Obama and Romney's Deficit Plans: 2 Proposals Both Alike in Hopelessness

With the deficit surpassing $1 trillion for the fourth consecutive year under Obama, The New York Times looks at the presidential candidates' promises for cleaning up the budget. Bob Reischauer, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office, puts it succinctly: "The proposals by Romney are politically unachievable, and the president's proposals, while achievable, are too modest." 

That sounds good, but it's wrong. Neither plan is achievable, really. No Democrat will ever vote for Romney's spending proposals, which would shrink government by at least $400 billion a year over a decade without cutting Social Security, Medicare or defense. That's would amount to a 30-40% cut from the projected growth of the rest of government, including $700 billion from Medicaid, $400 billion from low-income programs like food stamps and housing support, and $600 billion from federal work force salary cuts.

But what makes Obama's plan achievable? The Republican Party isn't going to vote for higher taxes. Every few weeks, there are rumors that some Republican, somewhere, has said something that kinda maybe vaguely sounds like a theoretical openness to higher taxes in the future. But we haven't actually one, this is basically Washington's super boring version a Sasquatch rumor. Four years ago, it was en vogue for the candidates to discuss, in detail, how they would mend a fractured Washington. But the last term has shown that it's budget deadlines, not bipartisanship, that forces Republicans and Democrats to hammer out a deal. Neither candidate's deficit reduction is passable in this Congress, since both are essentially asking the opposition party to give up the one thing they're most intent on defending (tax levels for the GOP; entitlements for the old and low-income for the Democrats).

The optimistic take here is that if you dissect Obama and Romney's plans and build something new with the components, you can get somewhere pretty good: Lower marginal rates, less tax spending, higher overall revenue, cuts to pointless mandatory subsidies, Obamacare pilot programs to improve health care delivery combined with long-term budget for overall health spending, means-testing for upper-income Medicare beneficiaries, and so on. There is an utterly reasonable deficit-reduction plan lurking deep within these proposals. But there isn't a Congress in sight to pass it -- or a candidate to propose it.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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