Ben Adler reports on Republican and conservative politics and media for The Nation as a Contributing Writer.
Speaking at a closed-press fundraiser in Palm Beach, Florida, on Sunday night, Mitt Romney offered more details than he ever has to date on what he might do about federal spending and taxes. Luckily, some reporters standing outside overheard him. NBC reports:
"I'm going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them. Some eliminate, but I'm probably not going to lay out just exactly which ones are going to go," Romney said. "Things like Housing and Urban Development, which my dad was head of, that might not be around later. But I'm not going to actually go through these one by one. What I can tell you is, we've got far too many bureaucrats. I will send a lot of what happens in Washington back to the states."
Asked about the fate of the Department of Education in a potential Romney administration, the former governor suggested it would also face a dramatic restructuring.
"The Department of Education: I will either consolidate with another agency, or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller. I'm not going to get rid of it entirely," Romney said, explaining that part of his reasoning behind preserving the agency was to maintain a federal role in pushing back against teachers' unions. Romney added that he learned in his 1994 campaign for Senate that proposing to eliminate the agency was politically volatile.
Romney expounded on that lesson — that he shouldn't publicly admit to his plans to leave society's most vulnerable citizens without any federal support — in a March interview with The Weekly Standard. "One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don't care about education," said Romney. "So will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I'm not going to give you a list right now." In other words, Romney believes that if he tells the public what he might actually do in office they will dislike his plans and reject them. This is just as revealing as Romney's infamous recollection that he told his gardener not to use illegal immigrants on his property because "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake." Romney doesn't want to wage an honest contest between his ideas and his opponent's. His self-described preference is to try to win by telling the American they can have tax cuts without painful sacrifices on spending.
Publicly, Romney has proposed to make the Bush tax cuts permanent and to then cut taxes further. He also wants to increase defense spending. In total he would reduce federal tax revenues by $5 billion over the next ten years. The Committee for a Responsible Budget estimated that Romney would add $2.6 trillion to the deficit. He has promised to cut spending as well, but he has avoided mentioning credible specifics.
That's bad enough. But what is even worse is that what he offers in private doesn't add up either. It would be one thing if Romney had a secret plan to balance the budget with drastic spending cuts to major federal programs. While it would be dishonorable of him to refuse to discuss that plan while running for president, at least you would know he has a plausible — if totally heartless — plan for governing once elected.
But he doesn't. Instead the new details he offered were that he might eliminate the mortgage interest deduction on second homes and abolish the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The former idea is a good one, although I'll believe that President Romney and Congress have the will to stand up to powerful lobbies such as the real estate and construction industries when I see it happen. It would not, however, generate nearly enough revenue to make up for Romney's massive tax cuts. Perhaps because Romney himself owns three homes, he thinks owning a second home is a fairly common middle-class practice. In fact, only 6 percent of Americans have a second home. Eliminating the entire mortgage tax deduction would save about $215 billion by 2021, according to the Congressional Budget Office, so eliminating it only on second homes would save just a fraction of that. If you want to be generous and assume that a lot of the owners of second homes also have third and fourth homes, and that they take out mortgages to buy those homes, you could guess that Romney's proposal might save something like 10 percent of that total, or a whopping $21.5 billion in total between now and 2021. By contrast, letting the Bush tax cuts expire only on families making more than $250,000 per year would have saved $40 billion in 2011 alone.
While HUD makes for an appealing target for destruction among rich Republicans because it is the only cabinet department dedicated to addressing poverty, it is not actually a very large agency compared to, say, the Pentagon. Its entire budget for fiscal year 2012 is $47.2 billion dollars. (The Department of Defense budget this year is $645.7 billion.) The vast majority of HUD spending falls into one of two appropriation streams: construction of public housing ($19.2 billion) and Section 8 housing vouchers ($17.2 billion). Romney did not specify whether he would eliminate those programs, or just abolish the department that houses them and redistribute their responsibilities. Assuming Romney doesn't, or can't, actually get rid of the federal government's two main programs to prevent homelessness, he won't get very much savings by closing HUD and its important, but smaller, programs such as Community Development Block Grants. As I report in a forthcoming feature for Next American City, under President Obama HUD has been dramatically helpful to cities with very small amounts of money through programs such as the Sustainable Communities Initiative. I've asked the Romney campaign to clarify whether Romney wants to eliminate all federal housing subsidies and, if so, whether he has any plan to combat the dramatic rise in homelessness and severe poverty that would surely result. Having not received a response, my guess is that his honest answer would be that he has no idea what exactly he proposes to cut. And he certainly hasn't bothered to come up with an alternative affordable housing agenda.
Republicans are not terribly interested in making serious domestic policy proposals or even dealing with social issues at all. For example, House Republicans have decided that their zeal to keep taxes low on millionaires and even billionaires must be paid for by squeezing food stamp recipients. As Politico's David Rogers reports, "An average family of four faces an 11 percent cut in monthly benefits after Sept. 1, and even more important is the tighter enforcement of rules demanding that households exhaust most of their savings before qualifying for help." If they succeed, it will save $3 billion per year.
Republicans, including Romney, are fond of saying that they idolize Ronald Reagan and wish to govern as he did. And they would, with lower taxes, higher deficits, greater inequality and less help for the most needy.