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Party Platforms Deeply Divided on Defense Spending, Entitlements

By Jennifer Shutt, CQ Roll Call

July 28, 2016 -- Democratic and Republican national party platforms display a stark divide on pressing fiscal issues facing Congress, including how the nation should deal with defense spending and the rising costs of mandatory entitlement programs.

The platforms, adopted separately during the parties' July conventions, also show how far apart Democrats and Republicans are when it comes to the structure or substance of the federal budget and annual appropriations spending levels. The differences could extend the ongoing political divisions that have repeatedly stymied the annual budget and appropriations process, including fiscal 2017 appropriations.

Although members are in no way bound to support the platform or introduce their proposals in the form of legislation, the documents provide some interesting insights into the parties' goals and aspirations that could influence lawmakers' agendas down the line.

In their platform, Republicans paint a bleak picture of the nation's financial standing, saying that without action the debt will grow to a level that will impact the country's "security, liberty and independence."

To reduce the debt, the GOP proposes using a three-part test for all aspects of the federal budget.

"Is a particular expenditure within the constitutional scope of the federal government? If not, stop it. Has it been effective in the past and is it still absolutely necessary? If not, end it. Is it so important as to justify borrowing, especially foreign borrowing, to fund it? If not, kill it," reads the GOP's 66-page document.

Republicans hope to pair spending cuts with structural changes to the annual budget process, some of them familiar from years past. Their proposals include passing a constitutional amendment that would require a balanced budget, mandating a "super majority" to approve a tax increase with a carve-out for wars and emergencies, and tying any spending cap to the "historical average percentage" of gross domestic product, which could prevent any Congress from increasing taxes to balance a budget.

The Democratic platform, in contrast, calls for increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans to pay for new programs, while not letting those initiatives add to the $19 trillion national debt.

"Democrats understand responsible fiscal stewardship is key to American democracy and to the country's long-term economic prosperity," wrote Democrats in their 55-page platform. "We believe that by making those at the top and the largest corporations pay their fair share we can pay for ambitious progressive investments that create good-paying jobs and offer security to working families without adding to the debt."

Democrats back offsets for any new spending or tax cuts, as well as promising to address "waste, fraud and abuse to make sure government dollars are spent wisely and efficiently."

Protecting the Pentagon

Defense, which makes up the largest of the 12 annual spending bills, is one area where the Republican platform didn't propose spending cuts.

"The U.S. defense budget has suffered a 25 percent cut in real dollars in the five years since sequestration. We support lifting the budget cap for defense and reject the efforts of Democrats to hold the military's budget hostage for their domestic agenda," Republicans wrote, referring to Democrats' demand that any increases to discretionary defense spending are matched by increases in discretionary nondefense spending.

Democrats also critiqued sequestration's impact on defense spending in their platform, saying they "support a smart, predictable defense budget that meets the strategic challenges we face."

But their party platform is more skeptical of the defense budget. It calls for cutting "waste" within the Pentagon.

"We will seek a more agile and flexible force and rid the military of outdated Cold War-era systems," Democrats wrote.

Both parties agreed on an audit of the Pentagon.

"Republican leaders in Congress have called for a full financial audit of the Pentagon to ensure that every dollar spent is truly benefiting our national security," Republicans wrote. "Every taxpayer must be prepared to pass an audit and we urge Congress to demand the same level of accountability from the Pentagon and the Department of Defense."

Democrats' platform calls for ensuring the Department of Defense is "wisely" using the money it's allocated. They also called for a "high-level commission to review the role of defense contractors, and take greater action against those who have been involved in fraud."


The two parties found little common ground on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The Democratic platform strongly opposes reducing the number of people eligible for the programs, privatizing or reducing benefits. Democrats proposed imposing an additional tax on individuals making more than $250,000 annually to boost Social Security's solvency, allowing people older than 55 to opt in to Medicare, and working to expand the 2010 health care law's Medicaid expansion throughout the states.

On Social Security, Democrats said they would reject any attempts to increase the retirement age, reduce funding, privatize benefits, reduce cost-of-living adjustments or lower earned benefits.

"Without Social Security, nearly half of America's seniors would be living in poverty," they wrote.

"Democrats will expand Social Security so that every American can retire with dignity and respect, including women who are widowed or took time out of the workforce to care for their children, aging parents, or ailing family members," the platform continues.

The platform's stance on Medicare made similar claims, stating that "Democrats will fight any attempts by Republicans in Congress to privatize, voucherize, or 'phase out' Medicare as we know it."

Republicans took a different approach.

"To preserve Medicare and Medicaid, the financing of these important programs must be brought under control before they consume most of the federal budget, including national defense," Republicans wrote.

The GOP platform calls for leaving Medicare in its current form for people over the age of 55, but for implementing an option for others to choose a "premium support model designed to strengthen patient choice, promote cost-saving competition among providers, and better guard against the fraud and abuse that now diverts billions of dollars every year away from patient care."

"When a vital program is so clearly headed for a train wreck, it's time to put it on a more secure track," they wrote.

Republicans are planning even bigger changes to Social Security.

Although the one-paragraph segment on the program does not include a detailed plan, the platform says Republicans should modernize it and guarantee benefits for those who have retired or are close to retiring. They rule out increasing taxes to continue the program in its current form, but said they believe it's their "moral obligation" to overhaul the benefits program for retirees, people with disabilities and survivors.

"We reject the old maxim that Social Security is the 'Third Rail' of American politics, deadly for anyone who would change it," the platform reads. "The Democratic party still treats it that way, even though everyone knows that its current course will lead to financial and social disaster."

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