Tag: federal budget

Strange Bedfellows?

Jon Walker at FireDogLake says I’ve got the wrong smoking gun:

The smoking gun was a manual put out by the CBO in May…It spelled out exactly how much regulation was “too much” regulation. It explained what was the magical threshold that would cause [CBO director] Doug Elmendorf to declare some private market part of the government budget. Now, I’m angry about this for different reasons than the Cato Institute. I think it is insane that there could be any level of regulation that would make the private market part of the federal budget. Either the money is going through the federal treasury or it is not. I don’t think the the CBO director should have the power to see gray areas on this issue…There is no real logic to it, he simply decided what he thought was enough regulation to make something part of the budget.

To be sure, Walker and I have different ideas when it comes to (1) health care reform.  (Not that you asked, but here are my ideas.)  We likewise disagree that (2) the CBO’s May 27 paper was the smoking gun.  That paper laid out the CBO’s (vague) criteria for including “private” financial transactions in the federal budget (and I duly linked to it in my ‘smoking gun’ post).  But the December 13 memo is the first documented instance of Democrats gaming those criteria.  And I disagree that (3) this was all Elmendorf’s decision, (4) the federal budget should reflect only money that passes through the Treasury (instead of all the money that the feds control), and (5) there’s no logic behind the CBO’s criteria.

All that said, there are a couple of areas where Walker and I agree.  For one, he writes:

More importantly, I don’t think something as important as regulation should be written to trick the CBO. It should be written to produce the best heath care system possible, not the best looking CBO score possible.

Hear, hear.  Yet congressional Democrats have been doing just that, gaming the CBO’s rules to hide the implicit subsidies their legislation would provide to large private insurance companies.

For another, he and I both agree that that legislation is little more than a bailout of large private insurance companies and would be worse than doing nothing.

My question for Walker, and for Howard Dean, and for Markos Moulitsas is: will they join me in calling for the Senate to obtain a CBO cost estimate of the off-budget part of the insurance-industry bailout (i.e., the individual and employer mandates)?  Do they think Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should at least be up front with his base about what he’s asking them to swallow?  Do they think that We, the People deserve to know the whole truth about this bill?

Bland CBO Memo, or Smoking Gun?

This weekend, the Congressional Budget Office released “a very strange memo” titled, “Budgetary Treatment of Proposals to Regulate Medical Loss Ratios.”  You wouldn’t know it from the title, but that little memo is the smoking gun that shows how congressional Democrats have very carefully hidden more than half the cost of their health care bills.

First, a little history.  Like both the House and Senate bills, the Clinton health plan would have mandated that individuals and employers purchase private insurance.  In its 1994 score of the Clinton plan, Bob Reischauer’s CBO included those mandated “private” payments in the federal budget –- i.e., as federal revenues and federal expenditures.

And yet, none of the CBO scores of this year’s bills include the costs of similar individual/employer mandates as federal revenues or federal spending.

My read of the CBO’s score of the Clinton health plan is that the private-sector mandates accounted for around 60 percent of the Clinton health plan’s total cost, the remainder being (traditional) government spending.  So how is it that the CBO made the full cost of the Clinton health plan apparent to the public in 1994, but may now be revealing only 40 percent of the cost of the Obama health plan?

For some time, I’ve suspected the answer is that congressional Democrats have very carefully tailored their individual and employer mandates to avoid CBO’s definition of what shall be counted in the federal budget. Democrats are still smarting over the CBO’s decision in 1994.  By revealing the full cost of the Clinton plan, the CBO helped to kill the bill.

Since then, keeping the cost of their private-sector mandates out of the federal budget has been Job One for Democratic health wonks.  While head of the CBO, Obama’s budget director Peter Orszag altered the CBO’s orientation to make it more open and collaborative.  One of the things about which the CBO has been more open is the criteria it uses to determine whether to include mandated private-sector spending in the federal budget.  The CBO even published a paper on the topic.  Read this profile of Orszag by Ezra Klein, and you’ll see that those criteria were also a likely area of collaboration with lawmakers.

