Tag: proposals

Rep. Kingston’s Spending Cut Plan

An indicator of the incoming House Republican majority’s seriousness about cutting spending will be which members the party selects to head the various committees.

Many of the members in line to chair committees leave a lot to be desired from a limited government perspective (see here and here). In particular, the top candidates in line to chair the critical House Appropriations Committee, Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), are about as inspiring as re-heated meatloaf when it comes to their potential for pushing serious spending reforms.

According to the Wall Street Journal, appropriator Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), is eyeing the chairman’s gavel even though he’s only fifth in line in terms of seniority. Kingston has put together a spending restraint plan in PowerPoint for consideration by the 26 member Republican Steering Committee, which will decide on committee chairs.

Although the Journal notes that Kingston is “no spending virgin,” there is a lot to like about his plan, which is promisingly entitled “Changing the Culture: A New Vision for the House Appropriations Committee.”

Here are my thoughts on the plan’s contents:

  • One slide shows a list of “Big Stuff” and places at the top “State Addiction to the Federal Government.” The language is perfect and indicates that Kingston recognizes that federal aid to the states is a significant issue that needs to be addressed. Reinstituting “fiscal federalism” is one of the chief principles of reform addressed on the Downsizing Government website.
  • The same slide acknowledges the trillion dollar cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This inclusion perhaps signals that Kingston is prepared to get serious about reining in defense spending, unlike many Republicans.
  • Kingston proposes new spending caps that would work to eventually reduce total federal spending to 18 percent of GDP. He notes that “This approach would require Congress to focus on the actual problem of spending, as opposed to deficits, which are a symptom.” Only interest on the debt would be off limits from sequestration should Congress fail to adhere to the spending caps.
  • Kingston calls federal grants “the new earmarks” and singles out the $7.2 billion broadband grant program for criticism, noting that it “pay[s] companies to do what they would do on their own.” As I recently explained, eliminating earmarks but keeping the federal grant programs that fund the same activities would amount to a Pyrrhic victory.
  • Kingston calls for more “budget hawks” on the appropriations committee, and singles out spending reformer Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for inclusion on the committee. He also calls for getting “members off subcommittees in which they are unable to take hard votes.” Amen. If Republicans want to cut spending, then they need to put members on the committees who will actually vote to do it.

The Journal explains that the GOP leadership, in particular incoming House Speaker John Boehner, had better take Kingston’s candidacy seriously:

Officially, committee chairs are selected by the 26 or so person GOP Steering Committee, but Mr. Boehner has five votes on the panel and he can block anyone from getting the nod. A Steering Committee decision can be overturned by a vote of the full GOP House conference, and the leadership should worry that selecting someone like Mr. Rogers could lead to a rank-and-file revolt.

Republicans claim to be the party of fiscal probity and that they’ve learned from their demise in 2006. Mr. Kingston’s proposals are the kind of creative thinking that Republicans are going to need to carry out the principles and agenda they say they believe in.

When tea party voters helped give the Republicans a second chance at reining in government spending, they didn’t have in mind re-heated meatloaf – they want steak. Boehner and the House GOP leadership would be wise to oblige, or else these voters might dine elsewhere in 2012.

Nobody Considers Health Insurance Mandates a Tax? Really??

As my colleague Jeffrey Miron noted earlier today, when grilled by George Stephanopolous on whether the so-called “individual mandate” is a tax increase, Obama replied, “Nobody considers that a tax increase….You can’t just make up that language and decide that that’s called a tax increase…My critics say everything is a tax increase.”

Where do Obama’s critics get these wacky ideas?  From a bunch of nobodies, that’s who!

Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt, quoted by Larry Summers (1987):

[Just because] the fiscal flows triggered by mandate would not flow directly through the public budgets does not detract from the measure’s status of a bona fide tax.

Economist Larry Summers, Obama’s National Economic Council chair (1989):

Economists have generally devoted little attention to mandated benefits regarding them as simply disguised tax and expenditure measures… Essentially, mandated benefits are like public programs financed by benefit taxes… [If] the mandated benefit is worthless to employees, it is just like a tax from the point of view of both employers and employees…There is no sense in which benefits become ‘free’ just because the government mandates that employers offer them to workers.

Columbia University economist Sherry Glied, Obama’s appointee to HHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, in the New England Journal of Medicine (2008):

The mandate is in many respects analogous to a tax. It requires people to make payments for something whether they want it or not. One important concern is that the government will provide insufficient funds for the subsidies intended to accompany the mandate. In that case, the mandate will act as a very regressive tax, penalizing uninsured people who genuinely cannot afford to buy coverage.

Congressional Budget Office (2009):

Under some proposals, firms would be required to make payments to the federal government if they chose not to offer health insurance to their employees, and individuals who did not comply with the requirement to  obtain insurance would have to pay a penalty. Such payments would be equivalent to a tax or a fine, and the government’s receipts should be recorded in the budget as federal revenues.

