The biggest whopper in Mitt Romney’s fiscal plan comes right at the beginning of the description on his Web site: “We will level with the American people about what it will take to truly cut spending and balance our budget.” Actually, Mr. Romney never tells voters the full cost of his plan to balance the budget while cutting taxes: popular programs would be slashed or eliminated, vital state and local services would disappear, misery would be inflicted on the poor and the working class.
Such details would make the plan a hard sell as he runs for the Republican presidential nomination, so Mr. Romney presents it as a breeze, with little pain attached. Just cap spending, make the Bush tax cuts permanent and eliminate the estate tax, raise the retirement age for Social Security, and offer some lower-cost Medicare options. Before you know it, economic growth will return to 4 percent a year and military cuts can be called off.
At no point does Mr. Romney deal with what every reliable budget projection concludes: Without new revenue it will be impossible to cope with an aging population and infrastructure or with the needs of those who are being left behind as the income gap widens.
Details are in short supply. For example, his plan supports passage of the 10-year House budget resolution written by Paul Ryan, with a hard cap on spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product (compared with the current 24.3 percent), but it never says what the House plan contains. Here’s a reminder: It would cut food stamps by $127 billion, which would remove millions of people from the rolls during a downturn and cut the benefits of those who remain. Nearly two-thirds of Mr. Ryan’s cuts affect low-income programs like Pell grants, housing subsidies and Medicaid.
That’s never mentioned by Mr. Romney, who instead talks about big cuts to tiny programs that are wildly unpopular with the party base, like the national endowments, family planning and foreign aid. Of course, he wants to repeal health care reform, which he claims would save $95 billion but would actually raise the deficit by $124 billion in just the first decade.
Mr. Romney’s Medicaid plan would turn the program into a block grant that would simply shift costs to struggling states. Mr. Romney wants to cap the federal contribution at a level far less than the currently projected increase in costs and dump the difference on the states.
By his campaign’s calculation, the block grant system would cut federal costs by more than $1 trillion between 2013 and 2021. Many states might have to restrict enrollments or benefits, scale back reimbursements to health care providers, or shift costs to poor beneficiaries.
Mr. Romney’s plans for Medicare are too vague to evaluate. For workers not yet close to retirement, he would turn the existing Medicare program into a “premium support” system in which enrollees would be given fixed amounts of money to buy private health insurance or a version of traditional Medicare.
His campaign says beneficiaries would receive coverage “at least as good” as what seniors receive today. But the crucial question is how fast the premium support would be allowed to rise from year to year to keep up with increasing costs. Mr. Romney provides no clue about that.
A fiscal plan this hazy may be sufficient for primary voters. But if Mr. Romney becomes the nominee, he will have a great deal more leveling to do with the broader American electorate.