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McCain, Obama Again Dodged Priority Questions

McCain, Obama Again Dodged Priority Questions

By Mort Kondracke - October 9, 2008

Even though questions about spending and tax priorities and "too much debt" were asked again at Tuesday night's presidential debate, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) once again failed to answer them.

In fact, they both perpetuated the fantasy that they can keep all their policy proposals intact -- and add new ones -- and pay for them with fuzzy spending cuts.

"We obviously have to stop this spending spree that's going on in Washington," McCain said. "Do you know that we've laid a $10 trillion debt on these young Americans who are here with us tonight, $100 billion of it we owe to China?"

A sentence or two later, he proposed a new $300 billion program to buy up distressed home mortgages. "Is it expensive? Yes," he said, but it's necessary to stabilize home values.

He did not even hint at how he'd pay for the program -- or his tax cuts that may cost $450 billion a year -- except to say he'd freeze some domestic spending for one year and eliminate earmarks, which cost $18 billion a year.

Then Obama attacked President Bush for increasing the national debt from $5 trillion to $10 trillion, but he asserted that he would be able to cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, expand health care and make college affordable -- "but I'm actually cutting more than I'm spending, so that it will be a net spending cut," he said.

Yet no budget watchdog group in town estimates that either McCain or Obama was going to contain the deficit even before the current economic crisis -- which is creating revenue losses and increased outlays that could add $1 trillion to the national debt this year alone.

Prior to the crisis, McCain was promising to balance the federal budget by 2013, but the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated that, at best, he'd rack up a deficit of $147 billion.

The committee estimated McCain's proposed tax cuts to cost $417 billion to $485 billion that year -- based on his campaign's own estimates -- but another group, the Brookings Institution-Urban Institute Tax Policy Center, said they could cost $700 billion, based on McCain's statements in stump speeches.

Meantime, while McCain claims that his health care reforms would be "budget- neutral," the Tax Policy Center estimates that they'd cost $1.3 trillion over 10 years and only "modestly trim the number of the uninsured."

To offset these outlays, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calculated that McCain was proposing to cut spending by $291 billion to $304 billion in 2013 -- but $159 billion of that came from "unspecified cuts," $35 billion from eliminating earmarks and $103 billion by reducing forces in Iraq, not exactly guaranteed savings.

Earlier this week, McCain domestic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin told the Wall Street Journal that McCain might pay for his health plan by slashing Medicare and Medicaid outlays by $1.3 trillion, but he didn't say how, except to mention eliminating fraud.

Meantime, the National Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated in September that Obama's middle-class tax breaks and new spending programs would cost $635 billion in 2013 while he'd recover $414 billion in tax increases and spending cuts, for a net deficit of $221 billion.

But $156 billion of the savings was from Iraq withdrawal, $67 billion from "unspecified" cuts or "spending reforms" and $75 billion from "closing tax loopholes and shelters" -- all fuzzy estimates.

The Tax Policy Center calculated that Obama's tax proposals -- cuts for the middle class, increases for the rich -- would net out at $332.5 billion in lost revenues in 2013 and increase the deficit by $2.9 trillion over 10 years.

The center estimated that Obama's health plan would cost $1.6 trillion, not the $650 billion his campaign estimates, though it would "cover virtually all children and many currently uninsured adults."

At a post-debate panel sponsored by the New America Foundation on Wednesday, former Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), a budget expert now with Brookings, said that all pre-crisis estimates have become "obsolete" -- meaning, the new reality is much worse.

"Last night," he said, the candidates "were specifically asked about how their priorities might change and what sacrifices they were asking for. It's in the nature of political candidates to be cunningly evasive and they offered no clues to the answers to these questions."

He noted that Congress undoubtedly would add a new economic stimulus package to this fiscal year's spending agenda and "after last night, I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach" about the nation's fiscal situation.

Another panelist, former Comptroller General David Walker, now president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, said that current deficits and the $10 trillion national debt were far from the full burden facing the next generation.

Entitlement promises -- chiefly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits -- amount to $55 trillion, constituting "massive taxation without representation."

"The low tax, high spending policies of the current generation is putting a burden on the next generation that is not only fiscally irresponsible, but morally reprehensible," Walker said, and added that, "I was disappointed in both of the presidential candidates" for not addressing the problem.

So far, debate moderators Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill and Tom Brokaw all have tried to get the presidential and vice presidential candidates to say, in view of the economic crisis, what programs they'd forgo or postpone.

The only concrete answer, from Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), was a slowing down of Obama's proposed doubling of foreign aid, a $25 billion-a-year item.

Granted that the next president's first job will be economic recovery -- which will cost money -- it's up to CBS's Bob Schieffer to wrestle out answers about what has to go. Good luck to him.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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