Tag: deficit reduction

Let Sequestration Happen

Some members of Congress are anxious to undo sequestration, ignoring the inconvenient fact that they created the process in the first place. Instead of accepting responsibility, they are proposing legislation that would force the White House to outline the effects of the cuts. And people wonder why Congress’s approval rating is at an all-time low.

But there is more than enough blame to go around. The Republican-controlled House, the Democratic-led Senate, and the Obama White House had a chance to implement a range of proposals aimed at deficit reduction last summer. They chose to kick the can down the road, empowering an independent, bipartisan panel to make the tough choices for them. That effort failed.

If the Super Committee was unable to hammer out a compromise when the conditions were ripe last summer, it is unlikely that one will materialize this summer. Sequestration may be the only way to achieve real spending cuts. Let’s let it happen.

To be clear, sequestration is not the best way to cut the military budget, or federal spending overall. It wasn’t supposed to happen at all; the threat of spending cuts was supposed to compel the various parties to reach a compromise. But it may be the only feasible way to cut spending. And it isn’t going to get any easier in the future.

The Democrats are beginning to show their hand: this was never about cutting spending; it was always about raising taxes. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) explained yesterday that her party would allow the cuts in defense and nondefense spending to go forward, and the Bush tax cuts to expire, if Republicans didn’t agree to tax hikes on the wealthy. That isn’t likely to happen, and not just because the GOP is being stubborn. A sizable majority of Americans—Republicans and Democrats alike—are in favor of cutting military spending. More than half want to extend the Bush tax cuts for all.

Still, there are some Republican politicians who have always been willing to raise taxes in order to protect the Pentagon, despite what the public says it wants. I don’t fault Democrats for holding Pentagon spending hostage as much as I fault Republicans for allowing themselves to be maneuvered into a corner.

The GOP has a straightforward way out of the box: allow the defense and nondefense cuts to go forward, refuse a tax increase, and renegotiate a debt reduction deal that doesn’t leave entitlements—the real drivers of our long-term fiscal calamity—off the table.

Sequestration likely won’t be as bad as special interests and those in favor of ever-increasing military spending claim. The reductions would only apply to FY 2013 budget authority, not outlays. The Pentagon and Congress will then have greater flexibility starting in FY 2014 to adjust the reductions under the BCA spending caps. In the meantime, many programs could continue on funding already authorized.

We must also keep the cuts in proper perspective. The DoD base budget under sequestration would total $469 billion, about what we spent in 2006, which was not exactly a lean year for the Pentagon. And as for the claim that the military cuts will result in perhaps one million lost jobs, that seems implausible considering that the cuts would amount to less than three tenths of one percent of GDP.

More to the point, the defense budget should never be seen as a jobs program. In a dynamic, market economy, capital and resources adjust to changing demand. Some regions and municipalities that are relatively more dependent upon military spending might suffer some short-term effects, but there is evidence that economies reliant on the military can recover. Some regions could emerge stronger and more diversified. Other reporting indicates that some businesses are already positioning themselves to weather reduced government spending.

Americans spend more today on our military—in real, inflation-adjusted terms—than during the high point of the Reagan buildup. Some might justify these expenditures by claiming that the world is much more dangerous today. But the evidence for that is pretty thin. The Soviet Union on its worst day could do more damage in a few minutes than al Qaeda has managed to inflict in over a decade. We are safer than most politicians are willing to admit.

If they embraced our good fortune, policymakers could cut military spending without undermining U.S. security. Shifting resources from a relatively unproductive and inefficient sector to a more productive one would be good for the economy. And lower military spending could even improve our foreign policy.

It simply isn’t fair to saddle fewer troops with more missions. If we cut spending and reduced the size of the U.S. military, policymakers would have to be more discriminating in the use of force. But greater restraint by the United States would encourage other countries to take responsibility for their own security, and share in the costs and risks of policing the global commons.

Strategic spending cuts informed by a realistic assessment of today’s threats would be ideal. Sequestration may not reach this ideal, but it may be the only way to achieve actual cuts in military spending.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Looking for Serious Program Terminations

The House passed a bill last week eliminating the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which the Tax Foundation calls a “voluntary tax that stirs little enthusiasm.” It would also save a whopping $14 million by eliminating the Election Action Committee and transferring certain functions to other federal agencies.