The Medical Loss Ratios memo is the smoking gun.  It shows that indeed, Democrats have been submitting proposals to the CBO behind closed doors and tailoring their private-sector mandates to avoid having those costs appear in the federal budget.  Proposals that would result in a complete cost estimate – such as the proposal by Sen. Rockefeller discussed in the Medical Loss Ratios memo – are dropped.  Because we can’t let the public see how much this thing really costs.

Crafting the private-sector mandates such that they fall just a hair short of CBO’s criteria for inclusion in the federal budget does not reduce their cost, nor does it make those mandates any less binding.  But it dramatically reduces the apparent cost of the legislation.  It is the reason we’re all talking about an $848 billion Reid bill, rather than a $2.1 trillion Reid bill.

If someone sold you a house, or a car, or a mutual fund this way, we would put them in jail.

Cato Launches New Web Site Exposing Wasteful Government Spending

Did you know that the average American family spends $1,000 each year on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whether or not it consumes that agency’s services?  Or that the federal government annually spends $1,500 per household on net interest costs alone?

In an ongoing effort to shed light on runaway government spending and expose wasteful government programs, Cato launched a new Web site today that examines the federal budget department-by-department to see which agencies can be reformed or terminated. DownsizingGovernment.org describes which programs are wasteful, damaging and obsolete in an era of trillion-dollar deficits.

The research exposes that many public outlays—though vigorously defended by the politicians who created them and the constituencies they purport to help—are remarkably ineffective at achieving their core aims.

Here are just a few examples:

Appearing on CNBC Monday, DownsizingGovernment.com editor Chris Edwards explained more about the site:

Plus, keep track of where your tax dollars are going by following DownsizingGovernment.com on Twitter (@DownsizeTheFeds) and Facebook.

Obama Is Right to Stare Down Congress Over the F-22

If Congress votes to build even more F-22s in the 2010 Defense Authorization bill, it will be a sad example of parochial interests overriding our nation’s security. The move would defy the wishes of the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Gates, who have wisely called for the program to come to an end.

The Raptor’s whopping price tag—$356 million per aircraft counting costs over the life of the program— and its poor air-to-ground capabilities always undermined the case for building more than the 187 already programmed.

In the past week, Congress has learned more about the F-22’s poor maintenance record, which has driven the operating costs to more than $44,000 per hour of flying, which is well above those of any comparable fighter. And, of course, the plane hasn’t seen action over either Iraq or Afghanistan, and likely never will.

If Obama is serious about getting a handle on the enormous federal budget deficit, confronting Congress over the clear wastefulness of the F-22 is certainly a good place to start.

The “Culture of Spending” from the Mouths of Babes

Each semester, when I speak to Cato’s new employees and interns, I give them a quick discussion of some of the reasons that government tends to grow, such as the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs and what James Payne called “the culture of spending.” In his book by that title, Payne noted:

The congressman lives in a special world, a curiously isolated world that is dominated by the advocates of government action. He is subjected to a broad chorus of persuasion that incessantly urges the virtues of spending programs. Year after year he hears how necessary government programs are.

Day after day, year after year, people come to the congressman’s office with stories about why some particular government program is needed – to help their grandfather, their brother-in-law, their community – and rarely if ever does a constituent fly to Washington to urge his congressman to vote against any particular one of the myriad programs that add up to his entire income tax bill.

The Washington Post has a great illustration of this problem in the Sunday paper. The little town of Owego, New York, was excited to hear that Lockheed Martin would build the new presidential helicopter – it’s called Marine One, though fortunately for Lockheed the government wanted 23 of them – at a plant in Owego. But as the price tag ballooned from $6.8 billion to $13 billion, even politicians began to see it as an unnecessary expense. The military canceled the program on June 1. Hundreds of jobs will be lost in Owego. And as the Post writes:

An 11-year-old Owego girl, whose parents are longtime Lockheed employees, recently hand-wrote a letter to Obama. It was published in the local newspaper and quickly became a voice for her shaken community.

