Tag: senate finance committee

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!

Dirty Deal Done Not So Dirt Cheap

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee,  Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI)*, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and the White House have just announced that they have made a deal to extend Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA, the program that extends extra unemployment and health care benefits to workers who lose their jobs because of globalization) until 2013, as part of a broader deal that would see passage of the three outstanding preferential trade agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama. The extension of TAA would be included in the legislation to implement the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, “improved” (i.e., made less liberalizing) by the administration in December.

Interestingly and alarmingly, because implementing the FTAs (which will lower tariff revenue) and paying for the billion-dollar-plus TAA extension “requires” offsets, the draft language specifies in Sec. 601 that revenue should be raised by increasing customs user fees.  This solution was first aired publicly last week, and my friend, trade lawyer (and former Cato-ite) Scott Lincicome pointed out then that raising customs user fees is probably against WTO rules (not to mention counterproductive to the goal of liberalizing trade):

“[C]ustoms fees” are simply hidden taxes on import consumers.  A quick review of the US Customs website on “customs users fees” makes this clear.  They’re paid (mainly) by commercial transporters bringing goods (imports) into the United States, thus raising the costs of importation.  And those higher costs, of course, are eventually passed on to American consumers through higher import prices.

Thus, pursuant to the bi-partisan deal outlined above, the FTAs’ great import liberalization benefits will be immediately and tangibly undermined by new taxes on those very same imports (and others)!

…[I]t would [also] probably violate GATT Article VIII, which governs WTO Members’ imposition of “Fees and Formalities connected with Importation and Exportation” (in other words, customs fees).  The key provision of Article VIII reads:

1.(a) All fees and charges of whatever character (other than import and export duties and other than taxes within the purview of Article III) imposed by contracting parties on or in connection with importation or exportation shall be limited in amount to the approximate cost of services rendered and shall not represent an indirect protection to domestic products or a taxation of imports or exports for fiscal purposes.

WTO panels have interpreted this provision narrowly, and an old GATT panel has actually looked into the US system of customs users fees.  In these cases, the panels have ruled that Article VIII’s requirement that a customs fee be “limited in amount to the approximate cost of services rendered” is actually a “dual requirement,” because the charge in question must first involve a “service” rendered, and then the level of the charge must not exceed the approximate cost of that “service.”  They’ve also found that the term “services rendered” means “services rendered to the individual importer in question,” and that the fees cannot be imposed to raise revenue (i.e., for “fiscal purposes”).[emphasis in original]

Raising customs user fees for fiscal purposes may even go against U.S. law (subparagraph 9B of 19 U.S.C. chapter 1 ss58c).

It’s unclear how far this draft will advance at the “mock mark-up,” scheduled for Thursday afternoon in the Senate Finance Committee, as the ranking member of that committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), is one of the leading critics of trade adjustment assistance.  Senator Hatch has already sent out a press release opposing the inclusion of the TAA renewal in the Korea FTA implementing bill:

This highly-partisan decision to include TAA in the South Korean FTA implementing bill risks support for this critical job-creating trade pact in the name of a welfare program of questionable benefit at a time when our nation is broke. This is a clear breach of Trade Promotion Authority and threatens the ability of American exporters and job creators who stand to benefit from the largest bilateral trade agreement in more than a decade.  TAA should move through the Congress on its own merit and should stand up to rigorous Senate debate. President Obama should send up our pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and Korea and allow for a clean vote.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is also apparently critical of the decision to include the TAA renewal in the Korea legislation, preferring instead to consider it only in exchange for something new, i.e.,  a deal on fast track (or trade promotion) authority for further trade deals. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Phil Levy points out, “It is problematic to “buy” the [existing] FTAs with an expanded version of TAA, since those were already “purchased” as part of a May 10, 2007 deal.” [link added] The Republican House leadership is also keen to separate TAA from the FTA implementing bills, in contrast to the opinion and efforts of their colleague Representative Camp.  So the fight is far from over.

If you are interested in hearing more about the trade deals, and how TAA renewal fits in with their passage, Senator Hatch will be speaking at an event at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday (just hours before the mock mark-up is scheduled to begin). Howard Rosen of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and yours truly will be debating the merits of TAA after Senator Hatch has spoken. More information on the event, including access to the streaming video, here.

*UPDATE: Contrary to what I suggested in my orginal post, Chairman Camp did not in fact join an announcement with the White House and Chairman Baucus about the trade deal Tuesday. He did issue a statement Tuesday evening indicating that although he finds it “regrettable that the White House has insisted on Trade Adjustment Assistance in return for passage of these job-creating agreements,” he has “been willing to work with the White House to find a bipartisan path forward on TAA in order to secure passage of the trade agreements.” So it appears he has agreed to the deal broadly, even if he was not formally part of the announcement, and is still reviewing the details. Chairman Camp’s full statement is available here.