The Republican-sponsored bill passed on a straight party-line vote with the exception of Rep. Walter Jones’ (R-NC) no vote. Eliminating the fund would result in the transfer of $200 million to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction. From a fiscal standpoint, $200 million in deficit reduction isn’t even worthy of a yawn. And based on press reports, floor debate centered on whether Republicans were really just trying to disenfranchise Democratic voters. Seriously, didn’t the GOP leadership have anything more substantial to bring to the floor?

I went looking for bills introduced in the House that would eliminate programs. The conservative Republican Study Committee’s Sunset Caucus has a list of bills sponsored by their members that would cut spending (see here). Although there are some worthy bills that the GOP leadership ought to at least get to the floor, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the offerings.

One that did look particularly good is a bill from Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) that would “eliminate ineffective and unnecessary federal education programs.” I’d say that describes the entire Department of Education. However, as soon as I saw the bill’s title – The Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act – I immediately knew that it would be a joke. Sure enough, the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring of the bill shows that I was, unfortunately, correct:

H.R. 1891 would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education act of 1965 to eliminate more than 40 discretionary grant programs. For 2011, the Department of Education allocated $413 million in funding from amounts appropriated in the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 (P.L. 112-10) to programs that would be eliminated by H.R. 1891. Under current law, however, the funds allocated to those programs may be used for other grant programs that would not be eliminated by the bill.

Because annual appropriations to the Department of Education can be used for other programs, enacting the bill would not have a significant effect on spending from the appropriation provided for 2011. Furthermore, the authorizations for all of the programs specified in the bill have expired, so CBO estimates the bill would have no impact on such authorization levels. However, savings would accrue – as compared to 2011 appropriations levels – if the total amounts provided in 2012 and subsequent years are lower than the current-year funding for the department.

Note to Duncan Hunter: Why bother?

Washington Post Asks for Budget Plans

The Washington Post’s editorial board issued a challenge to the president and his Republican opponents: “show us your plans” for deficit reduction. In fact, the Post says it would be “delighted” to receive plans from its readers. However, the Post isn’t interested in “meaningless promises” to cut “waste, fraud, and abuse”—it wants specifics:

Here’s what we’re not looking for: pablum about eliminating unnecessary spending without identifying where. Gauzy rhetoric about making hard choices without making them. Meaningless promises about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Broad assertions about where to find the money — “Medicare savings,” “tax reform” — without specifics. Arbitrary spending caps without accompanying details about how those limits are to be met. If you believe, for example, that federal spending should be kept to a specific share of the economy — 18 percent? 20 percent? — show the plausible path to getting there.

Amen. Chris Edwards and I have been beating the drum for Republican policymakers in particular to get specific about what they would cut. Chris recently noted that with the exception of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and perhaps a few others, Republicans aren’t putting much effort into identifying programs to terminate. And I have noted that “It’s more common to hear Republicans blubber on about ‘reducing waste, fraud, and abuse’ in government programs and ‘saving’ the pillars of the welfare state (Social Security and Medicare) for ‘future generations.’”

As for deficit reduction ideas from Washington Post readers, we have a balanced budget plan on our Downsizing the Federal Government website. In fact, not only do we have a plan, we have over three dozen essays on numerous government agencies that provide details on what programs to cut and why.

‘Gang of Six’ Plan Is Lousy

My colleague Dan Mitchell discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly in the deficit reduction plan released by the bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Six.”  As Dan noted, the plan is more of an outline and a complete assessment isn’t possible until more details emerge. However, the fact that President Obama immediately embraced the plan ought to tell proponents of limited government all they need to know.

Here are some random thoughts on the plan:

