Committee for Responsible Federal Budget Estimates True Cost of Campaign Plans

October 12, 2020 by Kate Michael
The U.S. Capitol as seen from the national botanical garden fountain. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an independent non-profit organization, released its anticipated report on the estimated costs of both Trump’s and Biden’s campaign plans last week. Not surprisingly, they are very expensive plans. 

Both candidates have ambitious proposals and policy priorities if elected, but fiscal challenges await the president regardless of who wins in the upcoming election, so CRFB dug through each proposal to determine its estimated true cost as well as its meaning for the ongoing fiscal health of the country.

Marc Goldwein, senior vice president of policy at CRFB, spearheads the organization’s U.S. Budget Watch 2020, which seeks to offer budgetary transparency and accountability in the presidential race. 

CRFB’s goal is to identify suggested legislative priorities based on the candidate’s campaign plans and promises. 

“We estimate what are ultimately relatively vague promises relative to the realities of legislation or even a president’s budget,” said Goldwein. “[We’re] culling through the websites of candidates and identifying anything that could possibly be a policy and trying to figure out what they mean, because often we get different levels of detail. And then, [we’re] looking for credible scores of either that… or a similar policy.”

Goldwein says ascertaining Biden’s proposals was fairly straightforward as he outlines 48 distinct plans on his website from which CRFB analysts were able to identify 800 policy proposals and examine their fiscal impact. 

Biden’s largest proposals involve expanding access and affordability to childcare and schooling, including universal pre-school, K-12 education, student loan forgiveness, and some free college. Health care is another large priority, expanding the Affordable Care Act and decreasing prescription drug costs. Biden wants to invest heavily in green infrastructure, including research and development, roads, bridges, and housing. He plans to increase Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. And to do all of this, he would increase taxes, especially for corporations, investors, and higher-income households. 

Aside from his annual budgets — which are not campaign promises — Trump’s proposals didn’t have the same level of detail. CRFB analysts were able to identify, however, a 54 point agenda for Trump’s second term as well as a “Platinum Plan” for Black Americans on Trump’s website that “gave clues as to what he was supporting,” according to Goldwein. 

Trump’s main proposals include cutting taxes for individuals and creating tax incentives for domestic investment and manufacturing. Increasing infrastructure spending is a large priority, as is decreasing drug costs. He wants to increase America’s investment in space travel, including the Space Force, Mission to Mars, and establishing a base on the moon. Trump’s larger proposals also increase funding for the military and veterans. 

While CRFB constructed low, central, and high estimates to account for various interpretations of the policies, Goldwein stressed that “the exact same policy could cost different amounts depending on how you estimate…. and how much benefit of the doubt you want to give.” 

The biggest spending for Biden, with CRFB’s central cost estimate, involves $2.7 trillion on childcare and education with $1.5 trillion of that used for loan forgiveness on higher education. His proposal for expanding Social Security and SSI would cost $1.1 trillion and would roughly double the current spending on SSI. 

Trump’s biggest spending under the same central cost estimate would involve $2 trillion more for infrastructure, $550 billion for national defense, and $650 billion dedicated to space.

Given that the United States’ debt just exceeded the size of the economy — debt is now 102% of GDP and is headed into a record high in the next term — the long term effects of both candidate’s plans are staggering. According to Goldwein, typical election cycles see spending proposals in the hundreds of billions, but both plans are “unusually large… [though they] come about it in very different ways.”

“The candidates [may be] intending to be budget neutral, but they are still raising the debt at record highs,” said Goldwein. “Both candidates would take the debt situation and make it worse.” 

Trump both spends a lot and cuts taxes. Biden, on the other hand, spends a lot more money but has more offsets, including a substantial increase in corporate and capital gains taxes. These cost estimates only include each candidate’s steady-state policies and do not include any COVID relief. 

According to CRFB’s central estimate, Trump’s campaign proposals would raise the country’s debt by an estimated $4.9 trillion, while Biden’s would raise it even higher by an estimated $5.6 trillion. Trump’s plan would cause the national debt to rise by 125% of GDP by 2030. Biden’s would force the debt even higher to 128% of GDP by 2030, rising a bit more slowly after that.

“These fellows are making a lot of promises that are very expensive if additional pay-fors are not mentioned,” said Goldwein. “Both candidates would worsen an already dismal fiscal situation.” 

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