Tag: federal budget

Six Reasons to Downsize the Federal Government

1. Additional federal spending transfers resources from the more productive private sector to the less productive public sector of the economy. The bulk of federal spending goes toward subsidies and benefit payments, which generally do not enhance economic productivity. With lower productivity, average American incomes will fall.

2. As federal spending rises, it creates pressure to raise taxes now and in the future. Higher taxes reduce incentives for productive activities such as working, saving, investing, and starting businesses. Higher taxes also increase incentives to engage in unproductive activities such as tax avoidance.

3. Much federal spending is wasteful and many federal programs are mismanaged. Cost overruns, fraud and abuse, and other bureaucratic failures are endemic in many agencies. It’s true that failures also occur in the private sector, but they are weeded out by competition, bankruptcy, and other market forces. We need to similarly weed out government failures.

4. Federal programs often benefit special interest groups while harming the broader interests of the general public. How is that possible in a democracy? The answer is that logrolling or horse-trading in Congress allows programs to be enacted even though they are only favored by minorities of legislators and voters. One solution is to impose a legal or constitutional cap on the overall federal budget to force politicians to make spending trade-offs.

5. Many federal programs cause active damage to society, in addition to the damage caused by the higher taxes needed to fund them. Programs usually distort markets and they sometimes cause social and environmental damage. Some examples are housing subsidies that helped to cause the financial crises, welfare programs that have created dependency, and farm subsidies that have harmed the environment.

6. The expansion of the federal government in recent decades runs counter to the American tradition of federalism. Federal functions should be “few and defined” in James Madison’s words, with most government activities left to the states. The explosion in federal aid to the states since the 1960s has strangled diversity and innovation in state governments because aid has been accompanied by a mass of one-size-fits-all regulations.

For more, see DownsizingGovernment.org.

Put Housing GSEs in the Budget and then Privatize

The two large housing government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have been in government receivership since September 2008. The U.S. Treasury has given the housing GSEs $112 billion in cash infusions, and this past Christmas Eve it quietly announced it would cover all of Fannie and Freddie’s losses beyond the original $400 billion limit through 2012.

The president’s latest budget proposal continues to only count the cash infusions, which it projects to be $188 billion through 2020. On the other hand, the Congressional Budget Office also includes in its budget projections the subsidy cost of new loans or loan guarantees made by Fannie and Freddie, which results in a total projected hit of $370 billion through 2020.

The CBO’s rationale for including the subsidy cost is obvious:

[T]he Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that the institutions had effectively become government entities whose operations should be included in the federal budget.

Is it not obvious to the administration?  Of course it is, but the administration doesn’t want the GSEs “on budget” because it will only make already dismal deficits look worse. It also hinders any effort to count the GSE’s combined $1.5 trillion in outstanding debt against the ever-increasing federal debt limit. Yesterday, Treasury Secretary Geithner waived the idea away when he told the Senate Budget Committee that “we do not believe it’s necessary to consolidate the full obligations of those entities onto the balance sheet of the federal government at this stage.”

Geithner also told Congress the administration will now wait till 2011 to propose an overhaul of Fannie and Freddie. The Associated Press noted the hypocrisy in the administration’s punt:

‘We want to make sure that we are proposing these changes at a time when we have a little bit more distance from the worst housing crisis in generations,’ Geithner said. That argument is exactly the opposite of the case Geithner is making for new financial regulations. Geithner is pressing Congress to move swiftly on new Wall Street rules, saying action must occur before memories of the financial crisis recede.

Geithner said he wanted measures that would ensure “the government is playing a less risky, but more constructive, role in supporting housing markets in the future.” But government “support” of the housing market is what fueled the housing bubble and subsequent damage to the economy. Why should the arsonist be trusted to put out the fire?

Unfortunately, policymakers get a lot of self-serving prompting from the housing industry, as I discuss in this Cato Policy Analysis. For example, the National Association of Realtors is currently shopping a plan on Capitol Hill that would turn Fannie and Freddie into government-chartered non-profits explicitly backed by the government. Instead, policymakers should begin the process of separating housing finance and state by developing a plan to privatize Fannie and Freddie.

