Sherrod Brown and Jim Renacci
Photo: Bill Clark
Photo: Bill Clark

U.S. Senate race: Brown, Renacci squabble over cause of ballooning national debt

Brown pins blame on tax cuts, while Renacci says entitlement reform is needed.

In their race for the U.S. Senate in Ohio this year, Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Jim Renacci are putting the major policy differences between Democrats and Republicans on full display.

The federal deficit is a case in point. Last week, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reported that the budget deficit in the first 11 months of the fiscal year was $895 billion, or $222 billion higher than the previous year.

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To Brown, a Democrat from Cleveland seeking his third term in the Senate, the ballooning debt is due to the massive tax cuts approved by Congress last year and signed into law by President Donald Trump.

To Renacci, a Republican from Wadsworth closing out his fourth term in Congress, the driver of the debt is not the tax cuts but a baby-boom generation that is retiring in droves and squeezing the federal pots of Social Security and Medicare.

Neither position seems destined to end the stalemate in Washington or curb the growing debts that experts say can eventually threaten the economy and stability of federal health and retirement programs.

Many budget analysts say bringing the debt held by the public under control would require a combination of tax increases on all households and restraints in the future growth of the federal entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

PART 2: Where do Brown, Renacci stand on national security issues

‘Massive fiscal challenge’

Since Trump’s election in 2016, GOP lawmakers have emphasized deep tax cuts over reducing the deficit while Democrats refuse to consider changes such as means-testing 0n entitlement spending or raising the retirement age to curtail automatic spending increases.

“The country faces a massive fiscal challenge with national debt at near record levels,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington. “There is no conceivable way this will get fixed without addressing entitlement spending and taxes.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“Politicians looking at one side of the budget or proposing to make things worse are not leveling with voters on what has to happen to get serious about the debt,” she said.

So far, Brown and Renacci are staying in their respective corners. In an interview, Brown said he was “not going to play this game that we give these huge tax cuts to rich people and then we’re going to pay for them by going after the most vulnerable people that average $1,200 a month in their Social Security check.”

“We give tax (cuts) to rich people and then make their employees wait two or three more years before they’re eligible for Medicare? Sorry,” he said.

From his side, Renacci put the blame for the debt increase on the country’s changing demographics in which millions of baby boomers are retiring and are eligible for Social Security and Medicare.

“We have a problem where people are retiring at a clip of 10,000 people a day since 2010, and we have a system that was set up based on people dying at the age of 65,” said Renacci, referring to President Franklin Roosevelt signing Social Security into law in 1935.

“That system isn’t working anymore and we need to fix the system. We have too many people that are living past 65, God bless them — that’s a positive — but it was not planned when the system was put in place.”

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Stark differences

The debt is just one of a number of stark differences between Brown and Renacci. Brown was a supporter of the 2010 health care law known as Obamacare while Renacci has cast at least a dozen House votes to repeal the law, which extended health coverage to more than 20 million Americans.

Although Renacci has hinted that Brown would support a single-payer health care system such as Medicare for all Americans, Brown did not co-sponsor a bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., which would create such a system.

Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, shown here with President Donald Trump, has major policy differences with his opponent in the Senate race in Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown. Brown, seeking this third term, says the Trump tax cuts of last year are ballooning the deficit and benefitting mostly the rich. Renacci is a strong backer of the tax cuts - and Trump - and says Brown is mistaken about the tax cut benefits. GETTY PHOTO.

Brown and Renacci also sharply disagree on the 2009 federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, with Brown saying it saved tens of thousands of jobs and Renacci complaining that the bailout was structured in a way that forced the two companies to close 126 dealerships and eliminate 6,300 Ohio jobs.

Renacci has said the closure of his Chevrolet dealership in Wadsworth motivated him to run for Congress in 2010.

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Ballooning debt

As recently as 2001, the federal government operated an annual surplus. But tax reductions in 2001 and last year combined with recessions in 2000 and 2008 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan transformed surpluses into annual deficits that are spiraling toward $1 trillion a year.

In an ominous June report, the CBO projected that debt held by the public compared to gross domestic product would climb from 78 percent to 100 percent in 2028 and 152 percent in 2048, by far the highest in the history of the United States.

Even more alarming, to keep debt at its current level of 78 percent compared to the size of the economy, the CBO estimates that Congress every year would have to increase revenues by 11 percent and slash spending by 10 percent.

Brown blames the media for stories suggesting that cuts to Medicare and Social Security are needed to slow the growth in the deficit.

“Well, preach against them for the tax cuts,” he said.

RELATED: Renacci camp says race is still close

Brown opposed the 10-year, $1.5 trillion tax cut Congress approved last year, as well as the 2001 and 2003 so-called Bush cuts that led to more deficit spending. He also has proposed allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, which he claims will save money.

Renacci, however, just as strongly rejects Brown’s claim that the tax cut only helped the wealthy, saying Brown “needs to start looking at the statistics. The average family in the state of Ohio will get $2,000 back on their tax return because of the tax cut. That is not crumbs. That’s a car payment over 12 months; that is a repair of your refrigerator, that’s a repair of your car.”

Renacci wants to double down on tax cuts. Because many of the individual tax reductions in the tax bill signed by Trump are scheduled to expire in 2025, Renacci supports a bill backed by GOP leaders that would extend those cuts. The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation last week projected the bill would add another $630.9 billion in fresh debt by 2028.

“Ultimately this is unsustainable and there will be some kind of a fiscal reckoning,” said MacGuineas. “This debt means our entire economy is on a weak and risky foundation.”

PART 1: Trump major focus in Senate race in Ohio