Mitt Romney says he will cut government spending by some $500 billion a year by the end of his first term, while protecting military spending. But he has not detailed many of the deep cuts to domestic programs that budget analysts say would be needed to achieve that.
He wants to cut corporate and marginal income tax rates significantly and says that he will make up for the hundreds of billions of dollars of potentially lost revenue each year by reducing tax breaks. But while he has named some tax breaks he would not touch, like the preferential tax rates for investment income, he has declined to say which ones will be on the chopping block.
And while he often speaks of repealing and replacing Obamacare, as he calls the president’s health care overhaul, evaluating his own plan is not easy. He calls for encouraging individuals to buy their own health insurance by changing the tax code to no longer give an advantage to those receiving health insurance from their employers, but he has not explained the new tax credits or deductions he will propose to help people buy coverage on their own.
Mr. Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, is hardly short on campaign promises or policy proposals. He is the candidate, after all, who outlined 59 proposals in a 160-page booklet during the primaries, and he has put out a steady stream of policy papers since then. His proposals on cutting entitlement spending are more specific than those of President Obama: after 10 years Mr. Romney would raise the eligibility age for Social Security and slow the growth of benefits for those with higher incomes, and turn Medicare into a program where the elderly would be given fixed amounts of money and the option of buying private insurance or government coverage.
But on several key near-term proposals, his campaign’s policies have a Mad Libs quality to them — big blanks to be filled in where some of the details might be.
“It’s hard to analyze his plan because the specifics are so lacking,” said Robert L. Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates fiscal responsibility. Mr. Bixby praised Mr. Romney for setting spending goals and said his strategy of broadening the tax base is a good one. But he said Mr. Romney had presented less budget detail than other recent presidential candidates.
“You’re being promised a lot of pleasure without being told what the pain is,” Mr. Bixby said. “You have to be upfront with people and tell them what the trade-offs are.”
This lack of specificity has become an issue as Mr. Romney and his running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, declined during recent television interviews to identify any tax loopholes they proposed closing. The vagueness, by a campaign that has promised to tell “hard truths,” has been raised not just by the Obama campaign, but also by some Republicans and conservative-leaning publications.
Mr. Romney said in an interview Thursday with ABC News that he planned to give speeches in the coming weeks that would lay out his principles “in more detail.” And a campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said that Mr. Romney had “put forth an unprecedented amount of detail” on his proposals and added that “President Obama’s policies have failed to strengthen our country and he has refused to detail how anything would be different with four more years of the same.”
No campaign is specific on everything, of course. Mr. Obama was similarly vague last winter when he called for lowering the corporate tax rate to 28 percent from 35 percent — offsetting the lost revenues by closing loopholes that he did not specify. But President Obama does make concrete proposals in the detailed budgets he releases each year — even if he has had trouble persuading Congress to act on them. And Mr. Obama has the resources of the federal government to help develop his policies on everything from the environment to financial regulation to spending.
But Mr. Romney’s reluctance to explain his tax plan differs from the way George W. Bush sold his proposals in 2000, when he regularly meton the trail with families whose future tax cuts he would estimate to the dollar.
When it comes to Afghanistan, for instance, Mr. Romney seems to agree with President Obama’s proposal to pull out most troops by the end of 2014, even as he has faulted the administration for announcing the timeline so early.
On housing, an area where the Obama administration has been criticized for not acting aggressively enough to stem the foreclosure crisis, Mr. Romney’s plan calls vaguely for “creative alternatives to foreclosure,” which the campaign says could include regulatory and accounting changes.
And on immigration, he has said that he would “replace and supersede” Mr. Obama’s recent executive action allowing hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children to remain in the country and work without fear of deportation — but has not explained what he would replace it with.
One of Mr. Romney’s most specific pledges is to cut government spending to 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product by the end of his first term, down from the 22.9 percent the Congressional Budget Office projects it will be this year. He also calls for keeping military spending to at least 4 percent of the gross domestic product, putting pressure on many domestic programs.
In a speech last November, Mr. Romney said that his goals would require spending cuts of almost $500 billion a year, and he laid out a number of things he would do: cap Medicaid payments to the states to save $100 billion a year; eliminate waste and fraud to save $60 billion; limit the salaries of government workers to save $47 billion a year; cut the federal work force by 10 percent, saving $3.5 billion a year, and cutting federal spending on Amtrak, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
But a rough back-of-the-envelope tally of his proposed cuts, which does not take into account whether they are realistic, finds that his proposals fall more than $150 billion shy of his goal of cutting nearly half a trillion dollars a year. An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning research and advocacy group, found that for Mr. Romney to meet all of his tax, spending and deficit reduction goals would require “extraordinarily large cuts” in other programs.
And while Mr. Romney has pledged not to raise taxes on the middle class, Democrats have repeatedly claimed that he will. They are relying on studies questioning how Mr. Romney can cut marginal income tax rates by 20 percent and make up for the lost revenue — estimated to be $456 billion a year in 2015 by the Tax Policy Center — without raising taxes on middle-class families, increasing taxes on investment income or breaking another one of his tax promises.
His campaign noted that Mr. Romney had said that families making less than $200,000 would not see an increase in their share of the tax burden, but it did not offer any specifics of which deductions would be curbed, saying that would be worked out with Congress. The Romney campaign’s economists argue that simplifying the tax code will unleash economic growth, helping to pay for the tax cuts. But Joel B. Slemrod, an economist at the University of Michigan who was a co-author of a seminal study of the revenue-neutral 1986 tax overhaul, said that their proposal was difficult to evaluate without more details.
“They’ve fleshed out all the stuff that would reduce revenue: the rate cuts, the investment protections, getting rid of the estate tax,” Mr. Slemrod said. “But they haven’t talked except in very vague generalities about how they’d make up the revenue. Until we know the details, we don’t know what the growth effects would be.”