A New Fed-Treasury Accord

Charles Plosser, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, gave an important speech last week.  He mounted a strong defense of what is known as Fed independence. “Central bank independence means the central bank can make monetary policy decisions without fear of direct political interference.”

Toward the end of the speech, Plosser admitted the Fed had brought criticism down on itself by blurring the line between monetary and fiscal policy.  In the process, the central bank greatly expanded its balance sheet and substituted “less liquid, long-term assets, such as securities backed by mortgages guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for the short-term securities it typically held before the crisis.”

To extricate itself from conducting fiscal policy and get back to doing conventional monetary policy, Plosser called for a new Fed-Treasury Accord.  (He harkened back to the Accord of 1951, which ended the Fed’s wartime obligation to support the prices of Treasury bonds.)  Under the proposal, the Fed would swap out its illiquid assets for Treasury obligations.  Responsibility for public support of housing would revert to Treasury and be subject to Congressional appropriations.

Additionally, and very importantly, Plosser recommended ending or severely curtailing the Fed’s expanded lending authority, which enabled it to balloon its balance sheet and conduct fiscal policy. (That is the section 13(3) authority.) “Never again” is the message of Plosser’s speech.

It was a landmark speech by a high Fed official.

Obama Budget Still Goes to the Moon

The president’s new budget proposes to end NASA’s Constellation program, a Bush initiative intended to put humans back on the moon by 2020. But Obama’s $3.8 trillion budget still goes to the moon figuratively — if you stacked 3.8 trillion $1 bills, the pile would reach the moon with 20,000 miles to spare!

The president’s proposal to end the Constellation isn’t sitting well with those members of Congress who enjoy large NASA spending in their districts. From the Washington Post:

“The president’s proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human spaceflight,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said Monday. “If this budget is enacted, NASA will no longer be an agency of innovation and hard science. It will be the agency of pipe dreams and fairy tales.”

Rep. Pete Olson (R-Tex.) said, “This is a crippling blow to America’s human spaceflight program.”

Senator Shelby and Rep. Olson exaggerate –- the proposal would only end government human spaceflight to the moon. Private entrepreneurs are likely to continue pushing into space, especially if we reduce the regulatory and tax burdens.

The administration noted that the Constellation program was “over budget [and] behind schedule,” and that an independent review panel considered it “the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives.” But this underscores an inherent flaw with a government operating with no legal or constitutional constraints on spending: Congress is generally more concerned with buying special interest support than national need.

While I give kudos to the Obama administration for proposing to end Constellation, they made the wrong decision by not putting the proceeds toward reducing the deficit. Instead, they are proposing that NASA receive a funding increase. A new GAO report on poor acquisition management at NASA, which has been on the GAO’s “high risk” list since 1990, shows why the budget increase is unwarranted.

From the GAO:

However, 9 of the 10 projects that have been in the implementation phase for several years experienced cost growth ranging from 8 to 68 percent, and launch delays of 8 to 33 months, in the past 3 years. These 10 projects had average development cost growth of almost $121.1 million—or 18.7 percent—and schedule growth of 15 months, and a total increase in development cost of over $1.2 billion, with over half of this total—or $706.6 million—occurring in the last year.

See this essay for more on cost overruns in government programs.

State and Local Subsidies

Earlier this week I criticized the U.S. Conference of Mayors for going to Washington and groveling for more federal handouts. Let me provide some more background for my criticisms with a look at federal budget data. The first chart shows that since 1960, total federal subsidies to state and local government have increased an astounding 1,173%.

