Tag: cbo

Debunking the Left’s Tax Burden Deception

I testified yesterday before the Joint Economic Committee about budget process reform. As part of the Q&A session after the testimony, one of the Democratic members made a big deal about the fact that federal tax revenues today are “only” consuming about 15 percent of GDP. And since the long-run average is about 18 percent of GDP, we are all supposed to conclude that a substantial tax hike is needed as part of what President Obama calls a “balanced approach” to red ink.

But it’s not just statist politicians making this argument. After making fun of his assertion that Obama is a conservative, I was hoping to ignore Bruce Bartlett for a while, but I noticed that he has a piece on the New York Times website also implying that America’s fiscal problems are the result of federal tax revenues dropping far below the long-run average of 18 percent of GDP.

In a previous post, I noted that federal taxes as a share of gross domestic product were at their lowest level in generations. The Congressional Budget Office expects revenue to be just 14.8 percent of G.D.P. this year; the last year it was lower was 1950, when revenue amounted to 14.4 percent of G.D.P. But revenue has been below 15 percent of G.D.P. since 2009, and the last time we had three years in a row when revenue as a share of G.D.P. was that low was 1941 to 1943. Revenue has averaged 18 percent of G.D.P. since 1970 and a little more than that in the postwar era.

To be fair, both the politician at the JEC hearing and Bruce are correct in claiming that tax revenues this year are considerably below the historical average.

But they are both being a bit deceptive, either deliberately or accidentally, in that they fail to show the CBO forecast for the rest of the decade. But I understand why they cherry-picked data. The chart below shows, rather remarkably, that tax revenues (the fuschia line) are expected to be back at the long-run average (the blue line) in just three years. And that’s even if the Bush tax cuts are made permanent and the alternative minimum tax is frozen.

It’s also worth noting the black line, which shows how the tax burden will climb if the Bush tax cuts expire (and also if millions of new taxpayers are swept into the AMT). In that “current law” scenario, the tax burden jumps considerably above the long-run average in just two years. Keep in mind, though, that government forecasters assume that higher tax rates have no adverse impact on economic performance, so it’s quite likely that neither tax revenues nor GDP would match the forecast.

$2 Trillion in Cuts in Perspective

Congressional Republicans have said that spending cuts must be at least as large as an increase in the debt ceiling. Negotiations over lifting the debt ceiling are ongoing, but the “magic number,” so-to-speak, would be around $2 trillion in spending cuts.

Cutting $2 trillion in federal spending sounds like a lot, but it’s actually relatively small because the cuts would likely occur over ten years. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent budget baseline, the federal government will spend almost $46 trillion over the next ten years.

The following chart shows what $2 trillion in spending cuts over the next ten years looks like when measured against the CBO’s baseline. Even with the cuts, federal spending would still increase by $1.8 trillion:

Rather than actually cutting spending, federal spending (and debt) would continue to grow – just at a slightly lower rate. And as Chris Edwards continues to warn, there is a strong possibility that some or all of the “cuts” could be phony.

Federal Budget Cap at 3%

The federal government is approaching its legal borrowing limit, and fiscal conservatives in Congress are wondering what spending reforms they can extract in return for supporting a debt-limit increase. Various sorts of balanced budget amendments and debt limits relative to GDP are being kicked around. I support those ideas, but I fear that they may be too complicated to gain traction right now.

A simpler idea would be to impose a statutory limit on annual spending growth of 3 percent. If total federal outlays in a year were $4 trillion, the government couldn’t spend more than $4.12 trillion the next year. It would be that simple.

Such a limit would be easy for policymakers and the public to understand and enforce. It would put ongoing pressure on Congress to cut discretionary programs and reform entitlements. With spending growth limited to 3 percent, the budget would be balanced in just over a decade and growing surpluses would be generated after that. The federal government would shrink as a share of GDP. The math is simple: federal revenues and GDP are expected to grow substantially faster than the 3 percent spending limit over the next decade and beyond.

I want Congress to enact major cuts to spending, not just to limit spending growth. But one advantage of an annual growth cap is that it would lock-in any spending cuts that are made, and thus spending would be ratcheted downwards.

