Tag: deficit reduction

Kent Conrad and Fiscal Federalism

Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) has a reputation for being a “deficit hawk.” But the bar is apparently so low in Washington that merely paying lip service to “fiscal responsibility” is enough to earn you the hawk title in the press. In reality, Conrad is a tax and spender as a story in today’s Wall Street Journal demonstrates.

These examples illustrate Sen. Deficit Hawk’s commitment to deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility:

  • “Like many in Congress, he is conflicted. He boasts a 23-year record of looking after North Dakota voters with ample farm subsidies, aid for drought-hit ranchers, defense spending and scores of pet projects. He has done little to help rein in Medicare and Social Security expenses—the U.S.’s biggest budget busters.”
  • “He has been a defender of the state’s grain farmers ever since [his election to the Senate in 1986]. He voted last April against a proposal to cap federal payments to the nation’s farmers at $250,000 per farmer per year, a measure that Mr. Conrad criticized as disastrous but that supporters said would have saved $1 billion a year.”

  • “He also helped draft a five-year, $300 billion farm bill in 2008 that boosted overall farm subsidies. The bill created a $3.8 billion emergency ‘trust fund’ for farmers who lose crops or livestock to natural disasters, which was Mr. Conrad’s idea. Since 2008, North Dakota ranchers have received $23 million under the fund, second only to Texas.”
  • “Mr. Conrad also has used legislative earmarks—provisions inserted into bills by lawmakers to fund local projects—to deliver federal money to North Dakota businesses, cities and schools. He secured $3 million last year to build a new terminal at the Grand Forks airport, and $13 million more for a fire station at a nearby air base. Dickinson State University got $600,000 to build a Theodore Roosevelt Center, while a Navy research project got $1.2 million to develop a ‘chafing protection system.’ ”
  • “In 2003, Mr. Conrad joined most Democratic senators to support Mr. Bush’s plan to provide Medicare prescription-drug coverage to seniors, at a cost of around $40 billion a year. The plan required Congress to scrap the spending controls Mr. Conrad once championed. Republicans won the votes of Mr. Conrad and other rural senators by agreeing to expand the program by pumping $25 billion more into rural hospitals and doctors over 10 years.”
  • “Mr. Conrad helped negotiate the 2005 highway bill, which critics blasted as a bipartisan exercise in spending excess. The $286 billion bill contained 6,371 earmarks. Even before Mr. Bush signed it, Mr. Conrad told constituents that the bill would deliver $1.5 billion to North Dakota communities. ‘That equates to North Dakota receiving $2 for every $1 in gas tax collected in the state,’ Mr. Conrad said in a news release.”

It would appear that Conrad doesn’t really want to cut spending to rein in deficits. He wants to increase taxes. One might think a proponent of tax increases in a red state like North Dakota would struggle at the ballot box. However, the Wall Street Journal article cites Tax Foundation data showing that North Dakota receives $1.68 in federal spending for every $1 it sends to Washington in taxes. In other words, Conrad’s tax increases would allow him to buy more votes at the expense of taxpayers in other states.  A North Dakotan is quoted as saying, “The joke here is that we elect conservatives to state office because we don’t want them to spend our money, and liberals to national office because we want them to spend other people’s money.”

This is a precisely why a return to fiscal federalism is crucial to getting spending-driven deficits under control. In the meantime, let’s stop calling politicians who want to spend more money and increase taxes to pay for it “deficit hawks” or “fiscally responsible.”

Obama Bank Tax Is Misguided

Perhaps I am a little confused, but didn’t the Obama Administration tell the American public only months ago that TARP was turning a profit?   But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP. Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer. He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why: the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?

If the effort is really about deficit reduction, then it completely misses the mark.  Any serious deficit reduction plan has to start with Medicare and Social Security.  Assessing bank fees is nothing more than a rounding error in terms of the deficit.  Let’s put aside the politics and get serious about both fixing our financial system and bringing our fiscal house into order.  The problem driving our deficits is not a lack of revenues, aside from effects of the recession, revenues have remained stable as a percent of GDP, the problem is runaway spending.

The bank tax would also miss what one has to guess is Obama’s target, the bank CEOs.  Econ 101 tells us (maybe the President can ask Larry Summers for some tutoring) corporations do not bear the incidence of taxes, their consumers and shareholders do.   So the real outcome of this proposed tax would be to increase consumer banking costs while reducing the value of bank equity, all at a time when banks are already under-capitalized.

But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP.  Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer.  He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why:  the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?

Tax Hike Commission

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee is holding hearings today focused on Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Judd Gregg’s (R-NH) idea to set up a special Task Force to draft a deficit-reduction plan. The plan would get fast-tracked through Congress for a vote and “everything would be on the table.”

For taxpayers, this idea creates the threat of large tax increases on top of all the other tax increases being discussed in Congress. While the senators supporting a Task Force express valid concerns about the government’s exploding debt, the plan could launch a drive to impose a European-style value-added tax in America.

In theory, such a Task Force could come up with some meaty and long-overdue cuts to the federal budget. But nine of the senators co-sponsoring the Conrad-Gregg Task Force, including Conrad, voted in favor of the massive spending bill passed by the Senate on Sunday, which increased appropriations by 10 percent in a single year.

