- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2011

Republican presidential candidates are pledging to slice a quarter or more out of the federal budget — proposals that would take spending back to levels unseen in decades, and would require the equivalent of axing a major program such as Medicare or cutting the entire defense budget.

The promises to slash spending are winning applause from audiences but are not politically realistic, budget crunchers say.

The plans include Mitt Romney’s vow to cap government spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product, down from the current level of 24 percent, and pledges by Gary Johnson and Ron Paul that would almost immediately cut more than 40 percent from current spending, to levels unseen since the 1950s.

Such proposals are “totally unrealistic,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the bipartisan budget watchdog Concord Coalition, which advocates for fiscal responsibility.

“It may look good on paper, but I don’t think they realistically confront the automatic cost growth that is built in for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and a realistic plan is going to have to deal with that,” Mr. Bixby said.

The rallying call to cap spending helped Republicans make historic gains in the House last year, and with worries remaining about federal finances, candidates have fought to win the title of champion budget cutter.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director and adviser to 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain, said the proposals floated by the 2012 field represent a “night and day difference” from the projected levels of spending under President Obama, which stands at 24 percent of GDP.

“Those are substantial efforts to rein in future spending,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.

He described the promises to cut federal government as “a U-turn back to the norms of the past and away from this amazing expansion of spending we have seen in the past three years.”

But the cuts will be a tough political sell, as each would take major chunks out of every arm of government — or chop off one or two limbs entirely.

Analysts generally measure government spending in comparison with GDP.

With Medicaid spending hitting 1.9 percent of GDP in 2011, Medicare at 3.7 percent, Social Security at 4.8 percent, defense spending at 4.7 percent, non-defense discretionary spending at 4.5 percent, other formula-driven entitlements at 2.9 percent, and 1.4 percent to pay interest on the debt, federal spending will account for about 24 percent of the economy, according to CBO figures.

By that yardstick, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s goal of limiting the federal government to 18 percent of GDP — a level unseen since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration — would mean a spending reduction of 6 percent of GDP. That is more than the combined cost of Medicare and Medicaid in 2011. It’s more than the cost of Social Security and more than the entire defense budget.

Even Mr. Romney’s goal of limiting spending to 20 percent of GDP would mean cuts the size of the entire Medicare program, or nearly all of Social Security, while the size of cuts Mr. Paul and Mr. Johnson are proposing would mean axing the equivalent of Social Security and Medicare combined.

“We have to rein in the scale of government or we’re not going continue to be a free economy,” Mr. Romney has warned.

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