Under such a limit, the OMB and CBO would issue regular reports showing spending for the coming fiscal year relative to the projected legal cap, which would make it clear to political leaders, reporters, and voters how much needs to be cut. The president would also be required to propose a budget each year that fit under the estimated legal cap. If the beginning of a new fiscal year arrives and spending is still expected to be above the limit, the president would be required by law to impose an across-the-board cut to bring spending into line.

In the past, I’ve proposed a spending growth cap equal to the sum of inflation plus population growth. (This sum is expected to be about 3 percent in coming years). But a fixed and explicit percent cap would be even simpler and easier to enforce. A fixed percent cap would also encourage policymakers to support a low-inflation policy by the Fed because the lower was inflation, the higher the budget limit in constant dollar terms.

The chart shows the proposed spending in Obama’s new budget compared to spending capped at 3 percent. The spending cap line assumes that the GOP’s discretionary cuts are put in place this year. It also assumes that spending grows at the maximum 3 percent each year, but if spending were restrained more than that, the cap would ratchet down to a lower level. The chart also shows projected federal revenues based on CBO data, assuming the extension of current income tax cuts and AMT relief. (See page 22).

Limiting spending growth to 3 percent is a modest goal, but over time the results would be quite dramatic compared to Obama’s no-reform spending plan. Spending in 2021 would be about $1 trillion less than the president is projecting—$4.7 trillion rather than $5.7 trillion. As a share of GDP, Obama’s 2021 spending of 23.9 percent would be cut to 19.9 percent. And the budget would be closing in on balance that year with revenues at 18.6 percent of GDP with tax relief in place. (Figures based on OMB GDP).

At DownsizingGovernment.org, I’ve proposed spending cuts that would take the federal government down to 15 percent of GDP or less. But getting a new budget mechanism signed into law takes centrist support, and I think that a 3 percent growth cap to balance the budget in a decade or so is a reasonable goal that could gain broad agreement.

Finally, it makes sense to include in such a budget law the ability of policymakers to spend over the cap temporarily for emergency war funding with a two-thirds vote in both House and Senate. Without such a temporary escape hatch, Congress would likely simply repeal the law when it entered a costly war.

I’ve discussed a spending growth cap in more detail here and here and here. Dan Mitchell has made similar observations about spending growth rates. The folks at One Cent Solution are recommending a tighter cap.

Spending Still Increases with GOP Cuts

House Republicans engineered a continuing resolution for fiscal 2011 that would trim $61 billion in “regular” discretionary budget authority versus fiscal 2010. The Obama administration and the Democratic majority in the Senate balked at the cuts, and a two-week continuing resolution will be passed in order to avoid a “government shutdown” and give the sides more time to reach an agreement.

Based on the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the continuing resolution containing $61 billion in funding cuts, and the CBO’s recent budget projections, both discretionary and total federal outlays (actual spending) would still be higher in fiscal 2011 versus fiscal 2010.

Keep these charts in mind the next time you hear or read that the Republicans’ supposedly “major spending cuts” will lead to reduced economic growth and hundreds of thousands of jobs lost.

As If Gov’t Spending Had Nothing to Do with It

This is how a front-page story in this morning’s Washington Post portrayed the cause of this year’s $1.5 trillion deficit:

Record U.S. Deficit Projected This Year
CBO forecasts tax cuts will push budget gap to $1.5 trillion

The still-fragile economy and fresh tax cuts approved by Congress last month will drive the federal deficit to nearly $1.5 trillion this year, the biggest budget gap in U.S. history, congressional budget analysts said Wednesday.

Federal spending and federal tax revenue play equally important roles in creating the federal budget deficit.  Yet the Post blames the deficit only on inadequate tax revenue.  Federal spending isn’t too high, the Post implies, tax revenue is too low.

This may not be an example of media bias.  But it is an example of why supporters of limited government believe that major news organizations like the Washington Post are biased toward bigger government.  At a minimum, the Post has some explaining to do.

