Tag: federal budget

Budget Battle Update: It’s About Preparing for the Inevitable Fight, not Forcing a Shutdown

According to news reports, Democrats and Republicans are unlikely to reach any sort of budget agreement before April 8, when a short-term spending bill for the current fiscal year expires.

Barring some new development, this could mean a shutdown of the non-essential parts of the government.

This makes both sides very nervous. Democrats don’t want the spending spigot turned off and are worried that voters might conclude that there’s no reason to ever re-open departments such as Housing and Urban Development. Republicans, meanwhile, mostly worry that they might look unreasonable and get blamed if certain parts of the government are mothballed and voters can’t get passports or visit national parks.

Given this state of play, what’s the best strategy for fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and other advocates of smaller government?

Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard thinks Republicans should continue with short-term spending bills.

…the incremental strategy is working. Republicans have passed two short-term measures to keep the government in operation since early March while slashing $10 billion in spending. At this rate, they would achieve the target of GOP congressional leaders of lopping off $61 billion from President Obama’s proposed budget in the final seven months of the 2011 fiscal year. There’s every reason to believe the incremental strategy would continue to succeed.

He’s worried that a more confrontational approach, where the GOP passes a take-it-or-leave-it spending bill, might backfire - even though any shutdown would exist solely because Senator Reid and/or President Obama refused to act.

Would a shutdown give Republicans more muscle in negotiating for cuts? …Maybe it would. But it might not. …So long as they control the Senate and White House, Democrats will reject massive cuts. Republicans also want to bar spending for Planned Parenthood, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Mr. Obama’s health-care program. Attach any of these prohibitions to a spending measure and Democratic opposition is certain. Should Republicans insist, we’ll get a government shutdown. This is a big gamble. …Indeed it might discredit Republicans and boost Mr. Obama in the same way the shutdown in 1995 hurt Republicans and lifted President Bill Clinton out of the doldrums. It could alienate independent voters so critical to the Republican triumph in 2010. True enough, the political atmosphere is more favorable to serious spending reductions than it was 16 years ago. …But why take a chance?

I think Barnes is a bit off in his portrayal of what happened in 1995, as I’ve previously explained, but these are all fair points. A “shutdown” fight could be considered uncharted territory.

Keith Hennessey, a former Hill staffer and Bush Administration official, also is skeptical of a confrontational approach. Instead, he suggests that the GOP increase the pressure on Democrats by slowly increasing the amount of weekly spending cuts.

While negotiating with the President’s team and Senate Democrats, in this variant House Republicans continue to pass short-term Continuing Resolutions as long as there is not an acceptable full-year deal. In these repeated future CRs, they ratchet up the spending cuts by the paltry figure of only $100 million each week. …Under this new variant, as April 8th approaches House Republicans would pass another three week CR, one which cuts $2.1 B in its first week, $2.2 B in its second week, and $2.3 B in its third week. …Such a tiny weekly increment would be nearly impossible for Democrats to reject. And yet if continued through the end of this fiscal year, $4.5 B of discretionary spending would be cut in the final week, that of September 23rd. This strategy…poses zero additional risk for Congressional Republicans. They would maintain the high ground on spending cuts and remain on the offensive for the next six months.

There’s a lot to like about Keith’s approach. If successful, he explains, GOPers could wind up with $82 billion of cuts rather than just $61 billion.

But here’s my concern about an incremental strategy. What makes anyone think that the left will go along with short-term spending bills, regardless of whether they cut $2 billion per week, or even more?

Democrats already have agreed to $10 billion of cuts, and even though that’s very trivial when compared to total spending (akin to a couple of french fries out of a Big Mac meal), the pro-spending lobbies and their allies on Capitol Hill are balking at the thought of additional cuts. So while it might be possible to push through a couple of additional short-term spending bills, there will come a point when Democrats refuse to play ball. And when that happens, we’re back to a partial shutdown.

Here’s how constitutional lawyer James Bopp, Jr., explained the issue in a piece for the Washington Times.

A government shutdown is inevitable because President Obama will insist on it. Nothing the Republicans do, short of total capitulation, will prevent this from happening. …With a three-week extension of government funding (which included $6 billion in cuts) expiring April 8, now is the time to escalate one’s bid. Demand $12 billion in cuts the next time. And when the shutdown occurs because of an Obama veto or a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate, the House should keep passing bills to reopen the government, coupling it with more spending cuts. …There is a fundamental contradiction in the Democrats’ shutting down the government. The Democrats are the party of government. It is like a bank robber, caught in the act, who threatens to pull the trigger on himself if arrested; what would the cop say but, “Go ahead”? The government shutdown threat defeats the Democrats own objective and is thus ultimately self-defeating, while the Republicans protect the bank depositors - the taxpayers - from the bank robber.

