Tag: federal spending

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, we focused on the following issues this past week:

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Federal Spending Hits $4.1 Trillion

If you looked at the new CBO report on the budget, you may have noticed that federal spending this year will be $3.6 trillion.

In fact, federal spending this year will top $4 trillion. But virtually all reporters and budget wonks (including me) routinely use the lower number when discussing total federal spending. I don’t think the higher $4 trillion number even appears anywhere in the CBO report.

The $3.6 trillion figure is “net” outlays. But “gross” outlays, or total spending, is quite a bit higher. The difference is caused by “offsetting collections” and “offsetting receipts.” These are revenue inflows to the government that are netted against spending at the program level, agency level, or government-wide level. Some examples are national park fees, Medicare premiums, and royalties earned on mineral deposits. There are hundreds of these cash inflows to the government that offset reported spending.

Details on these revenue offsets can be found in Chapter 16 of OMB’s Analytical Perspectives (pdf). In fiscal year 2010, net federal outlays were $3.456 trillion, but gross outlays were $4.057 trillion. Thus, gross outlays were 17 percent larger than widely reported net outlays.

In FY 2011, OMB expects gross outlays to be about 15 percent larger than net outlays. Thus, gross outlays this year will be $4.1 trillion, compared to net outlays of $3.6 trillion. As a share of GDP, gross outlays will be about 27.3 percent of GDP, compared to net outlays of 23.8 percent.

Accounting for offsets in this manner is a long-standing convention, but it is one of the sneaky ways that Washington tries to hide its large intrusion into the economy. Certainly, the CBO and OMB should include more prominent presentations of gross outlays in their regular budget updates.

For citizens and reporters, a rule-of-thumb to remember is that total federal spending is 3 to 4 percentage points of GDP larger than usually reported by officials.

End the Mortgage Interest Deduction

The mortgage interest income tax deduction is popular among homeowners (read: likely voters) despite its role in distorting housing and related markets, its contribution to the housing bubble and its enabling of additional household debt. Never mind that there isn’t much evidence that the deduction boosts home ownership in the United States. Consider also that the tax break largely benefits affluent homeowners living in expensive urban areas.

As Mark Calabria notes in today’s Cato Daily Podcast, it’s well past time for the mortgage interest deduction to be replaced by lower marginal tax rates for all earners.

A Turning Point?

Greg Sargent cites a CNN poll question:

As you may know, the agreement would cut about one trillion dollars in government spending over the next ten years with provisions to make additional spending cuts in the future. Regardless of how you feel about the overall agreement, do you approve or disapprove of the cuts in government spending included in the debt ceiling agreement?

Approve 65

Disapprove 30

Sargent continues:

Sixty five percent approve of deal’s spending cuts. But it gets worse. Of the 30 percent who disapprove, 13 percent think the cuts haven’t gotten far enough, and only 15 percent think the cuts go too far. One sixth of Americans agree with the liberal argument about the deal.

About 20 percent of Americans self-identify as liberals. This would suggest that all non-liberal Americans and one-fourth of self-identifying liberals approve of the deal or think the cuts have not gone far enough. It could also mean that some non-liberal Americans disapprove of the deal and more than one-quarter of liberals approve of it. Either interpretation will not encourage those who believe government should be larger.

Still, the political agenda is defined as cuts, and the public seems willing to go along. 2008 seems like a generation ago.

Thoughts on the Boehner Plan

These are the times that try budget analysts’ souls—especially budget analysts who’d like to see Washington dramatically cut spending. The debate over lifting the debt ceiling has produced a number of proposals from Capitol Hill—none of them have been worth celebrating. We can now add House Speaker John Boehner’s latest proposal to the pile.

Boehner’s proposal boils down to the following: cap discretionary spending over 10 years to achieve $1.2 trillion in savings; have (another) bipartisan group of policymakers come up with $1.8 trillion in “deficit reductions” over ten years; and get a vote on a balanced budget amendment. In exchange, the president would get to increase the deficit by $900 billion this year and by another $1.6 trillion next year.

Here are some thoughts on Boehner’s plan:

  • Under the Congressional Budget Office’s optimistic spending baseline, the federal government will spend $46 trillion over the next ten years. Obviously, reducing spending by $1.2 trillion oven ten years is relatively small.
  • The same dysfunctional congress that treats entitlement programs like lit sticks of dynamite is supposed to come up with $1.6 trillion in “deficit reduction.” Note that we’re not even talking specifically about spending cuts here, so that figure would likely include tax increases assuming they’re able to even come up with something.
  • Under the Boehner plan, spending and debt will continue to rise. At the most, the plan would produce an average of $300 billion a year in cuts in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion over the next two years.
  • Boehner’s bill includes language that tightens up the definition of what constitutes “emergency” spending. Congress regularly slaps the “emergency” designation on all sort of non-emergency spending bills. I have no faith that the new language will stop the foxes guarding the henhouse from continuing to devour chickens.
  • Where are the immediate spending cuts? Once again, we have the promise of cuts but no specifics. Even if the discretionary caps hold the line on that portion of spending, total federal spending (and debt) will continue its unsustainable upward climb. Entitlement spending is the biggest driver of our long-term budgetary problems but entitlement spending isn’t capped under the Boehner plan.

In sum, this plan is another stinker. But with Harry Reid controlling the Senate and Barack Obama sitting in the White House, the votes just aren’t there to get a plan passed that sufficiently addresses our fiscal mess by reining in the size and scope of government.

Senate Finance Hearing on Debt

I testified to the Senate Finance Committee today regarding federal spending and debt.

Here are some of the points I made:

  • Last night, President Obama called for a “balanced solution” to our fiscal problems, including tax increases and spending cuts. However, CBO projections do not indicate that we face a “balanced” problem. Instead, projections show that the deficit problem is caused all on the spending side of the budget.
  • The United States has sadly become a big-government country. Until recently, government spending in this country was about 10 percentage points less than the average of OECD countries. That smaller-government advantage has now shrunken to just 4 percentage points.
  • In recent years, policymakers have given us the largest deficit-spending “stimulus” since World War II, yet we are suffering from the slowest economic recovery since World War II.
  • Rising government spending suppresses GDP because the government’s “leaky bucket” gets leakier and leakier as spending increases.
  • Leaders in Congress are talking about cutting spending by $3 trillion over 10 years, or roughly $300 billion per year. The result would be that spending would rise from $3.6 trillion this year to $5.4 trillion in 2021, rather than the currently projected $5.7 trillion. That would be only a 5 percent cut. Interest savings would reduce spending a little more—but, come on Congress, you can do better than that!

Health Care Entitlements Are the Real Debt Bomb

I’m a few days behind on this, but over at The Corner Yuval Levin has written an important post about how health care entitlements are the real cause of the debt crisis facing the federal government. Using Congressional Budget Office projections, Levin creates this magnificent chart, which I plan to steal over and over again:

If Republicans want to conquer the federal debt, they need to embrace health policy like they embrace tax cuts.