“Lockheed is the main job source in Owego,” Hailey Bell, now 12, wrote. “If you shut down the program, my mom may lose her job and a lot of other people too… . Owego will be a ghost town. I’ve lived here my whole life and I love it here! Please really, really think it over.”

I’m sure she loves her parents and her town. And there’s no reason to expect Hailey to understand what $13 billion means to taxpaying Americans all over the country. But this is just the kind of story that members of Congress hear all the time: save my parents’ jobs, save my community, save our farms. And it all adds up to a $4 trillion federal budget with a $1.8 trillion deficit. (And by the way, if you Google “fiscal 2009 budget,” you will quickly find the Obama administration’s budget page, which somewhat oddly does not show the actual budget totals but does invite you to “Use the map below to learn more about how the President’s 2010 Budget is restoring long-term opportunity and prosperity in your state.”)

For a more, shall we say, adult view of what it means to direct federal dollars to particular areas, we might turn to an advertisement in the Durango, Colorado, Herald in 1987, which touted the Animas-La Plata dam and irrigation project  and made explicit the usual hidden calculations of those trying to get their hands on federal dollars:

Why we should support the Animas-La Plata Project: Because someone else is paying the tab! We get the water. We get the reservoir. They get the bill.

That’s the way they tell it back home, usually without putting it in writing. In public and in Washington, they say, “Without this dam, our little town will waste away. Only you can save us, Mr. Congressman.” And it’s bankrupting us.

What’s a Trillion Dollars Among Friends?

If you’re Barack Obama, money is no object. The national debt exceeds $11 trillion. We’ve had about $13 trillion worth of bail-outs over the last year. The deficit this year will run nearly $2 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office warns of a cumulative deficit of some $10 trillion over the next decade.

Now Obama-style health care “reform” will add another $1 trillion in increased spending over the same period. And the ultimate cost likely would be higher, perhaps much higher. Reports the Congressional Budget Office:

According to our preliminary assessment, enacting the proposal would result in a net increase in federal budget deficits of about $1.0 trillion over the 2010-2019 period. When fully implemented, about 39 million individuals would obtain coverage through the new insurance exchanges. At the same time, the number of people who had coverage through an employer would decline by about 15 million (or roughly 10 percent), and coverage from other sources would fall by about 8 million, so the net decrease in the number of people uninsured would be about 16 million or 17 million.

These new figures do not represent a formal or complete cost estimate for the draft legislation, for several reasons. The estimates provided do not address the entire bill—only the major provisions related to health insurance coverage. Some details have not been estimated yet, and the draft legislation has not been fully reviewed. Also, because expanded eligibility for the Medicaid program may be added at a later date, those figures are not likely to represent the impact that more comprehensive proposals—which might include a significant expansion of Medicaid or other options for subsidizing coverage for those with income below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—would have both on the federal budget and on the extent of insurance coverage.

Then there is the more than $100 trillion in unfunded Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Just who is going to pay all these bills?

Don’t worry, be happy.

Week in Review: Health Care Battles, Pay Caps and North Korean Prisoners

Will Obama Raise Middle-Class Taxes to Fund Health Care?

President Obama is promoting an expansion in federal health care spending, and Democratic leaders are scrambling to find ways to pay for it. The plan is expected to cost about $1.5 trillion over the next decade, but the administration has promised that health care legislation won’t add to already huge federal budget deficits. In a new paper, Cato scholars Michael D. Tanner and Chris Edwards argue that expanding government health care will likely involve huge tax increases on the middle class.

Tanner warns of “Obamacare” to come, saying that Obama’s new health care plan will give “government control over one-sixth of the U.S. economy, and over some of the most important, personal, and private decisions in Americans’ lives.” Don’t miss Tanner’s in-depth analysis of the new health care plan that is making its way through Congress, which “would dramatically transform the American health care system in a way that would harm taxpayers, health care providers, and — most importantly — the quality and range of care given to patients.”

