With the polls showing a tightening race, a Mitt Romney presidency is becoming a real possibility. As I write, New York Times polling guru Nate Silver gives the Republican a 29-percent chance of emerging victorious when the votes are cast in just under two weeks.
The Romney-Ryan campaign has offered a bewildering and often contradictory array of positions on the issues, which makes predicting what a Romney agenda might look like exceptionally difficult. What's more, we'd see a very different Romney administration if Democrats retain control of the Senate. Silver gives them an 88 percent chance of doing so, projecting Dems to hold 52.4 seats in the next Congress (it's highly unlikely they'll win the House).
But if Romney were to sweep the toss-up swing states — which he has to do in order to win the White House — that would require a strong GOP turnout and a stronger showing in those Senate races.
Despite the difficulty nailing down a chameleon-like candidate's positions, we've tried to discern some of the economic measures that Romney would likely champion if he wins. We'll follow up with a look at non-economic policies in the coming days.
1. The Romney-Ryan Budget
Let's assume, for the moment, that the Republicans take the Senate.
Mitt Romney has at times embraced Paul Ryan's “roadmap,” and he's also distanced himself from it. But there will be quite a bit of pressure from conservative activists and the Republican House to enact something along the lines of the roadmap.
There are two things to understand about Paul Ryan's budget. First, it has been carefully written so that most of its provisions can be passed under a process known as budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority of votes in the Senate. Second, it is a right-wing fantasy that, if enacted as written, would trigger a major drop in employment and send the economy into a tailspin. Its cuts are so deep, and would effect so many constituents – including traditionally Republican constituents – that it would have to be modified. It's one thing to campaign on such a plan and another to govern with it.
What does it do? According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “by 2050, most of the federal government aside from Social Security, healthcare and defense would cease to exist, according to figures in a Congressional Budget Office analysis.”
The CBO report, prepared at Chairman Ryan’s request, shows that Ryan’s budget path would shrink federal expenditures for everything other than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and interest payments to just 3-3/4 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050. Since, as CBO notes, “spending for defense alone has not been lower than 3 percent of GDP in any year [since World War II]” and Ryan seeks a high level of defense spending — he increases defense funding by $228 billion over the next ten years above the pre-sequestration baseline — the rest of government would largely have to disappear. That includes everything from veterans’ programs to medical and scientific research, highways, education, nearly all programs for low-income families and individuals other than Medicaid, national parks, border patrols, protection of food safety and the water supply, law enforcement, and the like.
Ryan has already modified his plan in response to the outcry over a CBO analysis that found future retirees would face $6,400 more in out-of-pocket healthcare costs. We can expect further modifications because no Republican administration is actually going to slash veterans' benefits to the bone, to name just one example. It's untenable, but that doesn't mean President Romney wouldn't push through something moderately less damaging.
2. Tax Cuts
Romney promises to slash taxes by 20 percent across the board, maintain deductions enjoyed by the middle class and not decrease the share of taxes paid by the wealthy (or anyone else). We know Romney's math simply doesn't work – it's impossible.
But while the whole doesn't add up, Romney could get a number of those provisions passed, like eliminating the inheritance tax, the Alternative Minimum Tax (which hits high earners), and certainly keeping the “Bush tax cuts” on income investment in place.
When a candidate presents a plan that literally does not add up, it's not possible to predict what he'd do with any specificity once in office. Based on the recent history of GOP governance, the sharp right turn the party's taken in recent years and Mitt Romney's own background, one can be reasonably confident that Romney would cut taxes on high earners and corporations, but projecting by how much – and whether it would be financed through deficits, additional cuts or higher taxes on the middle class – is an exercise in reading the tea leaves.
Mitt Romney has pledged to repeal ObamaCare and replace it with a plan that, while light on details, would be centered around health savings accounts and insurance deregulation. Employers would throw some cash into the accounts, people would get some tax breaks and then the miracle of the free market will supposedly swoop in and fix our broken healthcare system.
Repealing ObamaCare may not be as cut-and-dried as the Republican base has been led to believe, however. Contrary to the mythology surrounding the program, the Congressional Budget Office projects ObamaCare to reduce the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decade and beyond. According to Senate rules now in effect, the reconciliation process cannot be used to pass anything that increases the budget deficit 10 years from now.
There are ways to get around procedural rules, and failing that, the executive branch has a lot of discretion in terms of implementation. A Romney adviser told Politico that if the Dems hold the Senate, “we would just have to try to grind out changes by starving ObamaCare through regulations.”
If Romney is able to repeal ObamaCare and replace it with his plan, a study by the Commonwealth Fund projects that it will leave 72 million uninsured by 2022 – 45 million more than is projected under ObamaCare.
A tragic irony is that Romney's healthcare plan would likely prove to be a fatal blow to the best thing he's ever accomplished in public service – the “RomneyCare” scheme in Massachussetts.
