The United States faces serious fiscal challenges. Large budget deficits have returned, and shifting demographics along with growing health care costs are putting intense pressure on the long-term federal budget outlook. Over time, sustained deficits will weaken the economy and adversely affect the American standard of living.
The two major political parties' presidential candidates are campaigning on a lengthy list of policy initiatives, most of which would have significant impact on the federal budget. While not all of these proposals will become law, they do reflect the candidates' values and priorities, and the policies each candidate is likely to pursue once in office. In addition to these new initiatives, a number of outstanding tax and budget issues exist that will need to be addressed, such as which of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts should be made permanent, how to fix the Alternative Minimum Tax, what to do about growing entitlement spending, how to control health care cost growth, and how to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The next president will face difficult fiscal challenges. It is therefore critical that voters understand the potential budgetary impacts of the candidates' plans.
US Budget Watch's report, Promises, Promises: A Fiscal Voter Guide to the 2008 Election--with an updated (10/31) section on the candidateswill help voters find their way through the thicket of policy proposals put forward by the likely Republican candidate for president, Senator John McCain, and the likely Democratic candidate for president, Senator Barack Obama. It presents a capsule summary of the candidates' major policy proposals and includes an estimate of the likely fiscal impact of each proposal. The guide is not intended to express a view for or against either candidate or any specific policy proposal. This report will be followed by other more detailed reports on the candidates' tax and spending proposals.
Social Security is the single largest government program. In 2007, the program cost $585 billion and provided benefits for roughly 50 million retirees, dependents, survivors, and disabled workers. Yet the Social Security Trustees have repeatedly warned that the program is on an unsustainable path and that the system will begin running cash deficits in 2017, and no longer be able to pay full benefits by 2041. Although neither candidate has offered a comprehensive fix for Social Security, both John McCain and Barack Obama recognize the need to address its unfunded obligations.
US Budget Watch
The United States faces a number of serious fiscal challenges. Budget deficits are back, the economy has weakened, Social Security is unsound, growing health care spending is putting immense pressure on the budget, tax policy is at a major crossroads, and borrowing is projected to reach unsustainable levels. Politicians will have to take concrete steps to confront these challenges, and some level of sacrifice will be required. The sooner decisions are made, the better—both because it will give the public more time to adjust and because it will allow us to spread the sacrifices more broadly.
The presidential campaign can either be helpful in this process, by allowing politicians to develop a mandate for change, or damaging, if politicians merely use the election as an opportunity to promise new tax and spending initiatives that would make the situation worse instead of better. It is not surprising that politicians tend to prefer to propose costly new initiatives given that proposals to increase taxes or cut spending are rarely met with appreciation by voters and are almost always met with attacks from political opponents. But considering our current fiscal situation, it is critical that policymakers be willing to address the country’s budgetary imbalances. It will require real leadership to do so.
To help move the political discussion forward, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has put forth "Twelve Principles for Fiscal Responsibility." These principles will help voters ask the necessary questions and develop a better understanding of important fiscal issues, and they will help politicians speak directly to these looming problems in a manner that will prepare the country for the necessary changes ahead. Unless the next president and Congress take action to put our fiscal house in order, they will put the budget, the economy, and the well-being of future generations at risk.