Free Minds & Free Markets

Can They Stop Themselves?

Reason's guide to whether any of the 2016 presidential hopefuls would actually cut government.

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 BushKeiko Hiromi/Polaris/NewscomJeb 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."

Photo Credit: Keiko Hiromi/Polaris/Newscom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Your alt-text for the picture of bush was "Jeb"? Where's the creativity? The wit?

  • UnCivilServant||

    Having checked the other two pictures, it's official, you're as boring as the Tines Union on this one.

  • AlgerHiss||

    The ONLY difference between the two major political parties in the US is:

    One of them walks leftward, while the other runs leftward.

  • ||


    Ha. Ha. Ha. That ship has sailed a long time ago. Remember when Obama was going to go through the federal budget "line by line?"

  • Rich||

    Hey -- it's a *big* budget.

  • Swiss Servator, Nierezeit!||

    What is this "budget" of which you speak?

    /Harry Reid

  • Rich||

    *** snaps fingers ***


    /Obama [imagining what the President might say about going through the nonexistent budget]

  • ||

    Well, it's actually like a credit card that never gives the spenders a statement. What a dream!

  • ||

    Reason's guide to whether any of the 2016 presidential hopefuls would actually cut government.

    Far too long. Here's an accurate, but more succinct version:


  • rudehost||

    Even better I can produce a formula describing GOP spending each year


    where x = last years budget

  • Rich||

    *** contemplates the "square dollar" ***

  • UnCivilServant||

    People won't have to fold them anymore! Brilliant!

  • ||

    See, a dollar is just one dimensional. A square dollar has AREA. This is a large improvement and I am grateful for the suggestion.

    We're headed for the bright future of the tesseracted dollar.

  • ||

    Just wait til politicians start repealing the laws of mathematics as well as economics.

    Introducing... the Klein dollar!

  • rudehost||

    Ah but no a dollar is a rectangle which is a superset of a square and they do in fact have area. What we need to do is move into 3 and even 4 dimensional dollars. I am sure there is a government research project devoted to this right now right after they finish their multi-billion dollar study to determine if the average American teenage male would be interested in a threesome with 2 models out of the Victoria Secret catalog.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    GDP is down. No responsible adult would even contemplate hamstringing the economy at a time like this. We must spend our way to prosperity.

  • ||

    You will be taken to the Re-education Center to be "trained" in the proper terminology. The operant term is "invest."

  • sarcasmic||

    Everyone wants to cut government. Just not that part. No, not that part either. People depend on that. We can't cut that because it would cost jobs. Nope, can't cut that. It's too important. That part is for the children, can't cut that. What? No, that would hurt veterans. Can't cut help to seniors either.

  • Bush League||

    But not my guy, he did cut spending. It was set to increase by 5% from last year, but he only let it increase by 4.5%. He's a real deficit hawk.

  • Rich||

    Paul has serially called for the shuttering of the Departments of Education and Energy [and] has also called at various points for eliminating the Departments of Commerce and Housing and Urban Development.

    So, let me get this straight. He hates our children, energy independence, American jobs, and poor people. How can *he* be elected President?!

  • LynchPin1477||

    I think he called for budget cuts to NASA and NSF. The conversations with my colleagues when they find out I'll be voting for him should be....interesting.

  • ||

    I work for a company that makes baggage scanning machines. The TSA is one of our largest customers. The responses I got yesterday when someone mentioned the TSA whistleblower hearing and I suggested solving the problem by disbanding the TSA entirely were probably about what you can expect.

  • bassjoe||

    Huh? With or without the TSA, airports will still need screening machines. That's business that's not actually going anywhere...indeed, it's probably easier to bribe local airport officials than TSA execs...

  • ||

    That was my position, too, but the people here don't think anything can be accomplished without Teh Gubmintz.

    I mean, if I ran an airline, I'd be damn sure to screen for bombs while loading up my very, very expensive planes, no regulation necessary.

