With Republicans getting ready to take over on Capitol Hill,
a key senator has renewed party calls to balance the federal budget. Jeff Sessions,
who may end up in charge of the Senate's budget committee next year, is
not the first Republican to call for a balanced budget in a decade. House
Speaker John Boehner and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan have supported the
idea as recently as last year. But big questions remain over whether it can be
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates
that to balance the budget by 2025 would require savings of $5.5 trillion --
$4.7 trillion in spending cuts or new taxes and $800 billion in interest
savings. And here's the thing: That assumes lawmakers don't pass any new laws
that raise spending or cut taxes and add to deficits.
It also means no more renewals of "temporary"
tax breaks for businesses and individuals. No more "doc fixes"
to boost Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors. And no more talk of raising
the "sequester" spending caps on defense, which many Republicans want
Republicans, of course, are loath to raise taxes. So
balancing the budget in 10 years would require huge spending cuts -- by more
than 10% over the decade. A model for the venture could be Ryan's most
recent budget proposal, which balanced after 10 years.
Ryan's biggest savings ($2.1 trillion) came from repealing
all the perks of the Affordable Care Act, such as the individual subsidies
to buy insurance. But Ryan left Obamacare's Medicare cuts and taxes intact. He
also proposed changes to Medicaid spending that would save $730 billion.
Another way to help balance the budget, on paper at least,
is to make generous assumptions about how much the economy will grow. The
better the economy, the more tax revenue Uncle Sam collects. Politically and
practically, being in charge of Congress before the 2016 election may
have a moderating effect on the Republican impulse to balance the budget so
Debt vs. deficit:
What's the difference?
A balanced budget push that proposes cuts to popular
programs could be tough to sell to general election voters.
William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan
Policy Center, called balancing the budget a "good goal." And if a balanced
budget tries to avoid making near-term changes to the big entitlement programs,
the cuts to other parts of the budget would have to be that much steeper.
Of course should a balanced budget get through both the
House and the Senate, it very well could meet President Obama's veto pen.
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