A part of the plan would include “public option” (read: government-run) health care, which would allow the government to compete against private health care providers. Tanner says it would be the first step toward wiping out the private insurance market as we know it:

Regardless of how it is structured or administered, such a plan would have an inherent advantage in the marketplace because it would ultimately be subsidized by taxpayers. It could, for instance, keep its premiums artificially low or offer extra benefits, then turn to the U.S. Treasury to cover any shortfalls. Consumers would naturally be attracted to the lower-cost, higher-benefit government program.

…It is unlikely that any significant private insurance market could continue to exist under such circumstances. America would be firmly on the road to a single-payer health care system with all the dangers that presents. That would be a disaster for American taxpayers, physicians, and—most importantly—patients.

Treasury Seeks to Control Executive Pay Across the Private Sector

Fox Business reports, “The Treasury Department on Wednesday took new steps to rein in executive compensation, saying the Obama Administration would introduce legislation that could create stricter limits on pay; it also appointed an official to head up efforts on the issue.”

In a 2008 Policy Analysis Ira T. Kay and Steven Van Putten explain the misconceptions many people have about executive pay, and why the market is a better arbiter than any bureaucrat in Washington:

Such populist sentiments are often based on misunderstandings about the role of corporate executives in the economy and the vigorous competition that exists for these highly skilled leaders. In the past, federal regulatory efforts based on such misunderstandings have generated unintended consequences, which have damaged the economy and hurt the ability of the market for executives to self-regulate over time.

The labor market for executives and the associated pay levels are already subject to high levels of regulation. Indeed, U.S. corporations are subject to more stringent executive pay disclosure requirements than corporations anywhere else in the world. Before additional regulatory and legislative efforts are unleashed, policymakers should examine the rationale for current pay structures and the strong links between executive pay and corporate performance.

In a Washington Times op-ed, Alan Reynolds says efforts to cap executive pay are wholly misguided:

Congressional hearings to barbecue Wall Street executives are as fun as a circus, but with more clowns. Presidential politics is now taking such political distractions to a lower level.

…Most top executives who were actually in charge during the craze of overinvestment in mortgage-backed securities have been fired. Executives who are fired are not in a position to be “giving themselves” anything.

In reality, top executives are mainly paid by accumulating a big stockpile of company stock and stock options. Estimates of annual CEO pay that Congress and the press have been focusing on look as high as they do only because of the high value of restricted stock or stock options at the time.

Writing in 2007 (before the first round of major bailouts), Cato scholars Jerry Taylor and Jagadeesh Gokhale took it a step further: “Pay Bosses More!”:

Excessive executive compensation harms no one but perhaps the stockholders who put up with it. And stockholders put up with it because there’s good reason to believe that sizable CEO compensation packages help – not harm – corporate performance, which redounds to their benefit, and that of the firms’ workers.

Companies pay workers what they must to deliver their products and services to the market, and supply and demand establishes executive compensation packages the same way it establishes consumer prices. Any overcompensation comes out of the firm’s bottom line – at a loss to the shareholders, not the workers.

North Korea Sentences Two U.S. Journalists to 12 Years Hard Labor

Two American journalists were convicted of entering North Korea illegally while on assignment, and exhibiting “hostility toward the Korean people.” This week, a North Korean court sentenced them to 12 years in a labor prison.

Cato scholar Doug Bandow comments:

Washington should publicly downplay the controversy and present the issue to the Kim regime as a humanitarian matter. The Obama administration should indicate its willingness to open a broader dialogue with North Korea, but indicate that positive results will be possible only if Pyongyang responds with cooperation instead of confrontation. Releasing the two journalists obviously would provide evidence of the former.

Regrettably, Laura Ling and Euna Lee are political pawns. As such, Washington’s best strategy to achieve their release is to simultaneously reduce their perceived value to Pyongyang and ease tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Patience may be the Obama administration’s highest virtue and Ling’s and Lee’s greatest hope.

In a Cato Daily Podcast, Bandow discusses what can be done for the American prisoners, and how the U.S. government should react.