  • There’s nothing impressive about the “immediate” $500 billion in deficit reduction. That figure includes revenue increases, so it’s not even $500 billion in spending cuts. And I’m not sure why they say “immediate” when they probably mean that the reductions would occur over the next several fiscal years. The deficit alone for next year will probably be at least $1 trillion.
  • The plan promises about $2.5 trillion in spending reductions over 10 years. As I’ve been pointing out, $2 trillion in spending cuts isn’t a lot when compared to the $46 trillion the government is projected to spend over the next decade. See this Cato video for more.
  • Tax reform is fine; more revenue for the government is not. Transferring more resources from the private sector to the government is a loser for both economic and individual liberty. In addition, the plan’s requirement that tax reform “maintain or improve the progressivity of the tax code” would result in more Americans viewing the federal government’s spending programs as a “free lunch.”
  • My anti-tax credentials are beyond question: I equate taxation with theft. But I don’t like debt-financed spending any more than I like tax-financed spending. Had anti-tax advocates and Republicans put the same amount of effort into restraining spending during the Bush/Republican Congress years as they did in cutting taxes, we might not be facing the prospect of a large tax increase today. Unfortunately, I see little evidence that that lesson has been learned.
  • The plan does almost nothing to rein in the scope of federal government’s activities. It doesn’t seem to matter which party or ideological faction on Capitol Hill releases a plan – conservatives, moderates, and liberals all apparently assume that the federal government should continue doing everything that it currently does. Generally speaking, Democrats want more tax revenue to maintain an expansive government. Republicans talk about smaller government, but only a handful can articulate exactly what programs or functions they’d eliminate. It’s more common to hear Republicans blubber on about “reducing waste, fraud, and abuse” in government programs and “saving” the pillars of the welfare state (Social Security and Medicare) for “future generations.”
  • Our global military presence would make a Roman emperor blush and our Founding Fathers roll over in their graves, but there’s nothing in this plan to suggest that the military-industrial complex faces any threat.

In sum, if you’re hoping that debt reduction will be brought about through a reduction in the federal warfare/welfare state, you’re going to have to wait for a different plan. And the sad truth is that no such plan is going to materialize anytime soon – at least not one that will get through Congress and signed by the president. But look on the bright side – we’re not Greece! Not yet.

Should There Be ‘Shared Sacrifice’?

At the Encyclopedia Britannica blog, I take on the argument made, for instance, by President Obama in his Friday news conference:

We should not be asking sacrifices from middle-class folks who are working hard every day, from the most vulnerable in our society – we should not be asking them to make sacrifices if we’re not asking the most fortunate in our society to make some sacrifices as well.

I call that a fundamentally flawed argument:

The main thing our government does these days, despite the lack of any constitutional authority for it, is tax some people and transfer money to other people. …But there is no moral equivalence in the two sides of the transfer system. On the one hand, the government takes money by force from people who have earned it. On the other hand, it gives some of that money to people who have not earned it. Taking yet more money that people have earned is simply not equivalent to reducing the size of a government transfer.

There is, however, one way that we could ask businesses and the rich to join in the deficit-reduction effort:

But here’s a way to satisfy both those who see spending as the problem and those who want the highest-taxed Americans to pay yet more: Start cutting subsidies to businesses and the rich. Let’s cut out the big-business subsidy machine, the Export-Import Bank. Let’s get rid of farm subsidies. Let’s tell affluent people who build houses in coastal flood areas to pay for their own flood insurance at market prices.

Read the whole thing.

No Profile in Courage Here, Either

Yesterday, speaking at Facebook headquarters, President Obama assessed the guts of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and other congressional Republicans and concluded that their deficit reduction plan isn’t “particularly courageous.” That might be accurate – their plan lacks specificity and could target a lot more for elimination – but it’s pretty rich for the President to throw out such a conclusion. After all, his whole strategy appears to be the bankruptingly lame-but-safe crying of doom for cute kids and other supposedly defenseless people no matter what the size of the proposed cut to a social program or how ineffective the program has been. That, and the constant lamentation that “the rich” – a small and therefore electorally weak group of voters – don’t pay their fair share. (And the constitutionality of federal programs? That doesn’t even get a mention.)

Representative of this cowardly course is the President’s mantra about “investing” more in education-related programs despite blaring evidence that the programs don’t work or, as is the case with federal student aid, actually make the problem they’re supposed to solve much worse. But the President wants votes – like most politicians, he wants lots of people to think he’s giving them great stuff for free – so he’s not doing the mildly courageous thing and telling people “look, these programs don’t work, we have a titanic debt, and I’m going to cut things that might sound good but aren’t.” No, he’s doing things like going to community colleges and, in front of cheering groups of students, talking about mean Republicans and how he wants to protect students just like them by keeping the federal dollars flowing.

That’s no profile in courage, nor is it a responsible way to deal with the federal government’s gigantic problems.

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