I think this is largely correct, particularly in that there almost certainly will be a shutdown fight. The only question is when it will happen. And if a shutdown battle is inevitable, advocates of smaller government should decide whether it’s better to have that fight sooner rather than later.

My instinct is that it would be better to fight now. GOP resolve presumably will decrease over time, particularly since the “easy” spending cuts get used up first. Moreover, it is quite likely that a strategy of short-term spending bills will complicate GOP efforts to get budget process reform in a couple of months in exchange for an increase in the debt limit.

Democrats surely don’t want the GOP to have another opportunity to restrain the size of government, so they would insist on an increase in the federal government’s borrowing authority as the price for approving whatever short-term spending bill is being considered around that time. Republicans presumably will balk at that demand. But that brings us back, once again, to a shutdown fight. Only this time, it will be complicated by demagogic assertions of a default.

So long as the final result is a smaller burden of government, there is no right or wrong answer about the process. It’s simply a question of which approach is more likely to achieve the desired outcome. I think fighting now is better than fighting later, but if the GOP chooses a strategy of short-term spending bills, I hope I’m wrong.

What Are Republicans Thinking?!?

I posted recently at International Liberty about the stunning political incompetence of Republican Senators, who reportedly are willing to give Obama an increase in the debt limit in exchange for a vote (yes, just a vote) on a balanced budget amendment.

As I explained, there is no way they can get the necessary two-thirds support to approve an amendment, so why trade a meaningless and symbolic vote on a BBA for meaningful and real approval of more borrowing authority for Obama? My analogy yesterday was that this was like trading an all-star baseball player for a utility infielder in the minor leagues.

I did acknowledge that forcing a vote on a BBA was a worthwhile endeavor, but said that the GOP has that power anyhow, so why trade away something valuable to get something you already can get for free?

Little did I realize that Republicans already did force a vote on the balanced budget amendment. Less than one month ago, on March 2, Senator Lee of Utah got a vote on a “Sense of the Senate” resolution in favor of a balanced budget amendment. Senator Lee’s resolution received 58 votes, which is nice, but an actual amendment would need a two-thirds supermajority, so this test vote demonstrated that there is no way to approve an amendment this year.

I’m glad Senator Lee proposed his resolution. I’m glad Senators were forced to go on the record.

But I’m mystified, flabbergasted, and stunned that Republicans apparently are willing to give Obama a bigger debt limit in exchange for something they already got.

Returning to our baseball analogy, this would be like the Yankees giving Derek Jeter to the Red Sox in exchange for a player they already have, such as Alex Rodriguez. I imagine New York sportswriters would be dumbfounded by such stupidity and would rip the team’s management to shreds. So that gives you an idea of how I feel about what’s happening in Washington.

As I noted in my earlier post, I’ll soon write about the fiscal reforms fiscal conservatives should demand in exchange for a higher debt limit.

Bailout Coming for the Postal Service?

The U.S. Postal Service is in financial trouble. Undermined by advances in electronic communication, weighed down by excessive labor costs and operationally straitjacketed by Congress, the government’s mail monopoly is running on fumes and faces large unfunded liabilities. Socialism apparently has its limits.

While the Europeans continue to shift away from government-run postal monopolies toward market liberalization, policymakers in the United States still have their heads stuck in the twentieth century. That means looking for an easy way out, which in Washington usually means a bailout.

Self-interested parties – including the postal unions, mailers, and postal management – have coalesced around the notion that the U.S. Treasury owes the USPS somewhere around $50-$75 billion. (Of course, “U.S. Treasury” is just another word for “taxpayers.”)  Policymakers with responsibility for overseeing the USPS have introduced legislation that would require the Treasury to credit it with the money.

Explaining the background and validity of this claim is very complicated. Fortunately, Michael Schuyler, a seasoned expert on the USPS for the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation, has produced such a paper.

At issue is whether the USPS “unfairly” overpaid on pension obligations for particular employees under the long defunct Civil Service Retirement System. The USPS’s inspector-general has concluded that the USPS is owed the money. The Office of Personnel Management, which administers the pensions of federal government employees, and its inspector-general have concluded otherwise. Again, it’s complicated and Schuyler’s paper should be read to understand the ins and outs.

