WASHINGTON -- In an interview with Fortune Magazine that was published on Wednesday morning, Mitt Romney gave a bit more detail than normal about how he would fulfill his promise to get the nation on track towards fiscal balance.
But the proposals he laid out largely ducked the so-called "painful" choices that experts insist must be made, and seemed to be drawn from rosy assumptions about the immediate political and economic future. At one point, Romney was asked to respond to a Tax Policy Center analysis that concluded he would need to take away tax benefits that primarily help the middle class if he wanted his broader proposals to be deficit neutral.
"They made garbage assumptions and they reached a garbage conclusion," he responded, noting that he has never called for reducing the deductions middle-income taxpayers enjoy on home mortgage interest, charitable giving and health care coverage (he would eliminate them for the rich).
But that only further highlighted his campaign's unwillingness to put out a detailed plan of its own. And it raised again the question of how his overall tax plan -- which extends the Bush tax cuts, reduces individual rates by 20 percent, eliminates taxes on investment income for middle- and lower income taxpayers, repeals the alternative minimum tax and gets rid of the estate tax -- wouldn't balloon the deficit.
Romney's campaign has insisted that they can trim federal spending enough to achieve fiscal balance, but in the Fortune interview, the items Romney pinpointed appeared to be low-hanging fruit.
Romney identified subsidies for Amtrak, PBS, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as things he would eliminate. The government spends $444 million a year on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the parent organization of PBS); Amtrak received $1.56 billion in federal funding in 2010, with $1.3 billion in stimulus funds; while the National Endowment of the Arts lists the current level of federal funding at approximately $146 million.
Romney said he would block grant Medicaid and send programs like housing vouchers and food stamps back to the states. This, he argued, would save the federal government "approximately $100 billion a year within four years" (the House GOP budget claims to save $771 billion over 10 years). It would also mean dramatic cuts to each of these programs, as states are already dealing with major budget shortfalls.
Romney also told Fortune that he would reduce the number of federal programs by 10 percent through attrition, while tying the compensation of federal workers to that in the private sector. "That saves about $47 billion a year, by the way," he said.
All told, the savings that Romney identified for Fortune would add up to roughly $750 billion over 10 years (depending on the baseline comparison). On Monday and Tuesday, Romney announced that he would restore roughly the same amount ($718 billion) to Medicare as part of his plan to repeal the health care law President Barack Obama put in place.
Theoretically, Romney could find savings to help pay for his tax plan in the defense budget. In his Fortune interview, he acknowledged that there were "enormous opportunities for efficiency and cost savings in the military." But in the very next breath, he committed himself to using those "those savings" not towards reducing the deficit "but instead will be necessary to increase the number of active-duty personnel by approximately 100,000, to restore our military equipment which has been destroyed in conflict, and to invest in the coming technologies of warfare."
In sum, Romney's plan would put off entitlement reforms for 10 years, and rules out reductions in defense spending and major changes to the current tax code, while promising to bring federal spending below 20 percent of GDP by 2016. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein argues this is either fantasy mathematics, or Romney would essentially have to cut every single federal program by 40 percent.
Among those programs would be those that invest in infrastructure, which consume a fair amount of the budget. But Romney has been unwilling to say he'd make that cut. In his Fortune interview, he pledged "very substantial investments over the coming decade" on items like "highways as well as rail and air and communications infrastructure."
Where the money would come from to pay for that, he didn't say.