In calling for deficit reduction, Senator Conrad says that “it is no longer enough for Congress to simply talk about reform; it is time for action and leadership.” But Senator Conrad certainly hasn’t shown reform leadership on farm subsidies. So until he and his colleagues start restraining their own spending appetites, it’s safe to assume that ”everything on the table” really just means a sneaky, under-the-table tax increase.

Conrad: Just Don’t Cut My Programs!

Prompted by my blog on Senator Kent Conrad’s Task Force to reduce the federal deficit, my assistant Amy Mandler dug up some interesting information on the good senator.

Conrad has nurtured his image as a “deficit hawk” for decades, but when it comes to subsidies for millionaire farmers he demands that the federal gravy keep flowing.

Earlier this year, for example, President Obama proposed cutting one type of farm subsidy (“direct payments”) for farmers earning over $500,000 a year. I suspect that about 95 percent of Americans would support that tiny nod toward fiscal sanity and deficit reduction. But not Senator Conrad, who helped shoot the proposal down. See here and here.

What They Aren’t Telling You About the CBO Score

The CBO report that said the health care bill won’t raise deficits makes it clear that the Baucus bill’s reduction in future budget deficits comes not from controlling government spending or reducing health care costs, but because of a rapid escalation in tax revenues.

The bill imposes a 40 percent excise tax on health-insurance plans that offer benefits in excess of $8,000 for an individual plan and $21,000 for a family plan. Insurers would almost certainly pass this tax on to consumers via higher premiums. As inflation pushes insurance premiums higher in coming years, more and more middle-class families would find themselves caught up in the tax.

In fact, overall, the tax increases in the bill are more than double the amount of deficit reduction. This isn’t a health care efficiency bill or a cost containment bill. It is a tax and spend bill, pure and simple.

Hold the Presses! Public Doesn’t Believe Obama on Deficits!

Shocking, I know.  But while the public likes President Barack Obama personally, they are just a bit more skeptical when it comes to his policies.  Such as deficit reduction. 

Reports the New York Times:

A substantial majority of Americans say President Obama has not developed a strategy to deal with the budget deficit, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, which also found that support for his plans to overhaul health care, rescue the auto industry and close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, falls well below his job approval ratings.

This shows that the public is paying attention to what is going on in Washington.  In fact, the president’s policy is debt inflation rather than reduction.  You know – $13 trillion in bail-outs (so far; who knows what new financial disasters await!), nearly $1 trillion in “stimulus” spending, proposed budget deficits of nearly $10 trillion over the next decade, health care “reform” which will run trillions (the only argument is how many) over the same period, and more, much more.

Yes, I’d say that the president has no strategy to deal with the budget deficit, other than to increase it at every opportunity.

The GOP Is Not Serious about Cutting Down Spending

A month ago, President Obama issued a list of proposed spending cuts that I dismissed as “unserious” due to the fact that they were trivial when compared to his proposed spending and debt increases.  Today, the House Republican leadership released a list of proposed spending cuts.

I’d love to say I’m impressed, but I can’t.

Both proposals indicate that neither side of the aisle grasps the severity of the country’s ugly fiscal situation, or at least has the guts to do anything concrete about it.

The GOP proposal claims savings of more than $375 billion over five years, the bulk of which ($317 billion) would come from holding non-defense discretionary spending increases to no more than inflation over the next five years.

First, it should be cut – period.  Second, non-defense discretionary spending only amounts to about 17% of all the money the federal government spends in a year, so singling out this pot of money misses the bigger picture.  At least, defense spending, which is almost entirely discretionary, should be included in any cap.  But it has become an article of faith in the Republican Party that reining in defense spending is tantamount to putting a white flag in the Statue of Liberty’s hand.

The second biggest chunk of savings would come from directing $45 billion in repaid TARP funds to deficit reduction instead of allowing the money to be used for further bailing out.  That’s a sound idea as far it goes, but I can’t help but point out that the signatories to the document, House Republican Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor, voted for the original $700 billion TARP bailout. Proposing to rescind the Treasury’s power to release the remaining funds, about $300 billion I believe, should have been included.

According to the proposal, the rest of the cuts and savings comes out to around $25 billion over five years.  Like the specific cuts in the president’s proposal, they’re all good cuts.  But the president detailed $17 billion in cuts for one year and I generously called it “measly.”  What am I to call the House Republican leadership specifying $5 billion a year in cuts?

Take for example, proposed cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is likely to spend around $65 billion this year.  Having recently spent a couple months analyzing HUD’s past and present, I can state unequivocally that it’s one of the sorriest bureaucracies the world has ever seen.  Yet, the House Republican leadership comes up with only one proposed elimination: a $300,000 a year program that gives “$25,000 stipends for 12 students completing their doctoral dissertation on issues related to housing and urban development.”  The only other proposed cut to HUD would be $1.7 billion over five years to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.  This notoriously wasteful program is projected to spend over $8 billion this year alone.  Eliminate it!

The spending cuts the country needs must be substantial, serious, and put forward in the spirit of recognizing that the federal government’s role in our lives must be downsized.  Half-measures are not enough, and from the Republican House leadership, wholly insufficient for winning back the support of limited-government voters who have come to associate the GOP with runaway spending and debt.  For a more substantive guide to cutting federal spending, policymakers should start with Cato’s Handbook chapter on the subject.