Congressional Republicans May Be Understating the Cost of ObamaCare

Yesterday, the Senate Finance and House Energy & Commerce committees released a joint report on the costs that ObamaCare’s Medicaid mandate will impose on states.  That report, which is based on other reports, likely understates the cost of that unfunded mandate.

In a new Cato Working Paper, “Estimating ObamaCare’s Effect on State Medicaid Expenditure Growth,” senior fellow Jagadeesh Gokhale constructed cost projections for the five largest states – California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas – which account for 40 percent of the nation’s population.  Gokhale carefully decomposed and organized micro-data and state-specific administrative data on Medicaid eligibility, enrollments, benefit recipiency, and average benefits per recipient.  Gokhale found much larger cost burdens than the committees’ projections.  

For example, Gokhale projects that ObamaCare will force Florida to spend an additional $20.4 billion between 2014 and 2023. That is almost double the committees’ estimate of an additional $12.9 billion in spending by Florida between 2013 to 2023.

Taxes and Small Business

I testified to the Senate Finance Committee today regarding taxes and small business. My testimony is posted here.

President Obama plans to raise the top two individual income tax rates. That will not be good for business or the economy. A little more than half of all business income in the United States is reported on individual returns, not corporate returns. Of the business income reported on individual returns, 44 percent is in the top two income tax brackets.

My testimony pointed out that while Congress cut the top individual rate by 5 percentage points this past decade, the average top rate in the 30 OECD countries also fell by 5 percentage points, as shown in the chart below.

If the top federal rate rises to 40 percent next year, the United States will have the ninth highest top individual rate in the OECD, including state-level taxes. We’ve already got the second-highest corporate tax rate in the OECD.

A nation that has been a relative bastion of market capitalism and individual achievement has a tax code that is becoming very hostile to high-earners, entrepreneurs, and businesses of all types.

More Trade News

My colleague Dan Griswold pointed out yesterday some unfortunate editing in the Washington Post. Here are a couple of other trade-related items in the news recently:

  • Sen. Max Baucus (D, MT and Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) has seemingly thrown his weight behind the idea of “border measures” (i.e., carbon tariffs).  After paying the semi-obligatory lip service to the United States’ obligations under international trade law – and I say only “semi-obligatory” because some U.S. lawmakers appear not to care about it at all – Baucus goes on to deliver this rhetorical gem:

    I think often the United States has to lead,” Baucus said, noting that what lawmakers come up could be used as a model for other countries to copy.

    So the U.S. would saddle its consumers with higher prices in exchange for little benefit environmentally and in the process risk retaliation and alienating countries who it insists are necessary for global cooperation on climate change?

    Some leadership.

    And it may well be that the Chinese have the jump on the United States here, in any case. They’re proposing to introduce a carbon tax of their own, to prevent double-taxation in the form of carbon tariffs by the developed countries (banned under WTO rules) and to keep the carbon tax revenue – collected, remember, from U.S. consumers! – for themselves, all while seeming to play nice on climate change. I bet those who proposed carbon tariffs are sorry they spoke out now. (HT: Scott Lincicome)

  • Brazil has published a list of over 200 mostly consumer and agricultural goods that would be subject to retaliatory tariffs as part of the on-going dispute over U.S. cotton subsidies (an excellent backgrounder to that dispute is available here).

    I note with sorrow that the list also contains intermediate goods, which of course would mean saddling Brazilian manufacturers with higher prices. Even if the Brazilian government isn’t too concerned about  burdening its consumers with extra taxes, rarely a concern of politicians apparently, you’d think they would hesitate to impose higher costs on manufacturers, who employ people.

    Again, it is important to draw a distinction here between the mercantalist political logic of retaliatory tariffs and the economic insanity of increasing costs to your own people in “retaliation” for the harm another country’s policies have done to you. (And no, I don’t count the “game-theory” argument as an “economic” one here. That is a fancy way of saying that in an international relations, i.e. political, sense, retaliation can bring about the desired change.  I’m talking about the fact that costs to consumers from tariffs – whatever their rationale – far outweighing the benefits that producers derive from protection). But this latest development is a sign that Brazil is serious about getting the U.S. to reform its agricultural policies, something it should be doing anyway.

    Brazil was, it should be noted, given permission from the WTO to suspend intellectual property rights protections as a form of retaliation, a new but increasingly attractive way of exacting retribution, but only after a certain amount of damages had been collected the usual way.

  • ObamaCare’s ‘Sweetheart Deal’ for PhRMA

    The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn reports that back in March, IMS Health projected slightly negative revenue growth for the pharmaceutical industry but recently changed that projection to 3.5-percent annual growth from 2008 through 2013.

