In Indiana, Representative Mike Pence, the No. 3 House Republican, complains about “runaway federal spending on steroids.”
In Alaska, the Republican candidate for the Senate, Joe Miller, talks about “out of control spending.” And in Arizona, Jesse Kelly, a Republican hoping to oust Representative Gabrielle Giffords, says, “We’re spending our way into bankruptcy.”
If there is a single message unifying Republican candidates this year, it is a call to grab hold of the federal checkbook, slam it closed and begin to slash spending. To bolster their case that action is needed, Republicans are citing major legislation over the four years that Democrats have controlled Congress, notably the financial system bailout, the economic stimulus and the new health care law.
But while polls show that the Republicans’ message is succeeding politically, Republican candidates and party leaders are offering few specifics about how they would tackle the nation’s $13.7 trillion debt, and budget analysts said the party was glossing over the difficulty of carrying out its ideas, especially when sharp spending cuts could impede an already weak economic recovery.
“On the actual campaign trail, you are hearing virtually none of the kind of blatant honesty that we need about what changes would fix this situation,” said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an advocacy group in Washington that promotes fiscal restraint.
The parties share blame for the current fiscal situation, but federal budget statistics show that Republican policies over the last decade, and the cost of the two wars, added far more to the deficit than initiatives approved by the Democratic Congress since 2006, giving voters reason to be skeptical of campaign promises.
Calculations by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and other independent fiscal experts show that the $1.1 trillion cost over the next 10 years of the Medicare prescription drug program, which the Republican-controlled Congress adopted in 2003, by itself would add more to the deficit than the combined costs of the bailout, the stimulus and the health care law.
The House Republican leader, John A. Boehner of Ohio, has called for immediate cuts in “non-security discretionary” spending to prerecession 2008 levels. Independent analysts say that would require eliminating about $105 billion — or more than 20 percent of spending by departments like Education, Transportation, Interior, Commerce and Energy — a level of reductions that history suggests would be extremely hard to execute. (Since 1982, nonmilitary discretionary spending has never dropped by more than 5.5 percentage points in any given year.)
At the same time, most Republicans are calling for the permanent extension of all Bush-era tax cuts, which would add $700 billion more to the deficit over the next 10 years than President Obama and Democratic leaders have proposed by continuing only some of the lower rates.
Republicans say extending the cuts will spur economic activity, but that is hardly guaranteed. And the cost of either plan is astronomical: Mr. Obama’s plan will add more than $3 trillion to the deficit; the Republicans’ plan will add more than $4 trillion.
Mr. Boehner, who is the likely speaker in a Republican-controlled House, has also said he would move to overhaul the Congressional appropriations process, to give more power to rank-and-file lawmakers, and cast sunlight on proposed expenditures.
But he is likely to encounter fierce resistance among veteran appropriators who zealously protect the Congressional power of the purse enshrined in the Constitution, and who will be eager to flex the legislative muscle of their committee and subcommittee chairmanships, a main perquisite of winning a majority.
On the campaign trail, many Republicans are calling for a repeal of the health care law, a step that would actually increase the deficit by more than $100 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, by eliminating some cost-saving provisions — a fact that typically goes unmentioned. Republicans counter that the full cost of the health care law will only kick in later, so that repeal would save money in the long run.
“It’s very easy in the course of a campaign to run against deficit spending as this abstract monster, but when you are actually in power, you have to propose actual policies and follow through on them and that’s something they are much less willing to do,” said John Irons, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning Washington research group.
“Everyone is saying there’s hard choices, there are tough decisions to be made, but not one is actually telling the voters how they would make those tradeoffs,” Mr. Irons said. “No one is saying, ‘Here’s what I would cut.’ The Boehner plan is clearly in that vein.”
Some Republican candidates are pressing the anti-spending message into largely uncharted terrain. Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for Senate in Kentucky, has said Congress must consider paring military programs, putting him at odds with the dominant Republican view since the Reagan era.
A small number of Republicans, notably Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have called for sharp reductions to Social Security and Medicare to change the nation’s fiscal trajectory. But party leaders and candidates on the stump have largely shunned those proposals, which risk alienating core segments of voters.
As a result, the campaign rhetoric has been largely general if not simplistic.
"Mind-bogglingly irresponsible "
“For Michael Bennet, reckless spending has become a bad habit,” a Republican attack ad against the Democratic incumbent declares in the Colorado Senate race. “Obama’s failed stimulus. Trillion-dollar government-run health care. And to pay for it? More taxes, higher national debt. Michael Bennet: he spends, we pay.”
A commercial against Representative Gerry Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, shows schoolchildren stooping under the weight of heavy backpacks. “There’s a lot on the backs of our kids today, thanks to Congressman Gerry Connolly,” the ad says, urging voters to demand lower spending.
In New Hampshire, Frank Guinta, a Republican running against Representative Carol Shea-Porter, declares, “We’re fed up. Government is too big; it’s spending too much money.”
Ms. MacGuineas, who advised Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, said that she welcomed the public’s growing recognition of the severity of the nation’s fiscal problems but that the partisan campaign rhetoric could impede the bipartisan cooperation needed to impose tough policy changes. And both sides, she said, bear responsibility.
The fight over the expiring Bush-era tax cuts illustrates the point, she said. Democrats say they want to continue tax cuts only for “the middle class.” Republicans say allowing any of the reduced rates to rise again amounts to an unconscionable tax increase. For fiscal experts, it is a false choice. “The debate is between two just mind-bogglingly irresponsible approaches to tax policy,” Ms. MacGuineas said.
In Congress, an early test of Republican resolve will come shortly after the election when lawmakers return to Washington for a lame-duck session. Democrats will almost certainly try to pass the regular appropriations bills, or an omnibus spending measure for the 2011 fiscal year.
At that point, given the likely difficulties of enacting their own proposed cuts, Republicans will have to choose between allowing Democrats to adopt the spending measures for 2011 and being able to criticize Democrats for their choices (while also potentially securing some spending increases favored by Republicans) or using the power of Senate Republicans to filibuster and delay action on the spending bills until the new Congress takes over next year.
Of course, who actually serves in the next Congress could depend on the more simplistic discussion of fiscal issues now dominating the airwaves in campaign commercials.
“The reckless spending must stop,” declares a commercial for Carly Fiorina, who is running against Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California.
Moments later, Ms. Fiorina appears on screen. “We can make Washington work,” she says reassuringly. “Cut spending, ban earmarks.”