Therefore, I’ll simply conclude with Schuyler’s take on what the transfer would mean for taxpayers:

Given the frighteningly large federal deficit and the mushrooming federal debt, a $50-$75 billion credit to the Postal Service and debit to the U.S. Treasury will be a difficult sell, politically and economically. Although some advocates of a $50-$70 billion transfer assert it would be “an internal transfer of surplus pension funds” that would allow the Postal Service to fund promised retiree health benefits “at no cost to taxpayers,” the reality is that the transfer would shift more obligations to Treasury, which would increase the already heavy burden on taxpayers, who ultimately pay Treasury’s bills. (The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) prepares the official cost estimates for bills before Congress. Judging by how it has scored some earlier postal bills, CBO would undoubtedly report that the transfer would increase the federal budget deficit.) For those attempting to reduce the federal deficit, the transfer would be a $50-$70 billion setback.

Sounds like a bailout to me.

See this Cato essay for more on the U.S. Postal Service and why policymakers should be moving toward privatization.

Norquist Is Right, Coburn Is Wrong: Tax Increases Undermine Good Fiscal Policy

There’s a significant debate now taking place in Washington — largely behind closed doors, but sometimes covered by the media — on whether fiscal conservatives should maintain a rigid no-tax-increase position. One side of the debate features Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, which is the organization that maintains the no-tax-increase pledge. The other side features Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who is part of a small group of GOP senators who might be willing to increase the tax burden as part of a deal that supposedly reduces deficits.

I’m a huge fan of Senator Coburn, who was in favor of cutting wasteful spending before it became fashionable. His office, for instance, releases a “Pork Report” every couple of days. You shouldn’t read it if you have high blood pressure, because it will confirm (and reconfirm, and reconfirm, ad nauseum) your worst fears about tax dollars getting wasted.

Nonetheless, I’m on Grover’s side on this tax debate, for two reasons.

First, we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem or a deficit/debt problem. Red ink is undesirable, to be sure, but it is a symptom of the underlying problem of a government that is too big and spending too much.

But don’t believe me. Here is a chart from the House Budget Committee showing long-run projections for spending and revenues over the next 70 years. As you can see, the long-run fiscal shortfall is completely caused by higher spending. In other words, 100 percent of red ink is due to government spending. So why put taxes on the table?

But this chart actually understates the case against tax increases. It uses revenue numbers from the Congressional Budget Office’s “alternative” forecast, which shows taxes steady at 19.3 percent of GDP. That’s more than the historical average of about 18 percent of GDP, which surely indicates that revenues are not the problem.

However, that 19.3 percent estimate is completely artificial. As CBO states in its long-run forecast, “the alternative fiscal scenario also incorporates unspecified changes in tax law that would keep revenues constant as a share of GDP after 2020.”

I’ll actually be delighted if we can permanently keep federal revenues below 20 percent of GDP, but I’m not overly optimistic about that because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time. And I’m not talking about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts or the broadening of the alternative minimum tax. Yes, those factors would push up tax revenues (at least based on static revenue estimates), but the tax burden also is expected to climb because even modest economic growth slowly but surely pushes more and more people into higher tax brackets.

This second chart shows CBO’s estimate of personal income tax revenue based on current policy (as opposed to estimates based on current law, which includes already-legislated tax hikes). To be more specific, it shows how much revenue the government will collect from the individual income tax even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and the AMT is indexed.

As you can see, the aggregate individual income tax burden will increase by roughly 5 percentage points of GDP when compared to the long-run average of about 8 percent of GDP (the CBO estimate only goes to 2035, so I extrapolated to show the same time period as the first chart). And remember, this is the forecast of what will happen to income tax revenues even if politicians don’t impose any new laws to coercively extract more revenue.

This might not be too bad if other taxes were falling, but that’s not what CBO is projecting. As such, this big increase in revenue from the individual income tax means that the overall tax burden will climb by approximately the same amount.

In other words, revenue likely will rise close to 25 percent of GDP as we approach the next century. So if we use this more realistic baseline, we can say that more than 100 percent of the long-run deficit problem is because spending is out of control.

The second reason for a firm no-tax-increase position is that higher taxes are a very ineffective way of reducing budget deficits. Indeed, tax increases generally backfire and lead to more red ink. To understand why, it’s important to put away the calculator and instead consider the real world of politics and public policy. For instance:

  • Tax increases rarely raise as much revenue as predicted by government forecasters. This is because of “Laffer Curve” effects, as taxpayers change their behavior to earn less income and/or report less income. Simply stated, people respond to incentives, and this means taxable income falls as tax rates increase.
  • Tax increases erode pressure to control spending. Why would politicians want to make tough decisions and upset special interest groups, after all, when there is going to be more revenue (or at least the expectation of more revenue)? Using more colloquial language, trying to control spending with higher taxes is like trying to cure alcoholics by giving them keys to a liquor store.
  • Milton Friedman was right when he said that “in the long run, government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.” In other words, if politicians think they can get away with deficits averaging, say, 5 percent of GDP in the long run, then the only impact of higher taxes is an equal amount of additional spending — while still retaining deficits of 5 percent of GDP.

