By James Kwak
The Committee for a Responsible Budget recently released an analysis of the budgetary proposals of the four remaining Republican presidential candidates (hat tip Ezra Klein, who shows the key graph). In short, all of the candidates propose to increase the national debt by massive amounts relative to current law, which includes the expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of this year.
CFRB compares the candidates’ plans to a “realistic” baseline that assumes the Bush tax cuts are made permanent and the automatic sequesters required by the Budget Control Act of 2011 are waived, among other things. Relative to that extremely pessimistic baseline, Santorum and Gingrich still want huge increases to the national debt; only Paul’s proposals would reduce it. Romney’s proposals would have little impact, but that was before his latest attempt to pander to the base: an across-the-board, 20 percent reduction in income tax rates.
How is this possible, since all of them have promised to cut spending? Huge tax cuts, on top of the Bush tax cuts. Romney, as mentioned above, would reduce all rates by 20 percent, repeal the AMT, and repeal the estate tax. Santorum would cut taxes by $6 trillion over the next decade. Gingrich would cut taxes by $7 trillion. Paul, the responsible one, would only cut taxes by $5 trillion.
This is pure crazy talk. I’m not sure what is more remarkable: that the candidates would compete for the affections of the Tea Party (a supposed anti-debt group) by planning to increase the national debt; that they think that they can pose as deficit hawks while planning to increase the national debt; or that they are getting away with it.
How did this happen? It’s probably no surprise to you, but over the past thirty years the Republican Party has become not the party of balanced budgets, but the party of tax cuts—thanks in no small part to Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. This is a story we tell in chapter 3 of White House Burning. In power, they can strong-arm enough moderate Democrats to pass their tax cuts, but can’t muster the support to actually cut spending. The only surprising thing is how long they’ve been able to wave the flag of fiscal responsibility.
Not that I’m a fan of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The CRFB is another of those “centrist” groups or panels (like Bowles-Simpson, like Domenici-Rivlin, like the Gang of Six) that is using deficits as an excuse to cut taxes under the guise of “tax reform.” Tax reform, for these groups, means eliminating loopholes and lowering tax rates even below George W. Bush levels. By setting the baseline so low (assuming the Bush tax cuts are made permanent), they can claim that their tax reform packages will increase revenues and reduce deficits. In fact, compared to current law, they all support large tax cuts, mainly for the rich.
I can understand why you might want tax reform. I can also understand why you might want lower tax rates for the rich. (You might be rich, for one.) I don’t understand how you can use the national debt as an excuse for tax cuts. If you care about the national debt, you should want to let the Bush tax cuts expire and then close loopholes without lowering rates.