What Deficit? Budget Hawks See Issue Shunned By Campaigns

By Jonathan Nicholson

June 3 — The 2016 presidential campaign has focused on a variety of issues: Immigration, trade policy and higher education costs are just a few. Absent from that list: the federal deficit and national debt.

That's according to advocates and lawmakers who say the deficit should be dealt with soon, before the combination of retiring baby boomers and still-rising health-care costs change the solutions from merely “politically difficult” to “politically impossible.”

Neither the campaigns of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump or Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have talked much about fiscal issues or how their proposals would cut the deficit. Trump has detailed a tax overhaul plan that would cut revenue—by the accounting of the libertarian-leaning Tax Foundation—by $10.1 trillion over 10 years, without detailing much in the way of offsetting spending cuts.

Clinton has proposed several big new spending initiatives and often outlined ways to pay for them, but put forward no larger plan to bring down the projected underlying deficit. Neither Clinton's nor Trump's campaign websites have separate tabs for the deficit on their “issues” or “positions” pages.

But the unkindest cut of all, to the anti-deficit crowd, may have come from President Barack Obama, speaking in Elkhart, Ind. June 1 (See previous story, 06/02/16). He said Social Security, considered by most budget experts the simplest of entitlement programs to fix in its current form, should be strengthened.

“Not only do we need to strengthen its long-term health, it’s time we finally made Social Security more generous, and increased its benefits so that today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they’ve earned,” Obama said, adding higher taxes on the wealthy “could start paying for it.”

‘All Quiet.'

“All quiet on the deficit front,” said Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan anti-deficit organization started in 1992.

That situation is not what anti-deficit types had hoped to see in the 2016. Concord sponsored “Fiscal Fridays” interviews in New Hampshire and had several White House candidates participate. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation has sponsored television and web ads urging viewers to ask candidates for a deficit plan.

Instead of talking about the annual deficit and the national debt, which are set to rise to $1.343 trillion and 85.6 percent of the size of the economy in 10 years, the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget blogged that Obama's suggestion for expanding Social Security was ill-conceived.

“With the Social Security program already underfunded, substantially adding to the shortfall by increasing benefits for all seniors regardless of income would be unwise. It would be far more responsible to focus on Social Security reforms that make the system solvent while providing targeted enhancements to those most in need,” the group said June 3.

Concord's Bixby said he worries the lack of deficit talk on the campaign hustings will come back to haunt whoever wins the White House.

“The campaign rhetoric is setting up a very problematic situation for the next president,” he said. Deficits, after falling and stabilizing from the nominal record set in 2009, are set to rise again and more baby boomers are set to retire, further stretching programs.

“They're not setting up the public for any hard choices to deal with that dynamic,” he said. By laying out more benefits or more tax cuts, the 2016 rhetoric may make voters only more cynical when tough spending or tax choices need to be made later, Bixby added.

‘Control What I Can Control.'

The deficit's low profile has not gone unnoticed by lawmakers who watch the deficit.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House, told reporters May 24 that the budget situation has improved under Obama, but more remains to be done (See previous story, 05/18/16).

“It is difficult to talk about it,” he said. “The answers are not easy, and they need to be bipartisan. So in a campaign, it is tough to get to that point. But I am disappointed that no candidate has really talked very realistically about the fiscal challenges confronting our country.”

Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a member of the House Budget Committee, said it was a mystery why neither Clinton nor Trump had talked about the deficit much. But he said he had faith Trump as president would act, once he saw the size of projected deficits.

“Once he knows that, he'll, I would think, get upset. And that would be the proper reaction,” Brat said May 24. “My hope is he gets very upset and says, ‘What? I didn't know it was that bad.'”

Even House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who built a reputation as a policy wonk based on his proposals to balance the budget without new revenue, conceded there may be nothing to be done about getting the deficit on the election radar.

Speaking to reporters May 25 about House Republicans' planned unveiling of 2017 policy outlines soon, Ryan was asked if he was disappointed there was not more discussion of the deficit. “I can control what I can control, and that is what we do and what we stand for,” he said. “And that's what we're doing” (See previous story, 05/26/16).

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com.