The deficit, which has nearly hit the $1 trillion mark for the fourth straight year, has been steady increasing since 2001, the last year that saw a surplus. The deficit refers to the annual difference between spending and revenue, while the federal debt refers to the total amount the federal government owes.
Businessman Eric Hovde, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann and state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald each targeted different social programs for drastic reductions or structural changes.
"My approach is that we have to make the case to the American people that this extra $1 trillion in spending a year, what has it given us?" Hovde said. "An ever growing unemployment rate and an economy that's barely growing."
Hovde, a hedge fund manager, said he wanted a business-style audit of federal agencies. Especially concerning are bureaucrats who spend any leftover money toward the end of the fiscal year instead of returning it to the U.S. Treasury, he said.
Thompson, who was secretary of the Health and Human Services Department under President George W. Bush, said he wanted the power to cut his own agency's budget but never got it.
Thompson proposed a spending cut for every department, regardless of their mission.
"The problem is in Washington, nobody ever gets rid of anything, they just add money to it," he said. "My program will first reduce every budget by 5 percent and allow the secretary, the people who run the department, to be able to reorganize and get rid of the programs that aren't working."
Neumann, who was in Congress during the late 1990s when the federal budget was balanced, regularly brings a list to interviews to show reporters the 150 programs he'd cut.
Some are small, while some, such as cutting the federal nondefense workforce by 15 percent, would have a larger impact.
"I took six months writing this. It's not a political document -- it's real, the numbers are there," he said. "It balances the budget in a five-year period of time by cutting $1.4 trillion in spending and eliminating (the federal health care law)."
Fitzgerald, who as Assembly speaker pushed through a bill to end most bargaining rights for many public employee unions, said he has experience in making tough budget cuts.
"I think you have to look at entitlement reform the way we looked at collective bargaining reform in Wisconsin," he said. "We had to make those tough choices, to get the budget back in line, and I think we have to do that with entitlement reform."
He said everything was on the table, including the possibility of raising Social Security eligibility from age 65.
"If you're truthful with people and tell them right now we have to reform these to make us solvent again and to pass the budget, I think they're ready for that," he said.
Hovde agreed that Social Security needed significant changes.
"If you're 50 years old and older, we're not going to touch you," he said. "If you're under 50 we need to add two years to retirement age; if you're under 40 another two years, and if you're under 30, maybe another year."
But Neumann said the cuts can come from elsewhere, keeping Social Security intact.
"We've laid out a plan that, after we balanced the budget, we got America back on track to pay off its debt. We laid out a plan much like a homeowner would pay off a mortgage in 30 years," he said. "When you pay off the federal debt, the money goes back into the trust fund and Social Security is good until about 2030."