The real-world evidence certainly points in this direction. We’ve seen “bipartisan budget summits” several times in Washington, and the result is more spending rather than lower deficits. Americans for Tax Reform has a good analysis of what happened after the two big budget summits in 1982 and 1990, but I think the problem is best captured by my adaptation of a famous Peanuts cartoon strip.

Every year, if my aging memory is correct, Lucy would ask Charlie Brown if he wanted to kick the football. At first, Charlie was skeptical. But Lucy always managed to trick him into giving it a try. And the inevitable result was Charlie Brown lying on his back wondering why he had been so foolish.

In the Washington version of this cartoon, Democrats hypnotize gullible Republicans with ostensibly sincere promises of future spending restraint. Republicans eventually acquiesce, naively assuming that Democrats will be their new BFFs in the fight against big government.

Needless to say, that’s not the way the story ends.

Ronald Reagan is reported to have said that the 1982 tax increase was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency. And since Congress never followed through on commitments to reduce spending by $3 for every $1 of higher taxes, he wryly remarked that “I’m still waiting on those three dollars of spending cuts I was promised from Congress.”

Like Reagan, Coburn wants to do the right thing. But good intentions are not the same as good policy. America’s fiscal challenge is too much spending. Government is too big and it is wasting too much money. Taking more money from the American people is not the way to solve that problem.

Republicans Are Right to Cut the IRS Budget

One of my many frustrations of working in Washington is dealing with perpetual-motion-machine assertions. The classic example is Keynesian economics, which is based on the notion that you magically create additional economic activity by having the government spend money instead of allowing the private sector to decide how it gets spent (in an especially bizarre display of this thinking, Nancy Pelosi actually said that subsidizing unemployment was the best way to create jobs).

Another example of this backwards analysis can be found in the debate over the IRS budget. The President is resisting a GOP proposal to modestly trim the IRS’s gargantuan $12.5 billion budget and his argument is that we should actually boost funding for the tax collection bureaucracy since that will mean more IRS agents squeezing more money out of more taxpayers.

Here are some excerpts from an Associated Press report about the controversy.

Every dollar the Internal Revenue Service spends for audits, liens and seizing property from tax cheats brings in more than $10, a rate of return so good the Obama administration wants to boost the agency’s budget.House Republicans, seeing the heavy hand of a too-big government, beg to differ. They’ve already voted to cut the IRS budget by $600 million this year and want bigger cuts in 2012. …IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman told the committee Tuesday that the $600 million cut in this year’s budget would result in the IRS collecting $4 billion less through tax enforcement programs. The Democrat-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass a budget cut that big. But given the political climate on Capitol Hill, Obama’s plan to increase IRS spending is unlikely to pass, either. Obama has already increased the IRS budget by 10 percent since he took office, to nearly $12.5 billion. The president’s budget proposal for 2012 would increase IRS spending by an additional 9 percent — adding 5,100 employees. …Obama’s 2012 budget proposal for the IRS includes $473 million and 1,269 new positions to start implementing the health care law.

Unlike Keynesian economics, there actually is some truth to Obama’s position. The fantasy estimate of $10 of new revenue for every $1 spent on additional bureaucrats is clearly ludicrous, but it is equally obvious that many Americans would send less money to Washington if they didn’t have to worry about a coercive and powerful tax-collection bureaucracy that had the power to throw them in jail.

This is an empirical question, at least with regards to the narrow issue of whether more IRS agents “pay for themselves” by shaking down sufficient numbers of taxpayers. Reducing the number of IRS bureaucrats by 90 percent, from about 100,000 to 10,000, for instance, surely would be a net loss to the government since the money saved on IRS compensation would be trivial compared to the loss of tax revenue.

But that doesn’t mean that a reduction of 10,000 or 20,000 also would lead to a net loss. And it certainly does not mean that adding 10,000 or 20,000 more IRS agents will result in enough new revenue to compensate for the salaries and benefits of a bigger bureaucracy. Even left-wing economists presumably understand the concept of diminishing returns.

But let’s assume that the White House is correct and that more IRS agents would be a net plus from the government’s perspective. The Administration would like us to reflexively endorse a bigger and more aggressive IRS, but public policy should not be based on what is a “net plus” for the government.

There are two ways to promote better tax compliance. The Obama approach, as we’ve read above, is to expand the size and power of the IRS. Up to a point, this policy can be “successful” in extracting additional money from the productive sector of the economy.