Several readers have asked me what particular programs account for this large increase in state aid. The federal budget breaks down the total figures into categories. Not surprisingly, health subsidies — mainly Medicaid — account for almost half of the current total and are the driving force behind the massive overall increase:

However, there have been large increases in other activities as well. Here are the changes by federal budget function in state aid since 1960, in billions of 2010 dollars:

  • Health: $1.5 to $310.7 (+21,128%)
  • Education, Training, Employment & Social Services: $3.7 to $103.3 (+2,723%)
  • Community & Regional Development: $0.7 to $20.3 (+2,674%)
  • Other*: $0.7 to $12.0 (+1,707%)
  • Natural Resources & Environment: $0.7 to $7.8 (+966%)
  • Income Security: $19.0 to $113.8 (+498%)
  • Transportation: $22.0 to $73.5 (+235%)
  • General Government: $1.5 to $4.7 (+221%)
  • Administration of Justice*: $2.6 to $5.3 (+100%)
  • Agriculture: $1.5 to $1.0 (-32%)

*Administration of Justice begins in 1975. “Other” begins in 1965 and consists of grants for national defense, energy, social security, and veterans’ benefits and services.

All of these categories are at or near their high water mark in constant dollars with the exception of Natural Resources & Environment ($13.8 in 1980), Agriculture ($4.5 in 1985), and General Government ($26.9 in 1975).

Rather than being deprived, state and local governments have developed an unhealthy dependency on federal money. In a way, the states have become an extension of the federal government. This is at odds with the Constitution, which clearly intended for the federal government to have specific limited powers. As the 10th amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” There seems to be very little reserved to the states anymore, and even less to the people.

See these essays for more on constitutional basics and the desirability of fiscal federalism.

State of the Union Fact Check

Cato experts put some of President Obama’s core State of the Union claims to the test. Here’s what they found.

THE STIMULUS

Obama’s claim:

The plan that has made all of this possible, from the tax cuts to the jobs, is the Recovery Act. That’s right – the Recovery Act, also known as the Stimulus Bill. Economists on the left and the right say that this bill has helped saved jobs and avert disaster.

Back in reality: At the outset of the economic downturn, Cato ran an ad in the nation’s largest newspapers in which more than 300 economists (Nobel laureates among them) signed a statement saying a massive government spending package was among the worst available options. Since then, Cato economists have published dozens of op-eds in major news outlets poking holes in big-government solutions to both the financial system crisis and the flagging economy.

CUTTING TAXES

Obama’s claim:

Let me repeat: we cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college. As a result, millions of Americans had more to spend on gas, and food, and other necessities, all of which helped businesses keep more workers.

Back in reality: Cato Director of Tax Policy Studies Chris Edwards: “When the president says that he has ‘cut taxes’ for 95 percent of Americans, he fails to note that more than 40 percent of Americans pay no federal incomes taxes and the administration has simply increased subsidy checks to this group. Obama’s refundable tax credits are unearned subsidies, not tax cuts.”

Visit Cato’s Tax Policy Page for much more on this.

SPENDING FREEZE

Obama’s claim
:

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years.

Back in reality: Edwards: “The president’s proposed spending freeze covers just 13 percent of the total federal budget, and indeed doesn’t limit the fastest growing components such as Medicare.

“A better idea is to cap growth in the entire federal budget including entitlement programs, which was essentially the idea behind the 1980s bipartisan Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law. The freeze also doesn’t cover the massive spending under the stimulus bill, most of which hasn’t occurred yet. Now that the economy is returning to growth, the president should both freeze spending and rescind the remainder of the planned stimulus.”

Plus, here’s why these promised freezes have never worked in the past and a chart illustrating the fallacy of Obama’s spending claims.

JOB CREATION

Obama’s claim:

Because of the steps we took, there are about two million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed. 200,000 work in construction and clean energy. 300,000 are teachers and other education workers. Tens of thousands are cops, firefighters, correctional officers, and first responders. And we are on track to add another one and a half million jobs to this total by the end of the year.

Back in reality: Cato Policy Analyst Tad Dehaven: “Actually, the U.S. economy has lost 2.7 million jobs since the stimulus passed and 3.4 million total since Obama was elected. How he attributes any jobs gains to the stimulus is the fuzziest of fuzzy math. ‘Nuff said.”

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.