  • Puddin' Stick||

    I mean, if I ran an airline, I'd be damn sure to screen for bombs while loading up my very, very expensive planes, no regulation necessary.

    With very, very expensive pilots, flying 200-300 liabilities.

  • Loki||

    it's probably easier to bribe local airport officials than TSA execs...

    Actually it's probably easier to bribe a couple of higher ups at the TSA than to bribe individual airport officials at each airport. Plus if you're bribing a few people in the government bureacracy there's far less chance of one of them developing a conscience and spilling the beans to the press than if you have bribe a lot of different airport officials.

  • Puddin' Stick||

    Or you could go the regulatory capture route -- jobs for former TSA officials in exchange for favorable treatment and trying to get your employees into the TSA.

  • Thomas O.||

    So how's the new job search going?

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    NASA is pissing away over $8BB on a fucking orbiting tin can(orion). It ceased its primary mission decades ago and just became another jobs program.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    The most disgusting NASA plan was to de-orbit the space station once it was built because (a) they had no use for it, and (b) the shuttle was such an unreliable dangerous piece of junk that they didn't want to risk any more crew lives getting them to the space station.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    There was no balanced budget in either 97 or 98. Counting trust fund surpluses that were spent but have to be repaid is like saying you got a pay raise by getting and spending a home equity loan.

    It's all in the entitlements. You know, that valuable government "service" that pays people to be unproductive and rewards irresponsibility.

  • Puddin' Stick||

    It's all in the entitlements. You know, that valuable government "service" that pays people to be unproductive and rewards irresponsibility.

    Hey, it's a valuable service! We need people who consume and thus create demand without taking a job from someone who needs it! /keynesian

  • LynchPin1477||

    I believe Paul when he says he wants to cut. I think the hurdles in his way are probably too large to overcome, but I think he can make progress in certain areas.

    The DOEs (both of them) aren't going to disappear. Probably the same for other departments, though I could see HUD maybe being "eliminated" while actually be rolled into some other agency.

    Increasing the retirement age and means testing SS might actually be viable, though it would be a tough slog. Ditto for Medicaid reform. Probably best to package those together as entitlement reform. No guarantees it would be successful. Probably it wouldn't be. But maybe.

    In the end, Paul probably does not have the personality to build the necessary political coalitions and push these through. But he could shift the conversation and maybe plant the seeds for someone who does have the necessary charisma. But he has to be careful. He could just as easily sour people on libertarian ideas if he comes off the wrong way.

    Still, he is the best thing to come along in my living memory.

  • JusWit778||

    Dude does seem to know which way is up.

  • JusWit778||

    Dude does seem to know which way is up.

  • Robert||

    How about Chafee?

  • jeannine||

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  • suzy000||

    Well....if we took the money we spend on taking care of illegals (food, medical, housing, education and so on) and throw it at the border....that makes perfectly good sense to me. Imagine the job availability and less diseases being spread, etc. Want to come to America to it legally. Coming over illegally only sets a precedent for more disregard of American law.

  • ||

    Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do...... ✹✹✹✹✹✹

  • KeninIL||

    You obviously got your data for Carly Fiorina from Think Progress or Salon. CF saved HP!! HP gave CF a $90M signing pkg b/c she was due to get $85M in stock from Lucent in 4 months. They really wanted her. She took the conglomerate of 87 separate companies with 150 brands that was HP and made into the HP solution vendor of today. When she took over HP sold hardware, under her they began to sell integrated customer solutions. Each of HP 87 companies had their own HR, purchasing, sales, IT, mfg, etc. They didn't even know how many employees they had! First she reduced it to 15 divisions then 5, but with 1 IT, 1 HR, 1 purchasing. HP had missed 9 quarterly forecasts in a row when she took over, that pretty much stopped. CF noted a good CEO has to work 3-5 years in the future if a tech company is to grow and you will note the stock climbed the 3 years following her firing despite a caretaker CEO for the 20 months that followed. Listen here for her description:


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