The alternative approach, by contrast, seeks better compliance by lowering tax rates and reforming/simplifying tax systems. This course of action boosts compliance by making evasion and avoidance less attractive. People are much less likely to cheat if the government isn’t being too greedy, and they’re also more likely to comply if they think there is less waste, fraud, corruption, and favoritism in the tax code.

Let’s now put this discussion in context. Obama wants more IRS agents in large part to enforce his new scheme for government-run healthcare. Yet that’s a perfect example of what I modestly call Mitchell’s Law - politicians doing one bad thing (expanding the IRS) only because they did another bad thing (enacting a health care bill that made the tax code even more convoluted and punitive).

So instead of making the IRS bigger in response to a bad healthcare law, why not repeal that bad law and shrink the size of the IRS? Even better, why not junk the entire tax code so we can replace the IRS with a system that is honest and fair?

And if these big steps are not immediately feasible, at least cut the IRS budget so that awful laws are enforced in a less destructive manner.

This Center for Freedom and Prosperity video has additional details about the national nightmare we call the IRS.

Spending Restraint Works: Examples from Around the World

America faces a fiscal crisis. The burden of federal spending has doubled during the Bush-Obama years, a $2 trillion increase in just 10 years. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs, the federal budget is going to consume larger and larger shares of America’s economic output in coming decades.

For all intents and purposes, the United States appears doomed to become a bankrupt welfare state like Greece.

But we can save ourselves. A previous video showed how both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton achieved positive fiscal changes by limiting the growth of federal spending, with particular emphasis on reductions in the burden of domestic spending. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity provides examples from other nations to show that good fiscal policy is possible if politicians simply limit the growth of government.

 

These success stories from Canada, Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand share one common characteristic. By freezing or sharply constraining the growth of government outlays, nations were able to rapidly shrinking the economic burden of government, as measured by comparing the size of the budget to overall economic output.

Ireland and New Zealand actually froze spending for multi-year periods, while Canada and Slovakia limited annual spending increases to about 1 percent. By comparison, government spending during the Bush-Obama years has increased by an average of more than 7-1/2 percent. And the burden of domestic spending has exploded during the Bush-Obama years, especially compared to the fiscal discipline of the Reagan years. No wonder the United States is in fiscal trouble.

Heck, even Bill Clinton looks pretty good compared to the miserable fiscal policy of the past 10 years.

The moral of the story is that limiting the growth of spending works. There’s no need for miracles. If politicians act responsibly and restrain spending, that allows the private sector to grow faster than the burden of government. That’s the definition of good fiscal policy. The new video above shows that other nations have been very successful with that approach. And here’s the video showing how Reagan and Clinton limited spending in America.

Obama’s Budget Means the Burden of Government Spending Will be $2 Trillion Higher in Ten Years

Fiscal policy wonks (like me, I’m forced to admit) sometimes miss the forest because we focus too much on individual trees.

So while I think my posts on the spending and revenue sides of Obama’s new budget contained lots of useful information, I didn’t pay any attention to the elephant in the room (I’m really going overboard with metaphors, huh?).

The most important number in Obama’s budget is that he is proposing $5.7 trillion of spending in 2021, about $2 trillion more than is being spent this year, according to table S-1 of the budget.

Here’s everything you need to know about Obama’s budget, in one chart.

It’s important to make three additional observations. First, Obama’s budget is based on all sorts of optimistic assumptions and rosy scenarios, as explained by Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation. When CBO produces a re-estimate of the President’s budget, it almost certainly will show hundreds of billions of dollars of additional spending.

Second, the slope of the line if the graph is very revealing. The first two years look very impressive, with almost no change in spending, but the goal of fiscal policy, to borrow a phrase from the health care debate, should be “bending the cost curve” of government. Short-run gimmicks, to put it mildly, don’t have any long-run impact. That’s why the most important number in Obama’s budget is the $5.7 trillion burden of spending in 2021. That’s a mark of fiscal failure, and it exists because Obama’s budget increases spending at twice the rate of inflation between 2013 and 2021.

Third, many people have appropriately criticized the White House for moving the fiscal goalposts (oops, another metaphor) and focusing on a technical budget concept known as “primary deficit” or “primary balance” instead of traditional budget measures. This is an arcane issue involving the difference between total spending compared to overall spending minus interest payments. Yes, the White House is being slippery, even earning a false rating from PolitiFact, but this is a red herring (there I go again) issue. What really matters is the size of government, not regular deficits or primary deficits. Too many Republicans are fixating on the symptom of too much borrowing and paying insufficient attention to the underlying disease of too much spending. This video explains further.