Rivals Warren, Brown offer differing paths to cut deficit
But their ideas reflect issues that have deadlocked Capitol
Democrat Elizabeth Warren would impose higher taxes on top earners, end oil subsidies, and raise estate taxes to cut the federal deficit. Senator Scott Brown would repeal President Obama’s health law, freeze federal pay, and consolidate redundant federal agencies.
Warren would not touch entitlements, while Brown would not touch taxes.
In response to a request from the Globe, the two competitors in the nation’s most high-profile Senate battle provided five ideas for bridging the nation’s $1.2 trillion deficit, with the results highlighting why the problem has deadlocked Washington. The candidates were also asked to explain what cuts they would make to entitlement programs, and to describe which revenues they would raise.
Though Brown has made the deficit a larger issue in his campaign, an analysis prepared for the Globe by a nonpartisan group showed that responses offered by Warren, and positions taken on her website, would trim 67 percent more from the debt over 10 years than those offered by Brown.
Although the questions posed by the Globe provide a meaningful sample of the candidates’ views on the budget, they do not represent a complete plan. In fact, neither candidate has offered a comprehensive proposal to confront the problem.
The Globe asked three think tanks to review the candidates’ answers. One of them, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget Project, a bipartisan group, provided a detailed fiscal breakdown.
The nation’s budget deficit has been identified by many voters, analysts, and political leaders as a priority. It has also been the source of significant gridlock in Washington, nearly paralyzing the economy last summer when talks over the debt repeatedly broke down.
Apart from a repeal of President Obama’s health care overhaul, Brown told the Globe he would consolidate federal programs identified as redundant by the Government Accounting Office, such as several food safety and homeland security programs. Warren would let the Bush tax cuts expire for those earning at least $250,000 a year, and raise estate taxes to their 2009 levels. She would also impose the so-called Buffett Rule, which would require those earning more than $1 million to pay a 30 percent effective tax rate.
Both candidates said they would cut or eliminate agricultural subsidies. They would also reduce defense spending, which in Warren’s case would mean an accelerated exit from Afghanistan, for a savings estimated by the committee at $36 billion. She did not outline a time frame. Brown would stick to the current timeline for withdrawal, and would also cut nonwar defense spending, such as a widely criticized missile system designed to replace the Patriot missile. His cuts are estimated to save $100 billion over 10 years.
“Deficits exist because politicians are addicted to spending other people’s money,” Brown said in a statement included with his response to the Globe.
Improving the economy will reduce the deficit, he added.
Warren said in her response that “Our first response should be to change the policies that got us here in the first place: end the Bush tax cuts on people earning more than $250,000; end the war in Afghanistan; and take steps to make sure Wall Street can never again bring our economy to its knees.”
Brown has decried spending in Washington and the inability of the two parties to find common ground. He has voted in favor of a balanced budget amendment and the so-called “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill which would have sliced $111 billion from this year’s budget by imposing deep cuts, and would significantly limit future spending. The analysis does not factor in the Cut, Cap and Balance proposals because the bill did not specify where those cuts would be made. Democrats argue that the bill’s tough provisions would gut entitlement programs.
Brown has also signed the no-new-taxes pledge put forth by activist Grover Norquist, but said on his website that he is “open to raising revenues by closing loopholes as part of comprehensive tax reform so long as it results in lower rates for everyone and doesn’t just grow government.”
Warren has argued for what Democrats characterize as tax fairness, saying that requires the wealthy to pay more. She has also proposed several unspecified additional spending programs, including money for transportation, energy, and education.
The analysis performed by the budget project committee showed that Warren’s ideas would trim $1.029 trillion from the nation’s projected debt and interest over the next decade. Brown’s ideas would reduce the debt and interest by $614.4 billion over the same period, according to the analysis.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget Project was founded in 1981 by two former US House members, Connecticut Democrat Robert Giaimo and Oklahoma Republican Henry Bellmon, and its current board includes prominent deficit hawks from the Reagan and Clinton administrations.
The group estimated that Congress would need to chop at least $4.5 to $5 trillion in deficit spending and interest costs in the next decade to begin stabilizing the national debt in a serious way.
“Neither one of them have proposals in their responses to you that come anywhere near tackling that problem,” said Jeff Vanke, senior policy analyst for the committee, who conducted the analysis.
Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan deficit reduction group, said Brown offered a response that is inadequate in recognizing the need for more revenues and that Warren, who would not entertain any changes to Social Security or Medicare, offered a response that is inadequate in addressing the need for entitlement cuts.
“They’re both a good reflection of their party’s basic positions, and also a good reflection of why it’s so difficult to do anything about this problem,” said Bixby, whose group was founded by senators Warren Rudman, a Republican, and Paul Tsongas, the late Democrat.
Brown, though he said he sees a long-term problem in entitlement spending, offered few specifics on which changes he would embrace, calling the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan “a good starting point for such a discussion.”
“Neither one of them is really answering what should the size of government be, and what is the level of overall taxation,” said David Walker, former comptroller of the United States who is the founder and chief executive of Comeback America Initiative, a nonpartisan fiscal group.
Bixby said both candidates leaned heavily on politically safe proposals, rather than taking on larger, more politically difficult spending projects or tax increases. Brown and Warren, for example, found rare agreement in their support for eliminating farm subsidies, which are guarded fiercely by Midwestern farm states but tend to be less critical in the Northeast.
Vanke, citing government reports, estimated that the farm subsidy cuts proposed by Warren would save $50 billion over 10 years and the slightly larger cuts supported by Brown would save $56 billion.
“They’re probably not big on cutting back on Amtrak subsidies,” which are far more important to the Northeastern economy but are less popular in other regions of the country, Bixby said. “If your state doesn’t get agricultural subsidies you can whack the heck out of them.”
Though Vanke’s analysis showed Warren’s deficit reduction agenda does more to reduce debt than Brown’s, there is debate about the effect of repealing Obama’s health care law, a primary focus for Brown. Warren supports the law.
Brown, in answering the Globe’s questions, sees the bill as more costly than does the Obama administration. He pointed to several estimates that the legislation will have a considerably larger pricetag, including an unofficial estimate from a former Congressional Budget Office director that the bill will cost more than a half a trillion dollars over the next decade.
Vanke, relying on data from the budget office, estimated that repealing the law would add $119 billion to deficits over the next 10 years.
Brown’s other proposals, including freezing federal pay, would save about $40 billion over 10 years while his support for changing malpractice laws to reduce judgments is estimated to save $67 billion.
Warren finds the bulk of her deficit reduction — $941 billion – by letting the Bush tax cuts expire for those earning $250,000 a year and by raising estate taxes to their 2009 levels. She would also collect about $46 billion in new taxes by imposing the Buffett Rule. Brown has argued that tax increases would stunt economic growth.