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During the first presidential debate of this election season, President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney’s discussion focused primarily on what is arguably the most important issue of this election: tax policy. Over half of the debate was spent on the intricacies of tax policy, from the treatment of small businesses to the precise revenue cost of trillions of dollars in proposed tax cuts.  Here we offer some criticism and context.

Size of the Candidates’ Tax Cut Plans

Early in the debate Obama explained that Romney’s “central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut – on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts.” Romney denied this, saying “I don’t have a $5 trillion cut. I don’t have a tax cut of the scale that you’re talking about.” Romney added that his plan would not “reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people” and that it would “provide tax relief to people in the middle class.”

The truth is that Romney isn’t proposing a $5 trillion tax cut, he’s proposing to cut taxes by over $10 trillion over ten years. Romney proposes new tax cuts costing around $500 billion a year (according to the Tax Policy Center) on top of making permanent all the Bush tax cuts, which by themselves would cost $5.3 trillion over a decade.

Romney is proposing to make up some of the $5 trillion in additional tax cuts by closing loopholes, eliminating deductions and other tax expenditures, but he has kept his plan secret so far and has refused to name even a single tax expenditure he would eliminate or loophole he’d close.

An analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice found that even if millionaires were forced to give up all the tax expenditures that Romney has put on the table, his tax plan would still give a tax break of at least $250,000 on average for individuals making over $1 million. That is, he simply cannot back up his assertion that he is “not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high- income people.” And if he really is going to make up the revenues we’ll lose to his rate cuts, taxes would have to go up for other taxpayers.

Throughout the debate, Romney referred to several studies showing that his plan is mathematically possible (a low standard to meet to be sure), but the reality is that the studies he’s referring to aren’t all actual studies, nor do they fully support his plan.

It’s important to note that while Romney’s tax plan is the height of fiscal irresponsibility, Obama himself is proposing to extend most of the Bush tax cuts, at a cost of $4.2 trillion over the next ten years. The President assured the audience that he wants to “continue the tax rates – the tax cuts that we put into place for small businesses and families.  But,” he continued, “for incomes over $250,000 a year that we should go back to the rates that we had when Bill Clinton was president,” that is, the pre-Bush tax cuts rate.

CTJ has analyzed Obama’s plan and found that extending 78 percent of the Bush tax cuts will lose far too much revenue in the long run. The President’s plan would extend the tax cuts for the first $250,000 a married couple makes. We also found that married couples making between $250,000 and $300,000 would still continue to enjoy, on average, 98 percent of the Bush tax cuts. Fewer than two percent of taxpayers would lose any part of the Bush tax cuts under Obama’s plan, so it’s hardly a bold proposal for reducing the deficit and restoring urgently needed revenues.

In other words, neither presidential candidate showed on Wednesday night that they have fully come to terms with the fact that the United States cannot afford continuing to hand out trillions of dollars in tax cuts.

Long Term Deficit Reduction Plans

At a Republican presidential debate over a year ago, Romney joined with all the other candidates in saying that they would reject any deal that raised tax revenues, even one that would include $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in additional tax revenue – ten times more in crippling spending cuts than tax increases. When pushed by the moderator during Wednesday’s presidential debate, Romney stood firm, saying that he had “absolutely” ruled out the possibility of raising additional revenue to reduce the deficit.

The Simpson-Bowles Commission plan to balance the budget, which Romney praised last night, however, requires a ratio of $1 in spending cuts to $1 in revenue increases (compared to the budget baseline that Obama and many members of Congress use). Ironically, by seemingly embracing Simpson-Bowles, Romney put himself to the left of Obama, whose own long term deficit reduction plan actually cuts fewer taxes and less spending than Simpson-Bowles. As Obama explained in the debate: “the way we do it is $2.50 for every cut, we ask for a dollar of additional revenue.”  (And he repeatedly points out, of course, that his health care legislation will slow the deficit’s growth by reducing Medicare costs.)

Neither candidate is acknowledging the elephant in the room. In the long-run, what they really have to do to fix the budget deficit is just to stop extending most or all of the Bush tax cuts, or find a way to pay for those parts they do extend.