Tag: federal spending

The Sequester May Not Be ‘Fair,’ but It’s Real and It Would Slow the Growth of Government

Much to the horror of various interest groups, it appears that there will be a “sequester” on March 1.

This means an automatic reduction in spending authority for selected programs (interest payments are exempt, as are most entitlement outlays).

Just about everybody in Washington is frantic about the sequester, which supposedly will mean “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts.

http://danieljmitchell.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/sequestration-is-a-small-step-in-right-direction-not-something-to-be-feared/If only. That would be like porn for libertarians.

In reality, the sequester merely means a reduction in the growth of federal spending. Even if we have the sequester, the burden of government spending will still be about $2 trillion higher in 10 years.

The other common argument against the sequester is that it represents an unthinking “meat-ax” approach to the federal budget.

But a former congressional staffer and White House appointee says this is much better than doing nothing.

Here’s some of what Professor Jeff Bergner wrote for today’s Wall Street Journal:

You know the cliché: America’s fiscal condition might be grim, but lawmakers should avoid the “meat ax” of across-the-board spending cuts and instead use the “scalpel” of targeted reductions. …Targeted reductions would be welcome, but the current federal budget didn’t drop from the sky. Every program in the budget—from defense to food stamps, agriculture, Medicare and beyond—is in place for a reason: It has advocates in Congress and a constituency in the country. These advocates won’t sit idly by while their programs are targeted, whether by a scalpel or any other instrument. That is why targeted spending cuts have historically been both rare and small.

Bergner explains that small across-the-board cuts are very reasonable:

The most likely way to achieve significant reductions in spending is by across-the-board cuts. Each reduction of 1% in the $3.6 trillion federal budget would yield roughly $36 billion the first year and would reduce the budget baseline in future years. Even with modest reductions, this is real money. …let’s give up the politically pointless effort to pick and choose among programs, accept the political reality of current allocations, and reduce everything proportionately. No one program would be very much disadvantaged. In many cases, a 1% or 3% reduction would scarcely be noticed. Are we really to believe that a government that spent $2.7 trillion five years ago couldn’t survive a 3% cut that would bring spending to “only” $3.5 trillion today? Every household, company and nonprofit organization across America can do this, as can state and local governments. So could Washington.

And he turns the fairness argument back on critics, explaining that it is a virtue to treat all programs similarly:

Across-the-board federal cuts would have to include all programs—no last-minute reprieves for alternative-energy programs, filmmakers or any other cause. All parties would know that they are being treated equally. Defense programs, food-stamp recipients, retired federal employees, the judiciary, Social-Security recipients, veterans and members of Congress—each would join to make a minor sacrifice. It would be a narrative of civic virtue.

It’s worth noting, however, that the sequester would not treat all programs equally. Defense spending is only about 20 percent of the budget, for instance, yet the Pentagon will absorb 50 percent of the savings (though defense spending still increases over the next 10 years).

http://danieljmitchell.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/will-republicans-choose-sequester-savings-or-a-supercommittee-surrenderAt the risk of oversimplifying, the sequester basically applies to so-called discretionary spending. So-called mandatory spending accounts for a majority of federal spending, but it is largely exempt, so entitlement reform will still be necessary if we want to address the nation’s long-run fiscal challenges.

Do the American People Agree with Obama?

News reports quote President Obama, in discussing the debt ceiling and the ongoing argument over tax and spending policy in his press conference yesterday, saying:

It turns out the American people agree with me. 

Do they? It’s true that a majority of respondents told pollsters that they wanted to raise taxes on someone else. And Congress did that in the “fiscal cliff” legislation.

But what about the president’s insistence on a larger government and essentially no cuts in federal spending? The election day exit polls shed some light on those questions.

51 percent of voters polled said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals—8 points higher than in the 2008 election. Only 43 percent of voters said they believe government should be doing more.

49 percent said the 2010 health care law should be repealed, with only 44 percent of voters supporting it.

And 51 percent said they prefer smaller government with fewer services, while 43 percent prefer larger government. As usual.

There are many reasons that Mitt Romney lost the election, from the Republicans’ alienation of everyone except straight white men, to an effective campaign of demonization, to “legitimate rape.” But the polls don’t show that voters agree with President Obama on constant expansion of the size, scope, and power of government.

The Poverty of Affordability Arguments

In the bargaining over avoiding the fiscal cliff, President Obama has taken to framing the argument this way:

We can solve this problem. All Congress needs to do is pass a law that would prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody’s income – everybody. (Applause.) That means 98 percent of Americans – and probably 100 percent of you – (laughter) – 97 percent of small businesses wouldn’t see their income taxes go up a single dime. Even the wealthiest Americans would still get a tax cut on the first $250,000 of their income. But when they start making a million, or $10 million, or $20 million you can afford to pay a little bit more. (Applause.) You’re not too strapped.

I’m no political expert, but this seems like a pretty effective, if demagogic, frame: “Ol’ Boehner is just doing the bidding of his bazillionaire paymasters, trying to stick it to regular folks like you.” By framing the debate as being about whether very wealthy people “can afford to pay a little bit more,” Obama skews things in his favor. (On the substance of the argument about increasing taxes to close the gaping fiscal maw, try this from Alan Reynolds or this from Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).)

And what does John Boehner think about Obama’s framing? Not much, obviously: “We have a huge national debt because Washington spends too much, not because it doesn’t tax people enough.” Boehner rejects the whole affordability frame, proposing his own—“is the problem taxes or spending?”—and adding on an argument that increasing taxes will hurt economic growth. So you’ve got dueling frames.

