Almost nobody likes to talk about cutting government during election season. Campaigns are a time to promise more—more spending! more tax cuts! more services!—not less.
Mitt Romney was more candid than the typical presidential aspirant, though not strategically unusual, when he told The Weekly Standard in 2012 that he was likely to prune back cabinet departments as president but refused to reveal which ones, on grounds that it might be used against him politically. "Will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes," Romney said, "but I'm not going to give you a list right now."
In this early stage of the 2016 campaign, Reason seeks to keep everyone's eyes on the prize of reducing the size and scope of government. Below, a guide to the candidates' and potential candidates' records on cutting government spending, especially during their terms in office but also in their policy positioning. At a time when our budgets are wildly unbalanced, when the national debt is at $18 trillion and growing, when debt service is poised to zoom past military spending during the next administration, and when baby boomer entitlements threaten to soak up half of government expenditures, there is no more important question to answer than this: What, at long last, are you willing to cut?
Ted Cruz (R)
U.S. senator from Texas (2013–present)
When the newly seated Republican-led Senate passed its first budget resolution in years this March, Ted Cruz praised his peers for getting it done, but voted against the resolution anyway. He was one of only two Republicans to do so—primary opponent Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) was the other.
"We need meaningful entitlement reforms, without budget gimmicks, and I cannot support a budget that claims to balance in the year 2025 by utilizing revenue increases generated by Obamacare taxes," Cruz said in a prepared statement explaining his vote.
Cruz's fiscal claim to fame was his willingness to shut down the federal government for 16 days in 2013 trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Ultimately neither his marathon speech nor the shutdown succeeded in winning the cuts he wanted, but fears that his brinkmanship would harm the GOP brand in the midterms also proved unfounded.
Fiscally, Cruz presents mostly familiar Republican views on government spending, with a few twists and with less willingness to compromise. In his short time in the Senate, he has consistently voted against budget funding bills and against increasing the federal debt limit. He voted against the 2014 Farm Bill, decrying the special interests involved and the expansion of food stamps and entitlements, but also complaining it wasn't good enough for farmers: "It fails to provide a true safety net for farmers in difficult years, fails to fully target assistance to those most in need, subsidizes massive agri-businesses, and fails to prioritize farm aid over duplicative programs, promoting unrelated programs from green energy to housing." He opposes ethanol subsides and the Renewable Fuel Standard and isn't afraid to say so on his campaign website or even to Iowans themselves at an agriculture summit in March. He has also called for the elimination of the U.S. Export-Import bank, blasting it for corruption and for subsidizing loans to countries with poor human rights records.
But like many of his conservative peers, he's not quite so restrained on spending he associates with national defense. Cruz is calling for massive boosts in immigration enforcement on the southern border, tripling the size of the U.S. Border Patrol, adding more helicopters and cameras, and completing the fence separating America from Mexico. Recently, when Paul and another primary contender, Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), introduced separate budget bills that increased defense spending by close to $200 billion over two years, Cruz was forced to pick a side. Rubio's new defense spending plan was not offset by cuts elsewhere; Paul's was. Cruz ultimately sided with Rubio, saying, "I think it is critical that we allocate the resources that are necessary to provide for our national security functions."
Rand Paul (R)
U.S. senator from Kentucky (2011–present)
Rand Paul is unusual in the 2016 presidential field in that he has issued three different detailed annual budgets as senator. Even more uncommon, the budgets call for spending cuts the likes of which Washington hasn't contemplated since the end of World War II. As Vox's Dylan Matthews observed in April, "The budgets, put together, represent the most radical vision of limited government ever presented by a major American presidential candidate (apart, perhaps, from Paul's father, Ron Paul)." Matthews probably didn't mean that as a compliment.
Like Republican politicians used to do, Paul has serially called for the shuttering of the Departments of Education and Energy. But like few have dared venture, he has also called at various points for eliminating the Departments of Commerce and Housing and Urban Development. Overall military spending has been cut in most of his budget proposals, though mostly through a zeroing out of overseas war spending; non-war/deployment costs have actually increased. He has supported increasing the Social Security retirement age while means-testing benefits to future recipients, and he would convert all social welfare programs (such as Medicaid) into block grants to the 50 states. His campaign website says, "We must cut spending in all areas, particularly areas that are better run by state and local governments."
Paul has repeatedly aimed to balance the budget within five years, using spending cuts to get there. As observers await his full campaign budget proposal—particularly its outlays for the military—the news remains filled with Paul's dire warnings about the $18 trillion national debt. While Republican politics have largely moved away from debt-ceiling showdowns and sequestration cuts, Paul remains one of two senators (and presidential aspirants) to make immediate-term fiscal responsibility a centerpiece of his pitch.
Jeb Bush (R)
Governor of Florida (1999–2007)
At a Fox News debate during the run-up to the 2012 Republican primary, all eight of the GOP candidates present raised their hands when asked whether they would walk away from a budget deal that paired a dollar of tax increases with 10 dollars in spending cuts. No one on stage would take the spending cuts, even at such a lopsided ratio, if tax hikes were included.
Jeb Bush, the brother of President George W. Bush and the Republican governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, didn't run in the GOP primary that year. But a few months later, when he was asked during a House Budget Committee hearing whether he would agree to a similar deal, he said yes, angering conservative anti-tax activists in the process.
As governor, however, Bush took a reverse approach, repeatedly cutting taxes but allowing state spending to rise, especially in his final years in office. Under Bush, Florida's general fund spending jumped from $18 billion to $28.2 billion, and total state spending, which includes federal grants for Medicaid and other initiatives, rose from $45.6 billion to $66.1 billion, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. It was for this reason that the libertarian Cato Institute gave him a C grade in its annual report card on governors during his final year in office, despite regarding him as "one of the most aggressive tax-cutting governors in the nation."
Asked late last year about Bush's record as governor, his spokesperson told The Washington Times, "As Florida's chief executive, Gov. Bush cut taxes by more than $19 billion dollars for families and businesses. At the same time, budget reserves in the state rose from $1.3 billion in 1998 to $9.8 billion in 2006. His record on cutting taxes and exercising strong fiscal discipline speaks for itself."
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