There is little doubt that Mitt Romney would pursue a variant of Paul Ryan's plan to voucherize Medicare for those who retire after a given date (in Ryan's plan, it's 2023). Seniors would at first get a voucher sufficient to cover the cost of a private insurance plan comparable to Medicare. But the value of that voucher would only increase by the rate of overall economic growth plus 0.5 percent. The problem is that healthcare costs grow a lot faster. The difference would be borne by seniors themselves – it does nothing to contain healthcare costs, it just shifts them from the government onto the backs of individuals.
When the CBO scored Ryan's first plan in 2011, it found that seniors would face an additional $6,400 in out-of-pocket expenses by 2022. After Democrats jumped on that figure, Ryan released a new plan, which called for Congress to come up with some unspecified remedy. CBO wasn't able to score it, but said “beneficiaries might face higher costs.”
Ryan would also raise the retirement age to 67, a measure Romney has endorsed.
It's entirely possible that a President Romney would sweeten the deal a bit to make those numbers look better in the medium-term, but any voucher plan that doesn't keep up with the actual increase in healthcare costs achieves the same thing — eventually shifting part of the burden onto seniors.
While Medicare has received the most attention, Ryan's plan for Medicaid, which Mitt Romney has endorsed, would be a more devastating hit to our threadbare social safety net.
Ryan's plan would turn Medicaid into a block-grant program, cap its funding – cutting $800 billion from the program over the next decade -- and then send it to the states to administer. The first problem is that states – presumably red states – would be free to make it harder to qualify, and the second is that the program wouldn't have the funding flexibility to enroll more people during economic downturns.
Medicaid serves 60 million Americans, about 10 million more than Medicare. Most people think Medicaid only serves the poor, but Medicaid is indespensible for the disabled, especially the severely diabled, who require a lot of care. It also covers Medicare's out-of-pocket expenses for retirees with limited incomes.
6. Social Security
George W. Bush learned the hard way that privatizing Social Security is a great way to make voters hate you. That's why the Ryan plan is quite vague. It calls for "action on Social Security by requiring both the president and the Congress to put forward specific ideas and legislation to ensure the sustainable solvency of this critical program." The budget does tout "reforms that take into account increases in longevity, to arrest the demographic problems that are undermining Social Security's finances” – which sounds a lot like raising the retirement age.
7. State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP)
S-CHIP is likely to be hit hard under a Romney administration if he has a Republican Congress. Under the Ryan plan, S-CHIP could only increase by the rate of inflation, which again, is much slower than the projected rate of healthcarecost inflation. The CBO looked at Medicaid and S-CHIP together, and found that spending on the two programs would be about 70 percent less than currently projected by the year 2050 under Ryan's "roadmap."
8. The Rest
If the Republicans run the field in a big win, expect a lot of talk about a constitutional amendment capping federal spending at a given share of our gross domestic product. It will only be talk. It's a right-wing fantasy of a policy that can only be enacted with a constitutional amendment, which isn't going to happen.
That doesn't mean there won't be deep, deep cuts to non-defense discretionary spending under a Romney administration. Under the Ryan plan, non-defense discretionary spending would be on a downward trajectory leading to 39 percent less funding than currently projected by the year 2040. What is “non-defense discretionary spending”? Well, about 40 percent is education, training and research, and the rest is veterans' programs, various programs for low-income families, public safety and disaster response and the like. It's basically government, absent the Pentagon budget, Social Security and Medicare.
9. If Dems Have 40-50 Seats in Senate (With Ryan the Tie-Breaking Vote)
Although he has been vocal in his opposition in the past, there's a good chance that as Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, might embrace filibuster reform – dropping the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster from 60 — if the Dems hold a minority in the upper chamber.
Either way, one thing not to expect in this scenario is Senate Democrats turning the tables on the GOP and blocking their legislative agenda at every turn. That's a strategy the Republicans can undertake because their overarching narrative is that governent doesn't do anything right – it ultimately works to their benefit when they can “prove” that theory by rendering Congress incapable of action. Democrats still adhere to the idea that good governance can improve our society, so they can't play the same game and get away with it.
10. If Dems Hold Senate
If the Dems hold the Senate, they will act as a firewall against the radical restructuring of the public sector promised by the Ryan budget.
That means maintaining the status quo, more or less, at least through 2014, with one painful exception. Cheered on by the Beltway media, the Democrats, having embraced the non-existent recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission (the chairmen drafted recommendations but the gang of 18 didn't vote to approve them), would almost certainly be willing to strike a “grand bargain” with President Romney along those lines.
The only question is whether Speaker Boehner (or Cantor?) would have any trouble coming up with the votes for a “balanced” deficit reduction deal – for a deal that raises some new revenues. If history is any guide, even the most ideological House Republicans will support a Republican president in such an effort.
Currently, non-defense discretionary spending is expected to hit its lowest level since 1962, and Simpson-Bowles would cut deeper still – with a 3:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. That means programs that help the poor and middle class will be on the chopping block. Simpson-Bowles also called for a hike in the Social Security retirement age, despite the fact that life expectancies have only increased significantly for the well-to-do who don't rely on the program as heavily as working people and the poor.