Nondefense Discretionary Spending Freezes

When it comes to reining in federal spending, House Republicans and the president have one idea in common: freezing nondefense discretionary spending. That category accounts for about 18 percent of total spending, so let’s see how such a freeze would affect the overall budget.

Today the Congressional Budget Office released updated budget figures and baseline projections of federal spending through fiscal 2021. Projecting the budgetary future is obviously an inexact science, and the CBO’s baseline reflects unrealistic assumptions. However, it does allow us to get an idea of the impact of a nondefense discretionary freeze on total federal spending.

Three proposals have been put forward:

  • In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed freezing nondefense discretionary spending for five years, beginning in fiscal 2012, at fiscal 2010 levels.
  • The conservative House Republican Study Committee and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) recently proposed freezing nondefense discretionary spending for ten years, beginning in fiscal 2012, at fiscal 2006 levels.
  • Ever since the release of its “Pledge to America,” the House Republican leadership has been talking about returning spending to fiscal 2008 levels. They apparently have non-security discretionary spending in mind, which is an even smaller category than nondefense discretionary. It’s not clear if they intend to freeze it at the new lower level.

Using the CBO’s latest figures, I calculated baseline spending from fiscal 2012-2021 under ten year freezes in nondefense discretionary spending at fiscal 2006, 2008, and 2010 levels:

Note:   To make an apples-to-apples comparison, I extended the proposed Obama freeze at fiscal 2010 levels from five years to ten years, and I assumed a ten year freeze at fiscal 2008 levels for the House Republicans. Also, projected annual interest payments on the debt are excluded. Therefore, the chart refers to “baseline program spending,” which is the sum of nondefense discretionary, defense, and entitlement spending.

The chart makes it excruciatingly clear that freezing nondefense discretionary spending at the levels specified or implied by Republicans and Democrats is only a start toward needed reforms in the federal budget. Congress also needs to cut defense spending, and spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs.

Republican Sellout Watch

Grousing about the GOP’s timidity in the battle against big government will probably become an ongoing theme over the next few months. Two items don’t bode well for fiscal discipline.

First, it appears that Republicans didn’t really mean it when they promised to cut $100 billion of so-called discretionary spending as part of their pledge. According to the New York Times,

As they prepare to take power on Wednesday, Republican leaders are scaling back that number by as much as half, aides say, because the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, will be nearly half over before spending cuts could become law.

This is hardly good news, particularly since the discretionary portion of the budget contains entire departments, such as Housing and Urban Development, that should be immediately abolished.

That being said, I don’t think this necessarily means the GOP has thrown in the towel. The real key is to reverse the Bush-Obama spending binge and put the government on some sort of diet so that the federal budget grows slower than the private economy. I explain in this video, for instance, that it is simple to balance the budget and maintain tax cuts so long as government spending grows by only 2 percent each year.

It is a good idea to get as much savings as possible for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, to be sure, but the real key is the long-run trajectory of federal spending.

The second item is the GOP’s apparent interest in retaining Douglas Elmendorf, the current director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Many of you will remember that the CBO cooked the books last year to help ram through Obamacare. Under Elmendorf’s watch, CBO also was a relentless advocate and defender of Obama’s failed stimulus. And CBO under Elmendorf published reports saying higher taxes would improve economic performance.

But Elmendorf’s statist positions apparently are not a problem for some senior Republicans, as reported by The Hill.

The new House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), gave a very public endorsement of the embattled head of the Congressional Budget Office during his first major speech as committee head Wednesday night. …“You’re doing a great job at CBO, Doug,” Ryan said after receiving the first annual Fiscy Award for his efforts at tackling the national debt. He added that he looked forward to crunching budget numbers with him in the future.

In the long run, the failure to deal with the problems at CBO (as well as the Joint Committee on Taxation) may cause even more problems than the timidity about cutting $100 billion of waste from the 2011 budget. Given the rules on Capitol Hill, it makes a huge difference whether CBO and JCT are putting out flawed numbers.

I’ve already written that fixing the mess at CBO and JCT is a critical test of GOP resolve, and I actually thought this would be a relatively easy test for them to pass. It is an ominous sign that Republicans aren’t even trying to clean house.