Here’s a question: if an individual mandate is not a tax, why exempt anybody?  If an employer mandate isn’t a tax, why exempt small businesses?

Washington Post Misrepresents Individual Mandates

Here’s a poor, unsuccessful letter to the editor I sent to The Washington Post:

Like Car Insurance, Health Coverage May Be Mandated” [July 22, page A1] paints a misleading picture of proposals to require Americans to purchase health insurance – i.e., an “individual mandate.”

First, the article lacks balance.  It cites three politicians who support an individual mandate but none who oppose it, a group that includes a majority of Republicans.  The article claims an individual mandate “has its roots in the conservative philosophy of self-reliance,” even though most conservatives, including the movement’s flagship magazine National Review, oppose the idea.  The closest the article comes to offering an opposing perspective is one conservative who has supported an individual mandate in the past and may yet again, just not yet.

Second, the article makes the demonstrably inaccurate claims that an individual mandate “lowers overall costs” and “help[s] keep premiums down” by adding more young and healthy people to the insurance market.  Forcing healthy people to purchase insurance does not affect premiums for sicker purchasers, because insurers set premiums according to each purchaser’s health risk.  The article confuses a mandate with price controls, which force low risks to pay more so that high risks can pay less.

Finally, if an individual mandate reduced overall costs, then health care spending would be falling in Massachusetts, which enacted the nation’s only individual mandate in 2006.  Instead, overall health spending is rising, and the rate of growth has accelerated under the mandate.  Rising health spending implies rising health insurance premiums, which has also been the Massachusetts experience.

End the Credit Rating Monopoly

Earlier this week, SEC Chair Mary Shapiro appeared before Congress to suggest ways to fix the failings in our credit rating agencies.   Sadly her proposals miss the market, although that shouldn’t be so surprising as her suggestions appear to rest upon a misunderstanding of the problem.

The thrust of the SEC’s current approach is more disclosure, such as releasing “pre-ratings” that debt issuers may get before final issuance.  Additional disclosure of ratings methodology and assumptions is likely to be useless.  Almost all that information was available during the building housing bubble.  The problem is that the rating agencies had little incentive to go beyond the consensus forecasts of increasing to at most modest declines in home prices.  These same assumptions were the foundation of almost all government economic forecasting as well, yet few believe that forcing CBO or OMB to disclosure more of their forecasts will cure our budget imbalances.  What is needed is a change in incentives.

Here again the SEC seems to misunderstand the incentives at work, but then recognizing such would force the SEC to admit its own role in creating those some perverse incentives.  The SEC’s notion that agencies issue favorable ratings in order to gain business misses the most basic fact of the ratings business - they don’t have to compete for business, any debt issuer wanting to place “investment grade” debt has to use the agencies, and often has to use more than one of them.  Due to a variety of SEC and bank regulations, there is almost no competition among the rating agencies.  They have been given a government created monopoly.  If the rating agencies were, as the SEC proposes, competing strongly for business, then they wouldn’t have been earning huge profits on that business.  Competition erodes a business’ profits.  During the housing boom, the rating agencies continued to make ever more profits - more the sign of a monopoly than one of competition.

The truth is not that the agencies were captive to the debt issuers, but the other way around.  And like any monopolist, the agencies became lazy, slow and fat.  The real fix for the failure of the credit raters is to reduce the excessive reliance on their judgements inherent in most securities, banking and insurance regulations.  An investment grade rating should never serve as a substitute for appropriate due diligence on the part of investors (especially pension fund managers) or regulators.

Cato on Health Care Reform

We are now facing some of the most sweeping changes health care has seen in decades. Reform is needed, but increasing government control over one-sixth of the economy and over important personal and private decisions – as many of the proposals aim to do – would harm American taxpayers, health care providers, and patients.

This week, the Cato Institute launched Healthcare.Cato.org, which highlights Cato’s contributions to the health care debate. The resources provided on the site provide in-depth analyses of health care issues and reform initiatives, and underscore the ways in which free-market reforms, increased consumer choice, and energized competition – not more government control – improve the quality and cost-efficiency of health care.

Please check back regularly for updates and new resources!

Update: The Cato Institute Conference on Health Care Reform will be Webcast live from 9:00-5:00 PM Wednesday.

Featured speakers:

  • Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)
  • Rep. Michael C. Burgess, M.D. (R-TX)
  • Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA)
  • Karen Davenport, Director of Health Policy, Center for American Progress
  • Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Former Director, Congressional Budget Office, and Director of Domestic and Economic Policy for the McCain presidential campaign
  • Tom G. Donlan, Barron’s
  • Karen Tumulty, Time Magazine
  • Susan Dentzer, Health Affairs
  • John Reichard, Congressional Quarterly

Full schedule of events and Webcast, here.

