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We have a big deficit. So what exactly would you cut?

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That question was probably on the minds of many viewers. Deficits did come up in the second debate, and Charles Gibson noted that the candidates were fuzzy on how they’d solve the problem. But at no point in the debates did anybody press them to identify specific cuts. The candidates were probably glad about that.

At every chance, they talked about the spending hikes that they had backed in the past or would push in the future. It is not surprising that Senator Kerry would open the fiscal spigots, but President Bush joined in, too. Wednesday night he said:

”We’ve increased Pell Grants by a million students.”
”We’ve increased VA funding by $22 billion.”
”We’ve expanded trade adjustment assistance.”
”The No Child Left Behind Act says, `We’ll raise standards. We’ll increase federal spending.’”

And so on. For fiscal conservatives, it is disappointing to see both candidates favor increases over cuts. We believe in leaner government, which is rather hard to achieve when budgets keep fattening it.

There was a time when political leaders did bare the budget blade. In May 1985, the GOP Senate approved a plan that would have scrapped 13 programs and suspended the Social Security cost-of-living increase for one year. It was a stunningly gutsy measure. The vote was tight, requiring Senator Pete Wilson of California to come to the chamber in a wheelchair right after surgery.

The plan did not survive the House of Representatives, but it did leave Senate Republicans vulnerable to attacks over Social Security. They lost their majority the next year, and some cited that vote as a major reason.

Over the 1990s, Republicans spoke less and less of budget cuts. The partial government shutdowns left them gun-shy about fiscal combat. And victory in the Cold War opened the door for defense cuts that helped turn deficits into surpluses. The whole issue seemed much less urgent.

Now it’s back. Victory in the war on terror is a long way off, so nobody can count on a peace dividend anytime soon. If we’re not going to raise taxes, we will have to cut spending. But where?

John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.



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