    “What changed?” Cohn asks. “A major factor, according to IMS, was the emerging details of health care reform … Put it all together, and you have more demand for name-brand drugs … enough to boost revenue significantly.” And:

    “If this bill is implemented,” the report concludes on page 138, “an increase in prices on new drugs can be expected.”

    How could this be happening?  Oh yeah:

    That brings us back to the deal that the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, which represents those companies, made with the White House and Senate Finance Committee …

    The industry agreed to embrace health care reform and, later on, launched a massive advertising campaign to promote the cause. In exchange, the White House and Senate Finance–which had been asking various industries to pledge concessions that would help pay for the cost of coverage expansions–promised not to seek more than $80 in reduced payments to drug makers.

    To an industry as big and profitable as the drug makers, giving up $80 billion over ten years wouldn’t seem like much of a sacrifice–a point critics started making right away. But if IMS is right, the drug industry wouldn’t even be giving up $80 billion, in any meaningful sense of the term. If anything, it’d be making more money. Maybe quite a lot of it.

    Which is what I predicted, both here and here.

    Cohn concludes, “the drug industry has enormous leverage in Congress.” But Cohn still supports the president’s health care takeover. Or is it PhRMA’s health care takeover?

    Health Care: Not Close to Over

    The fat lady hasn’t even started to warm up yet.

    The narrow 220-215 victory in the House on Saturday night was a step forward on the road to a government takeover of the health care system.  But as close and dramatic as that vote was, that was the easy part.  The Senate must still pass its version of reform—which will not be the bill that just passed the House.  Nancy Pelosi was, after all, able to lose the votes of 39 moderate Democrats.  Harry Reid cannot afford to lose even one.  A conference committee must reconcile the two vastly different versions.  And then, Pelosi must hold together her 3 vote margin of victory (if it gets that far).  Yet several House Democrats who voted for the bill on Saturday said they did so only to “advance the process.” Their vote is far from guaranteed on final passage.  And, House liberals are almost certain to be disappointed by the more moderate bill that may emerge from the conference.

    Among the more contentious issues:

    Individual Mandate: This should’ve been low-hanging fruit. Democrats agreed on a mandate early in the process. But it became increasingly plain that a mandate would hit those with insurance as well as the uninsured – forcing people who are happy with their plan to switch to a different, possibly more expensive plan. With this mandate now being seen as a middle-class tax hike, qualms have developed.  The House bill contains a strict mandate, with penalties of 2.5 percent of income backed up by up to five years in jail.  The Senate Finance Committee, on the other hand, watered down the mandate’s penalties and delayed the mandates implementation.

    Employer Mandate: The House bill also contains an employer mandate, a requirement that all but the smallest employers provide insurance to their workers or pay a penalty tax of up to 8 percent of payroll.  The Senate,  looking at unemployment rates over 10 percent, seems unlikely to include an employer mandate.

    The Public Option: The House included, if not a “robust” public option, at least a semi-robust one.  But moderate Democrats in the Senate are clearly not on board.  Joe Lieberman (I-CT) says that he will join a Republican filibuster if the public option is included.  Harry Reid is trying various permutations: a trigger, an opt-in, an opt-out.  But as of now there is not 60 votes for any variation.

    The Sheer Cost: Fiscal hawks like Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) say they will not support a bill that adds to the deficit or spends too much.  But the house bill cost a minimum of $1.2 trillion.

    Taxes: The House plan to add a surtax on incomes of $500,000 or more a year has no support in the Senate. At the same time, the Senate plan to slap a 40 percent excise tax on “Cadillac” insurance plans is unacceptable to key Democratic constituencies like labor unions.

    Abortion: Conservative Democrats insisted on a strict prohibition on the use of government funds for abortion.  The bill could not have passed without the inclusion of that provision.  House liberal swallowed hard and voted for the bill, despite what they called “a poison pill” anyway with the expectation that it will be removed later.  If the final bill includes the prohibition at least a couple liberals could defect.  If it doesn’t, conservative Democrats won’t be on board.

    Immigration: The Senate Finance Committee included a provision barring illegal immigrants from purchasing insurance through the government-run Exchange.  The House Hispanic Caucus says that if that provision is in the final bill, they will vote against it.

    As if these disagreements among Democrats wasn’t bad enough, public opinion is now turning against the bill.

    President Obama has called for a bill to be on his desk before Christmas—the latest in a series of deadline that are so far unmet.  It is hard to see how Congress can meet this one either.  The Senate has not yet received CBO scoring of its bill and is not prepared to even begin debate until next week at the earliest.  That debate will last 3-4 weeks minimum, assuming there are 60 votes for cloture.  That means, the bill cant’ go to conference committee until mid-December, even if everything breaks the way Harry Reid wants.  Privately, Democrats are now suggesting late January, before the State of the Union address, is the best they can do.

    The fat lady can go back to sleep—this isn’t over yet.