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Death to deficits by 'a thousand cuts'

By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Every politician running for election to Congress professes to worry deeply about the country's debt situation, but no one is specific about what he would do, save for rhetoric like "cut spending" or "raise taxes."

The moderate-progressive think tank Center for American Progress on Tuesday tried to call everyone's bluff.

In a new report called "A Thousand Cuts," the group addresses the magnitude of spending cuts that would be required if lawmakers want to get the annual deficit down to the equivalent of 3% of the economy by 2015, a goal that President Obama has set.

That goal can be achieved entirely through spending cuts, through tax revenue increases or some combination of the two. The CAP report offers proposals in which spending cuts account for the whole solution, two-thirds of it, one-half or one-third.

"It is easy to say, 'We need to cut spending,' but it is much harder to actually identify the cuts," write the report's authors, Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden.

To meet the 3% goal in 2015, lawmakers will need to come up with $255 billion -- or 1.4% of GDP -- in that year alone, according to the report. That assumes the president's budget -- or policies very much like it -- are put in place.

For example, to hit the target through spending cuts alone, Congress would have to enact a:

  • 75% cut in direct agriculture subsidies;
  • 40% cut in federal funding for roads and bridges;
  • 30% cut for conservation-related agencies such as the Forest Service;
  • 50% cut in federal aid to D.C. and to rural telecommunications services to rural areas;
  • 12.5% reduction in defense spending;
  • and the elimination or reduction of more than 15 tax breaks, which many experts say amount to spending.

If spending cuts only account for one-third of the solution, lawmakers would "just" need to come up with $85 billion in 2015.

"Even finding $85 billion ... is no simple or easy task. There is very little 'low-hanging fruit' still left on the budget tree -- programs that are demonstrable failures, clear wastes of money and hugely unpopular," the report says.

Their $85 billion proposal would rely most heavily on cuts in defense spending and tax breaks. But it would also cut agricultural subsidies in half and reduce federal employee and military pensions. It would also trim spending on the federal highway and aviation agencies as well as on "energy supply" projects, that among other things, support fossil fuels and nuclear energy research.

The report's proposals are not recommendations, but the report's authors did make some value judgments about cuts that could be made while not sacrificing economic growth, hurting the vulnerable or compromising national security.

Plenty of people will disagree with the report's choices, because there's no universal agreement on what's worthwhile and what's wasteful.

But it's also a preview of future fiscal debates: Any budget-cutting exercise of the magnitude required over the next decade will end up cutting many things that someone finds worthwhile.

(To see what programs you'd be willing to cut to stabilize U.S. debt by the end of this decade, here's an easy-to-use tool created by the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.) To top of page

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