N.H. voters advised to focus on budget

CONCORD -- New Hampshire voters have asked presidential candidates plenty of tough questions about Iraq, but they should be asking more about the federal budget deficit, the nation's accountant-in-chief said Tuesday.

U.S. Comptroller General David Walker said the war in Iraq is of immediate concern, but lopsided budgets pose a more serious challenge to the nation's future health and stability.

"It could hurt our economic future, our domestic tranquility and our national security over the long term," said Walker, who heads the Government Accountability Office.

Walker and think-tank scholars from the left, right and center made Concord their 17th city on a "Fiscal Wake-Up Tour." They said New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary gives its voters great opportunity and responsibility to ask the candidates for their specific views on the growth of spending on programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

A GAO review last year predicted the economy would be "in ruins" by 2049 at the current budgeting rate.

The scholars rejected the notion that it's political suicide for a candidate to discuss tax increases, an increase in the age to receive Social Security benefits, or a decrease in Medicare or Medicaid coverage.

"If a candidate says, 'I'm not going to raise your taxes' or 'I'm not going to touch your Social Security,' they've taken something off the table. They shouldn't," said Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank.

Candidates may think that will earn them votes, but polls show the public has a very low opinion of the job Congress is doing on the budget, said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a Virginia-based bipartisan think tank that emphasizes the importance of balanced budgets.

"If pandering is thought to work, they're not doing a very good job," Bixby said.

"It's not an ideological thing. The numbers don't add up, and they don't add up in a big way," he said. "It's really important for voters to ask these candidates about this problem."

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama visited the state in recent days. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut are expected before week's end.

Another scholar said the best candidates will keep all the options available and avoid promises that might be unkeepable. Alison Fraser, director of the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, said candidates also should focus on so-called "earmarks," spending on projects inserted by one or two legislators to benefit a particular district.

Cutting them wouldn't reduce federal spending significantly, but would remove site-specific spending, she said.

"Earmarks are emblematic of how the legislative process has been corrupted," she said.