But what’s of interest to me is the analog of Obama’s frame in the foreign policy/defense spending discussion. In that debate, neoconservatives and liberal imperialists have framed the debate the same way Obama has framed the fiscal cliff debate: except in that case, it’s not about whether wealthy people can afford to pay higher taxes, but whether the United States can afford to continue spending around 50 percent of world military expenditures. Take it away, Robert Kagan:

What about the financial expense? Many seem to believe that the cost of these deployments, and of the armed forces generally, is a major contributor to the soaring fiscal deficits that threaten the solvency of the national economy. But this is not the case, either. As the former budget czar Alice Rivlin has observed, the scary projections of future deficits are not “caused by rising defense spending,” much less by spending on foreign assistance. The runaway deficits projected for the coming years are mostly the result of ballooning entitlement spending. Even the most draconian cuts in the defense budget would produce annual savings of only $50 billion to $100 billion, a small fraction—between 4 and 8 percent—of the $1.5 trillion in annual deficits the United States is facing.

Here again, if the debate is about whether the United States—let’s call us the One Percenters here—can afford to continue frittering away money playing globocop, the advantage is with Kagan and his confreres. But in both cases, Obama and Kagan try to substitute an affordability argument for a propriety/desirability argument. Of course wealthy people can “afford” to pay higher taxes—they’ve done so before, after all. By the same token, the United States can afford to continue funding its globe-girdling military presence. But in neither case do these affordability arguments answer the question: What should happen? To say something is affordable is not to say it is preferable

Obama doesn’t say, “We’ve spent a ton of money over the past 10 years and entitlement costs are ballooning so we’re going to squeeze as much as we can out of the rich and then see where we go from there.” Similarly, Kagan doesn’t lead with his argument that the debt and deficit should be fixed by increasing taxes and sprinkling pixie dust on entitlement costs. Instead, he wants to have the affordability debate. As well he ought to, since the public is increasingly disenchanted with the interventionist foreign policy program.

In neither case should we let the affordability argument carry the day. Boehner rejects the affordability framing of the tax increase debate. Conservatives ought to realize in both cases that something’s affordability is not synonymous with its propriety.

Laszewski on ObamaCare: ‘Get Ready for Some Startling Rate Increases’

The invaluable Robert Laszweski:

The Affordable Care Act: Ten Months to Launch “Obamacare”––Get Ready for Some Startling Rate Increases

[…]

I conducted an informal survey of a number of insurers…None of the people I talked to are academics or work for a think tank. None of them are in the spin business inside the Beltway. Every one of them has the responsibility for coming up with the correct rates their companies will have to charge…

On average, expect a 30% to 40% increase in the baseline cost of individual health insurance to account for the new premium taxes, reinsurance costs, benefit mandate increases, and underwriting reforms…

In states with the least mandates or for health insurance companies with the tightest underwriting now, the increase could be a lot more…

[E]xpect individual health insurance rates for people in their 20s and early 30s to about double…

Will the feds be ready to provide an insurance exchange in all of the states that don’t have one on October 1, 2013?

I have no idea. And neither does anyone else I talk to inside the Beltway. We only hear vague reports that parts of the new federal exchange information systems are in testing.

The former CIA director couldn’t get away with an affair in this town but the Obama administration has a complete lid on just where they are on health insurance exchanges and haven’t shown any willingness to want to talk about their progress toward launching on time––except to tell us all not to worry.

We are all worried. I would not want to be responsible for the work that remains and only have ten months to do it…

The Republicans said this would not work. If it does not launch on time, or does with serious problems, I would not want to be an incumbent Democrat.

I told them not to call this the “Affordable Care Act.”

‘By Far the Broadest and Potentially Most Damaging of the Legal Challenges’ to ObamaCare

That’s how Kaiser Health News describes the legal challenge that Jonathan Adler and I outline in this paper and that Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt has filed in federal court:

Supporters of the law scoff at the arguments…

But, confident of their case, some health law opponents, including Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve Law School, Michael Cannon of the libertarian Cato Institute and National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, are urging Republican-led governments to refuse to set up the online insurance purchasing exchanges, which would, as the argument goes, make their residents ineligible for the tax credits and subsidies. They say that this step also would gut the so-called employer mandate, which the law says will take effect in states where residents are eligible for such assistance…

As even some health law supporters concede, the claim that Congress denied to the federal exchanges the power to distribute tax credits and subsidies seems correct as a literal reading of the most relevant provisions. Those are sections 1311, 1321, and 1401, which provide that people are eligible for tax credits and subsidies only if “enrolled … through an Exchange established by the state” [emphasis added].

It’s technically not correct to say that Oklahoma’s complaint is a challenge to ObamaCare, however. That complaint does not challenge a single jot or tittle of the statute. Oklahoma is asking a federal court to force the IRS to follow the statute, and to prevent the Obama administration from imposing taxes on Oklahoma residents whom Congress expressly exempted. Oklahoma’s complaint is indeed “the broadest and potentially most damaging of the legal challenges” related to ObamaCare. But think about it: if the only way to save ObamaCare from such a fate is to give the president extra-constitutional powers to tax and spend money without congressional authorization, just how unstable is this law? And is it really worth saving?

Also, the article is a few months behind on the debate over congressional intent, and our ongoing debate with Timothy Jost (who has reversed himself on quite a few issues).

But overall, a good article.