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Debt would grow under most GOP candidates' plans, report says

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President Obama is roundly criticized by Republicans for running up the nation's debt load, but tax and spending proposals from the GOP presidential contenders show debt would continue to rise under their watch -- sometimes to even more alarming levels.

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have presented policies that would all push debt beyond current projections, largely because their proposed tax cuts would outweigh the benefits of slashing budgets on the spending side of the ledger. Only Ron Paul's proposals begin to dramatically curve debt downward, according to a report Thursday from the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

The sober analysis shows how difficult it will be for any new inhabitant in the White House to shift the nation's debt trajectory, and the need for long-term and bipartisan efforts to gain revenues and curb spending -- particularly at a time of rising Medicare costs for the aging population, the budget watchdog group said.

"I don't think cutting revenues further is the responsible thing to do – and they all do it," said Alice Rivlin, the founding director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and now a director of the budget watchdog group that released Thursday's report.

"We're not going to be able to absorb this tsunami of seniors and their need for healthcare with the revenue we have," she said. "I would give them low marks."

The nation's debt problems have continued to concern the public. At a GOP debate earlier this week, the first question asked the contenders what they would do to "bring down the debt?"

Obama's proposals would also send debt rising above what budget experts say is a sustainable level. The nation's debt load is typically measured as a portion of the economy, or gross domestic product – with 60% being an internationally accepted level of debt. (Budget experts count so-called public debt, which excludes  transfers among governmental accounts, such as Social Security, that are often tapped to balance the books.)

Under current assumed policies from Washington – including the continuation of the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire in December – public debt would hit 85% of GDP by 2021, according to the budget group.

Gingrich, the former GOP House speaker, noted during this week's debate the balanced budgets he achieved during the Clinton administration. But the budget experts said his policies, including his proposed spending on space exploration, would send debt to 114% of GDP. Santorum's policies would push it to 104%.

Romney's plans, including his proposed 20% reduction in tax rates released this week, would send public debt to between 85% and 96% of GDP, depending on the level of new revenue his proposals could generate through tax policies, the budget watchdogs group said.

Only the proposals from Paul, the libertarian Texan congressman who wants to dramatically limit the reach of government, brings the debt below current projections.

The Medicare changes sought by the Republican contenders did not figure into the budget group's assessments because the effects would largely be felt outside the standard 10-year budget window. The GOP candidates largely hew to versions of the Medicare changes from Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.), which would provide seniors a stipend to buy private insurance.

The budget hawks also dismiss GOP assertions that tax cuts will pay for themselves by growing the economy – saying that while lower tax rates can stimulate growth, they are not expected to raise enough to make up for lost revenues.

The nation's total debt load, now $15 trillion from all accounts, doubled during the George W. Bush administration and then skyrocketed again under Obama. For the last several years, annual deficits, expected to reach $1.1 trillion this year under Obama, have been at record levels since World War II.

But the GOP candidates would continue to run deficits, said Bill Frenzel, a former GOP congressman from Minnesota who was the top Republican on the House Budget Committee and is now on the budget group's board of directors. In fact, none of the four leading GOP contenders would "get us to a balanced budget in 10 years."

lmascaro@tribune.com

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