Presidential candidates can’t possibly fulfill all their campaign proposals, and few would even want to try. But what would happen if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump actually did what they said they want to do? Clinton would grow government and do nothing to reduce the growth of the national debt. Trump would explode the debt.
Those are the findings of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group that advocates for deficit reduction. It scored the two candidates’ campaign proposals to find out how much they would increase the debt, determined maximum and minimum amounts based on various factors, and then came up with midrange amounts.
The CRFB found that Clinton’s proposals would increase spending by $1.4 trillion over 10 years, but she has proposed $1.2 trillion in tax increases over that time period. That’s $200 billion in new debt, plus another $50 billion in additional interest costs her policies would cause.
So Clinton’s not doing too badly, right? Not exactly. She has no plans for the $19 trillion in debt that already exists, nor does she propose anything that would reduce the additional annual deficits that already are baked into the system and are projected to add $10 trillion over 10 years if nothing is done.
Clinton gets a few points for this: While proposing to grow government, she also at least proposes to pay for most of that growth. Because of that, the CRFB says the national debt would not increase much as a share of gross domestic product if Clinton does what she says she wants to do. Without Clinton’s policies, the debt held by the public – the national debt minus what the government has borrowed from itself – will increase from its current 75 percent to 86 percent of GDP in 2026. With her policies, it would increase to 87 percent.
But I’m not reassured. Elected officials in Washington tend to keep their happy promises but not their take-your-medicine ones. If history is a guide, she along with Congress will more likely increase spending while letting her less popular tax increases slide.
Trump, meanwhile, proposes spending cuts of $650 billion, which is not much when you consider it covers an entire decade. Meanwhile, he’s proposing an estimated $10.5 trillion in tax cuts. Counting higher interest payments, Trump’s policies would increase the national debt by a midrange estimate of $11.5 trillion, the CRFB says. While tax cuts do have a stimulative effect, the economy would have to grow more than 10 percent a year for a decade for the budget to balance – more than twice the best it’s previously done over that time period. Moreover, like Clinton, he does little to address the current $19 trillion debt or the $10 trillion in new debt that’s already projected to occur. If Trump keeps his promises, then in a decade the debt held by the public could equal 127 percent of the gross domestic product – numbers not seen since World War II.
At this point, a lot of people might ask, so what? Since presidential candidates often don’t even try to enact their campaign proposals, then maybe we should just ignore them and vote with our guts.
The problem with that thinking is that it removes accountability. If voters don’t care what candidates tell us during the campaign, then they are free to say anything to get elected and do anything afterwards.
Moreover, a presidential campaign isn’t just a time to pick winners and losers. It’s also a time for voters to educate themselves about the issues. In 1992, third party presidential candidate Ross Perot broadcast 30-minute infomercials in which he explained the national debt. Because of him, it became a front-and-center issue, and after he won 19 percent of the vote, President Clinton and Congress moved to balance the budget. If the national debt is mostly ignored in this campaign, it probably will be mostly ignored after the election.
The CRFB says it will continue to track the candidates’ proposals as the campaign moves forward. Unfortunately, it has not scored any of the third party candidates, but hopefully that will change. Every candidate should be held to high standards – particularly Trump and Clinton. One of those two will succeed at becoming president. Let’s hope the winner doesn’t succeed at increasing the debt.
Related: Fiddling around, ignoring problems