Questions to Ask Candidates Before the Caucuses

The following Op-Ed was originally published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen

By Sara Imhof

Across the nation, the time has come for holiday parties, last-minute shopping and family gatherings. For many Iowans, however, it is also time to make up their minds on Republican presidential hopefuls.

With their first-in-the-nation caucuses Jan. 3, many Iowans have the opportunity to personally meet the candidates. But that opportunity also brings responsibility: Asking targeted and pertinent questions about the key challenges facing the country. Such questions better inform caucus-goers and, with their ripple effect through media coverage, also help citizens in other states understand the candidates and their stances.

The federal budget and its impact on the economy are particularly crucial topics. Iowans should ask the candidates to discuss their views on the causes and consequences of federal deficits, creating sustainable entitlement programs and building a solid foundation for economic growth. So far we hear a lot of clever sound bites from the candidates, but we should expect more.

A good question to ask candidates is whether they can identify areas for bipartisan compromise on fiscal reform. Given the failure of elected officials to follow through on thoughtful recommendations from bipartisan groups — notably President Obama’s fiscal commission — candidates should explain how they intend to provide better fiscal leadership in a practical and balanced manner. Neither party has the strength and public credibility to force a partisan agenda through Congress. Any serious budget reform efforts will require compromise and a willingness to deal with the other party.

In a recent debate, each candidate indicated he or she would NOT accept a deal that called for $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in additional revenue. Yet even some Republicans in Congress have been discussing the possibility of raising revenue by eliminating many loopholes that favor some individuals and businesses. Examples include tax breaks for employer-sponsored health insurance and mortgage deductions, and subsidies for oil and gas companies. Reducing such loopholes could make it possible to lower individual and corporate tax rates while still bringing in more tax dollars.

Iowa voters could ask candidates if they support this approach and, if so, what are some examples of loopholes they would eliminate.

Another question: What cuts, if any, candidates would like to see in the defense budget — particularly if they want to rely only on spending cuts for deficit reduction. The defense budget is supposed to be automatically cut by $454 billion over the next decade due to the recent failure of the super committee, but some in Congress want to prevent those cuts.

Candidates should also specify which areas of domestic “discretionary” spending they are willing to cut. This part of the budget includes education, transportation, medical research, energy and veterans affairs. Note that substantial cuts in these types of programs are already scheduled for the years ahead even though this category of spending comprises only 18 percent of the budget.

Finally, aging of the population and rising health care costs are putting enormous pressure on Medicare and Social Security. With millions of baby boomers leaving the work force and starting to draw benefits in the years ahead, the programs in their current form are on an unsustainable course. Understanding candidates’ specific recommendations to reform these hugely popular programs, as well as their plans to implement them in the current political climate, is essential.

Ideally, presidential candidates would be eager to clearly explain their plans for fiscal reform. But all too often, they fall back on clichés and vague rhetoric. Iowans can provide a valuable service for all by insisting that the candidates spell out how they intend to meet the difficult challenges facing the nation.