Washington's dirty little secret

Spending caps: Presidential candidates can't deliver on pledges to cut taxes or fund new programs.

January 15, 2000

HERE'S a dirty little secret presidential candidates hide from voters: They won't be able to deliver on their campaign promises.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush's 10-year, $1.7 trillion tax cut plan couldn't happen without slashing federal programs to the bone or raiding money earmarked to preserve Social Security.

His chief Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, offers a tax-cut plan half that size, but it would consume so much revenue that current programs, from military support to welfare grants to states, would suffer.

Meanwhile, domestic spending pledges by Democrats Bill Bradley and Vice President Al Gore are so immense that current programs would have to be slashed or Social Security funds tapped.

None of these candidates presents real-world proposals. They ignore budgeting and finance realities.

Yes, there is a fat federal surplus, which is expected to grow in the next decade. But two-thirds of this surplus is supposed to help pay Social Security benefits to retiring baby boomers.

The remaining 10-year surplus of $1 trillion sounds tailor-made for tax cuts or new social spending.

But that assumes -- unrealistically -- no federal agency will ever get an inflation adjustment; most federal agencies will see their budgets cut 10 percent over the next two years; there will be no emergency spending (wars, floods, droughts) in this decade; and Medicare spending will moderate.

In other words, this $1 trillion non-Social Security surplus is a mirage concocted by optimists.

Yet the presidential candidates continue to tell voters they can work Houdini-like magic to produce tax cuts or new social programs without harming Social Security and existing programs.

It's buncombe. As long as candidates pledge to leave the Social Security portion of the surplus untouched -- as they should -- there is precious little room in the federal budget for tax reductions or program expansions.

Voters need to look at the presidential candidates' tax and spending positions with extreme skepticism. None of them is telling us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

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