ryan plan, will frame vividly the choices facing Americans in November.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.