Republican congressional candidate Chris Collins insists that the federal budget must be balanced within 10 years, but independent budget hawks say it can be done in only one way: with an extraordinary amount of pain.
To balance the budget that quickly with no tax increases and without touching Medicare, Social Security and the defense budget, virtually everything else in the federal budget would have to be slashed between 40 and 50 percent, said Joshua B. Gordon, policy director of the Concord Coalition. A former director of the Congressional Budget Office and a top official at the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget agreed that such deep cuts would be necessary.
That means Medicaid, which funds health care for the poor as well as nursing home care for many senior citizens, would face deep cuts. So would federal emergency aid, education funding, farm programs and just about every other federal program you can think of.
Told of those ramifications of balancing the budget in a decade, Collins, who is challenging Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Hamburg, in the 27th Congressional District, said: “I have not delved into the details, perhaps, as much as what you’re saying, other than to take Mitt Romney at his word that he will be offering a plan to balance the budget in 10 years.”
Republican presidential challenger Romney has made a commitment to balancing the budget in eight to 10 years in spite of making a series of proposed tax cuts, but he has not spelled out exactly how he would balance the budget, either.
Collins said it’s the next president’s job, not his, to spell out the details of how the budget should be cut.
Nevertheless, he has been adamant that the budget should be brought to balance quickly, repeating that vow on his campaign website as well as the campaign trail.
“We need to send the message that we will balance the budget in the next 10 years,” Collins told the Batavian, a community news website, in June. “I think 10 years is something we have to insist on. The idea that we can wait 30 or 40 years is complete nonsense.”
Ironically, the budget plan put forth by Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, wouldn’t balance the budget for 30 years – and Democrats have attacked that plan as too draconian, especially because it would transform Medicare, in part, into a voucher program.
Meanwhile, the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles plan would balance the budget in 23 years.
Balancing the budget in a decade poses a host of difficulties, said Gordon, one of Washington’s foremost advocates of fiscal discipline.
“If you are not wanting to raise revenues and if you’re trying to protect these programs [such as Social Security and Medicare], it really becomes mathematically impossible to balance the budget that quickly,” Gordon said. “If you try, you’re almost certain to slow the economy, which will mean less revenue, which will make it even harder to balance the budget.”
Beyond that, cutting federal spending that quickly would inevitably push many costs down to the state level. Budget experts said that’s particularly true of Medicaid, which Romney has proposed turning into a block grant program in which states would get limited federal funds to run their health care programs for the poor.
“The states are going to have an even harder time” under Romney-Ryan plans to reform Medicaid, Gordon said.
Collins said he has no problem with that, though. While suggesting the elimination of the Obama health care law and turning over the food stamp program to the states, Collins said block-granting Medicaid could be a good cost-cutting idea.
Noting that the New York Medicaid program includes “every option known to mankind,” Collins said: “For New York to ever really grow, the governor and the Legislature are going to have to do a fundamental redo of Medicaid.”
In addition to arguing for a balanced budget in 10 years, Collins has signed Republican activist Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” in which politicians agree to oppose increases to tax rates or the elimination of deductions unless they are matched by further reducing tax rates.
Told that a candidate was signing that pledge while arguing to balance the budget in a decade, Rudolph G. Penner, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, said: “Oh, God.”
Refusing to raise taxes while also refusing to trim Medicare and Social Security spending would greatly complicate efforts to balance the budget in 10 years, Penner said, noting that Medicare and Social Security are the biggest drivers of the nation’s debt problem and ought to be reformed.
Under such a scenario, cuts to the rest of the budget would be “extremely, extremely large,” Penner said.
Still, Collins insisted that cuts are necessary. Those cuts should not harm current Medicare and Social Security recipients, he said, but eliminating the Obama health law and instituting other government programs would help boost economic growth and thereby help reduce the deficit even further. “A rising tide raises all ships,” Collins said.
As for the specifics of budget-cutting, he said: “There’s some hard work to be done. I have every confidence that Mitt Romney will be able to get it done.”
Hochul said she does not want to set a date for balancing the federal budget, arguing instead that Republicans and Democrats had to start negotiating seriously on a plan that combines tax increases on the wealthy with the repeal of tax loopholes and cuts throughout the budget.
She argued that the quick cuts that Collins is suggesting would decimate agriculture programs that farmers in her district depend on, as well as Medicaid, which is essential to paying for nursing home care for many senior citizens.
“It’s irresponsible” for Collins to pledge to balance the budget in a decade without providing the details, she said. “There’s no substance behind it."
Budget hawks also chided President Obama for failing to offer a comprehensive plan to deal with the growing federal debt and, in particular, spiraling entitlement spending.
“There’s no way to deal with the debt and the deficit without doing that,” said Jason Peuquet, research director for the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
But Peuquet was just as critical as the other budget hawks were of a light-on-the-details plan to balance the budget in a decade.
“It’s all well and good to say that you’re going to do that; it makes for a good bumper sticker,” he said. “But the reality is much more complicated.”