That’s not what you generally hear from Republicans, who emphasize savings from, say, eliminating Amtrak subsidies (a mere $15 billion item over 10 years, according to the CBO report) or tightening food stamp eligibility ($50 billion). Nor is it the impression you would get from Democrats, who talk of ending the favorable tax treatment of “carried interest” for hedge fund managers ($17 billion) or tax preferences for oil drilling and the like ($34 billion). Eliminating “waste” or “handouts” to the rich or poor — whatever the merits of any particular proposal — simply doesn’t add up to a credible fiscal fix.
The big money is in two places: tax breaks for the middle class and entitlements. The former category includes the deduction for state and local taxes (eliminating that would save nearly $1 trillion over 10 years)and the mortgage interest deduction (another trillion dollars). As for entitlements, using the alternative, and more realistic, inflation measure known as “chained CPI” would save $162 billion over 10 years; changing cost-sharing rules for Medicare and limiting Medigap insurance would raise another $114 billion.
Obviously, achieving savings this large would impose some sacrifice. But, just as obviously, the more people who benefit from a program, the more widely shared the pain. Unless and until the American people and their elected representatives face up to the necessity for such a broad-based restructuring, the United States will continue on its current sorry course: reeling from deadline to deadline while hoping Congress can muster just enough consensus to keep the government from closing or defaulting.