The GOP Is Not Serious about Cutting Down Spending

A month ago, President Obama issued a list of proposed spending cuts that I dismissed as “unserious” due to the fact that they were trivial when compared to his proposed spending and debt increases.  Today, the House Republican leadership released a list of proposed spending cuts.

I’d love to say I’m impressed, but I can’t.

Both proposals indicate that neither side of the aisle grasps the severity of the country’s ugly fiscal situation, or at least has the guts to do anything concrete about it.

The GOP proposal claims savings of more than $375 billion over five years, the bulk of which ($317 billion) would come from holding non-defense discretionary spending increases to no more than inflation over the next five years.

First, it should be cut – period.  Second, non-defense discretionary spending only amounts to about 17% of all the money the federal government spends in a year, so singling out this pot of money misses the bigger picture.  At least, defense spending, which is almost entirely discretionary, should be included in any cap.  But it has become an article of faith in the Republican Party that reining in defense spending is tantamount to putting a white flag in the Statue of Liberty’s hand.

The second biggest chunk of savings would come from directing $45 billion in repaid TARP funds to deficit reduction instead of allowing the money to be used for further bailing out.  That’s a sound idea as far it goes, but I can’t help but point out that the signatories to the document, House Republican Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor, voted for the original $700 billion TARP bailout. Proposing to rescind the Treasury’s power to release the remaining funds, about $300 billion I believe, should have been included.

According to the proposal, the rest of the cuts and savings comes out to around $25 billion over five years.  Like the specific cuts in the president’s proposal, they’re all good cuts.  But the president detailed $17 billion in cuts for one year and I generously called it “measly.”  What am I to call the House Republican leadership specifying $5 billion a year in cuts?

Take for example, proposed cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is likely to spend around $65 billion this year.  Having recently spent a couple months analyzing HUD’s past and present, I can state unequivocally that it’s one of the sorriest bureaucracies the world has ever seen.  Yet, the House Republican leadership comes up with only one proposed elimination: a $300,000 a year program that gives “$25,000 stipends for 12 students completing their doctoral dissertation on issues related to housing and urban development.”  The only other proposed cut to HUD would be $1.7 billion over five years to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.  This notoriously wasteful program is projected to spend over $8 billion this year alone.  Eliminate it!

The spending cuts the country needs must be substantial, serious, and put forward in the spirit of recognizing that the federal government’s role in our lives must be downsized.  Half-measures are not enough, and from the Republican House leadership, wholly insufficient for winning back the support of limited-government voters who have come to associate the GOP with runaway spending and debt.  For a more substantive guide to cutting federal spending, policymakers should start with Cato’s Handbook chapter on the subject.

The Economic Case for Health Care Reform

There’s an old Yiddish saying that, “If my bubba had wheels she’d be a trolley.” So goes the logic of the Obama administration in their paper released yesterday, “The Economic Case for Health Care Reform.” Their claim is that reducing health care costs would help the economy. Yes, if health care costs were reduced it would likely help the economy, though we should remember that the health care industry is part of the economy.

There is nothing in Obamacare, however, that will reduce costs. In fact, expanding coverage may cause costs to rise. One study by MIT’s Amy Finkelstein suggests that the prevalence of insurance itself has roughly doubled the cost of health care. So, if Obama succeeds in expanding insurance coverage, it’s very likely to increase the cost of care.

Take Massachusetts for example. Three years ago, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney signed into law one of the most far-reaching experiments in health care reform since President Bill Clinton’s ill-fated attempt at national health care. Proponents promised the reforms would reduce health care costs, suggesting the price of individual insurance policies would be reduced by 25-40 percent. In reality, however, insurance premiums rose by 7.4 percent in 2007, 8-12 percent in 2008, and are expected to rise 9 percent this year. This is compared to a nationwide average increase of 5.7 percent over the same three years. Nationally, on average, health insurance for a family of four costs $12,700; in Massachusetts, coverage for the same family costs an average of $16,897.

In fact, since the bill was signed, health care spending in the state has increased by 23 percent. Thus, despite individual and employer mandates, the creation of an insurance connector and other measures that increase insurance regulations, Massachusetts has failed to bring costs down.

President Obama and Congressional leaders have endorsed expanding coverage in similar ways to Massachusetts. The proposals would undoubtedly make it easier for some people to get coverage, but would also raise insurance costs for the young and healthy, making it more likely they would go without coverage. This leaves two choices: revert to the individual mandate (President Obama opposed the mandate as a candidate) or increase subsidies to try to cut costs to young and healthy individuals, thereby adding to the already substantial cost of the proposed plans.

Ultimately, controlling costs requires someone to say “no,” whether the government (as in single-payer systems with global budgets), insurers (managed care) or health care consumers themselves (by desire or ability to pay). In reality, any health care reform will have to confront the fact that the biggest single reason costs keep rising is that the American people keep buying more and more health care.