April 12, 2016
Update: The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget updated its cost estimate on May 19 in light of newly-published analyses of Senator Sanders' health care proposals. The new cost estimate is $19 trillion.
An independent analysis has estimated that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' proposals would add trillions to the national debt — but his plan is still potentially more fiscally responsible than Donald Trump's or Ted Cruz's.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calculated that Sanders' plan would add between $2 trillion and $14.75 trillion to the national debt, according to a report released on Thursday.
In comparison, the organization calculated in earlier reports that the debt would increase by $12 trillion to $15 trillion under Donald Trump and $12.5 trillion under Ted Cruz. The CRFB, which describes itself as a “bipartisan, non-profit organization,” is working on a similar analysis of Hillary Clinton’s plan.
"Sanders deserves real credit for proposing plans to pay for all his very large spending initiatives," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the CRFB.
Those proposals include universal health care, free college tuition, universal preschool and investments in clean energy. Overall, he would increase government spending by 33 percent over the next decade, but he plans to raise taxes, mostly on Wall Street and the wealthy, to pay for it all.
The report says, however, that Sanders still wouldn’t raise enough money to pay for his agenda.
"These offsets would fall significantly short of the costs, and the plan would add at least $2 trillion and as much as $15 trillion to the already unsustainable national debt,” the report concludes.
The reason there is such an enormous range in the CRFB's estimate is that there is a debate over how much health care costs would rise under a Sanders administration.
“There are very differing estimates of what the costs of Sanders' proposal will be. We don't say which one's wrong and which one's right," said MacGuineas.
The Sanders campaign itself says that his plan will cost $13.8 trillion over 10 years. Even assuming that is correct, the CRFB still estimated that Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan would add $1.95 trillion to the debt, based on revenue projections from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center.
But economist Kenneth Thorpe, who helped Vermont design a proposed single-payer health care plan, has argued that Sanders’ plan will cost far more than he says it will. Based on Thorpe’s analysis, the CRFB added an additional $12.75 trillion to the debt.
Moreover, the Committee did not analyze what effect higher taxes and spending would have on economic growth. (The right-leaning Tax Foundation has.)
Debates over the debt aside, MacGuineas praised Sanders for at least having a serious plan.
"Bernie Sanders calls for much more spending, but he tries to pay for it...Trump has a $10 trillion tax cut which he doesn't even try to pay for," said MacGuineas.
Some of the report’s findings were even in Sanders’ favor. For example, the Committee found that his plan to expand Social Security “is actually significantly overestimating costs and modestly underestimating revenue.”
Still, MacGuineas is concerned that Sanders' plan will raise taxes so much that it will make it nearly impossible to reduce the debt significantly in the future.
"They left themselves with very few options…taxes can only go up so much before economists say you've peaked out at your revenue-raising levels," she said.