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What Would The GOP Candidates Do With The Federal Budget? A Look At Their Plans

A sign on a car window at a Feb. 2 rally for Ron Paul in Elko, Nev.
Ted S. Warren
A sign on a car window at a Feb. 2 rally for Ron Paul in Elko, Nev.

It goes without saying that the men who are vying for the Republican presidential nomination found serious flaws with the budget plan President Obama released Monday. But it got us thinking that this might also be a good time to dig into the budget plans offered by the GOP candidates.

All of the candidates want to cut government spending and balance the federal budget. They also want to cut taxes.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas says he'd shrink the federal government by $1 trillion in his first year as president.

"The main problem we have is the government is too big, and the debt is too big, and you have to cut spending — so you have to get people to come together," Paul said at a Fox News debate in December. "They have been coming together to increase spending for decades. We have to get them to come together to do the opposite."

Paul's goal is to eliminate the income tax altogether, which would mean drastic cuts to the government, both domestic and defense.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum says he'd commit to cut $5 trillion of federal spending in five years.

"We're going to cut programs," said Santorum at a CNN debate in late January. "We're going to spend — under my administration, we're going to spend less money every year — every year. Year to year to year the federal government amount of spending will go down for four years, until we get a balanced budget."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says he, too, would balance the budget, by boosting the economy, modernizing and streamlining the government, and increasing domestic energy production.

At the late January CNN debate, he said: "My goal is to shrink the government to fit the revenue, not to raise the revenue to catch up with the government."

And he'd have to do some serious shrinking of the government to get the budget in balance, because according to one independent analysis, Gingrich's tax plan would bring in about $1.3 trillion less each year than under current law.

Santorum's tax plan would call for a similar annual reduction in federal revenue, and — in order to balance the budget — spending cuts to match.

"Which is very, very difficult to do over a short period of time," says Joshua Gordon, policy director for The Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group devoted to fiscal responsibility.

Just to put the task Santorum and Gingrich would face into perspective, Gordon says, think about the congressional supercommittee, which last year failed to agree on $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, which was to have been spread over a decade. "This would make you try and do that in just a single year, and then you would have to do it for every successive year as well," says Gordon. "And it really becomes an exercise in impossible math."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is calling for relatively smaller tax cuts.

"And without raising taxes or sacrificing America's critical military superiority, I will finally balance the American budget," Romney said to applause last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

In addition to protecting military spending from cuts, Romney has pledged to more or less leave Social Security alone for the next decade.

"The cuts in non-defensive programs would be huge," says Paul Van de Water, with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Over a half by 2021."

The center says that cuts in non-defense programs under Romney's plan would be 54 percent, to be precise, according to a recent analysis it conducted.

Veterans benefits, Medicare, food stamps, education funding — you name it — it would probably have to be cut, says Van de Water. "I don't see how non-defense cuts of this magnitude could possibly be achieved."

He's not just talking technically, but also in terms of political reality. Because any tax cuts or spending cuts would have to pass through Congress. And as much as members of Congress say they despise deficits, they are also loath to cut programs that keep voters back home happy.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.