Possible Questions for a Debt Debate

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, along with many others, have been calling on the presidential candidates to Debate the Debt, and more recently calling on each debate's moderator to devote the neccessary time to a discussion of our unsustainable federal debt and each candidate's plan to fix it. Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post shows what that could look like, asking some hypothetical debate questions that moderators could use to get at the specifics of both candidates' ideas for fiscal policy.

Here is a sample question Marcus poses for President Obama:

President Obama, you have been criticized for not supporting the recommendations of your own fiscal commission. Why didn’t you? Do you regret that choice?

You have offered what you describe as $4 trillion in debt reduction over 10 years. This sounds like the same target set by the Simpson-Bowles commission, but on an apples-to-apples basis, the commission recommendations would cut the debt by $2.3 trillion more.

Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, your commission co-chairs, said your plan “does (barely) stabilize the debt,” but “at a dangerously high level and with no margin for error.” Are they wrong? Or do you need to do more — and if so, shouldn’t you prepare voters for what this entails?

And here is one that Marcus directs at Governor Romney.

Gov. Romney, you have said you want to “reduce federal spending to 20 percent of GDP by the end of my first term” and cap it at that level. You have also said you want to spend at least 4 percent of gross domestic product on defense.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that — leaving aside Social Security and Medicare, which you do not want to change for current seniors — staying within that cap would require spending cuts of 40 percent in remaining programs. What would you cut to get to your annual target of $500 billion, beyond lowering subsidies for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Legal Services Corp. and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which amount to just $600 million a year?

Would you have voted against Simpson-Bowles, as your running mate did?

Some of the questions Marcus puts forward are no doubt tough. But that's what debates are about. They are opportunities for Americans to hear the details of candidates' policies and counter reactions. Asking tough questions would help ensure that these debates are filled with substantive discussions and not just rhetoric.

With thousands of citizens calling on the candidates to address the big questions on debt and the future of fiscal policy, we hope the moderators will ensure that the debates provide a forum for answers on how candidates plan to fix the debt.