Tag: tom coburn

Coburn Report on Subsidies for Millionaires

Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) new report on the various federal subsidies being collected by millionaires deserves applause for not resorting to class warfare rhetoric in making the point that it’s silly for wealthy folks to receive taxpayer handouts:

We should never demonize those who are successful. Nor should we pamper them with unnecessary welfare to create an appearance everyone is benefiting from federal programs.

Coburn says that “this reverse Robin Hood style of wealth redistribution is an intentional effort to get all Americans bought into a system where everyone appears to benefit.” That’s true. Whether it is food subsidies or unemployment benefits, the cheerleaders for federal redistribution schemes would have the public believe that it’s all about “helping those in need” when in fact it’s really about fostering dependency on taxpayers. A dirty little secret that the media typically fails to recognize is that many of the people pushing for these programs stand to financially benefit themselves. And as we have documented over at DownsizingGovernment.org, government programs do a poor job of helping the people that they purportedly serve.

Senate Spares Rural Development Subsidies

An amendment to a Senate appropriations bill introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that would have reduced funding for rural development subsidies at the Department of Agriculture by $1 billion was easily voted down today. Only 13 Republicans voted to cut the program. Thirty-two Republicans joined all Democrats in voting to spare it, including minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), ranking budget committee member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and tea party favorite Marco Rubio (R-FL).

This was a business-as-usual vote that will receive virtually no media attention. However, it is a vote that symbolizes just how unserious most policymakers are when it comes to making specific spending cuts. That’s to be expected with the Democrats. On the other hand, Republicans generally talk a good game about the need to cut spending and they rarely miss an opportunity to criticize the Obama administration for its reckless profligacy. Republicans instead fall back on their support of a Balanced Budget Amendment and other reforms like biennial budgeting.

I think most Republicans are in favor of a BBA because they believe it gets them off the hook of having to name exactly what they’d cut. There are several reasons why Republican policymakers won’t get specific: 1) they really don’t want to cut spending; 2) they’re afraid of cheesing off special interests and constituents who benefit from government programs; 3) they’re more concerned with being in power and getting reelected; 4) they’re just plain ignorant of, or disinterested in, the particulars of government programs.

As for biennial budgeting, Republicans would have us believe that appropriating money every other year will give policymakers more time to conduct oversight of government programs. I think it’s another cop-out. Coburn’s office put out plenty of information on the problems associated with USDA rural development subsidies (see here). A Cato essay on rural development subsidies provides more information, including findings from the Government Accountability Office that are readily available to policymakers.

(Note: I worked for both Jeff Sessions and Tom Coburn.)

Budget Plans: Gang of Six and Senator Coburn

The “Gang of Six” senators has released an outline of budget reforms that would supposedly reduce deficits by $3.7 trillion over 10 years. Revenues would rise by at least $1 trillion, while spending would be theoretically trimmed by various procedural mechanisms. The plan promises to “strengthen the safety net,” “maintain investments,” and “maintain the basic structure” of Medicare and Medicaid, which doesn’t sound very reform-minded to me.

The Gang of Six plan is a grander version of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s recent debt-limit proposal, which was aimed at putting off any spending cuts. The Gang outline has a few specific cuts, but the document mainly consists of promises to restrain spending and raise taxes in the future.

I’m surprised that Sen. Tom Coburn supports the Gang plan because his office has just released a massive study chock-full of specific spending-cut ideas. The Gang plan is all about avoiding specifics, while Coburn’s plan has 621 pages of details.

Coburn’s “Back in Black” plan would reduce deficits by $9 trillion over the next decade. The plan includes some tax increases, but the core of the document is a line-by-line analysis of every department’s budget, with lists of programs to cut and terminate. The plan includes a wealth of useful information that will aid policymakers interested in cutting spending for years to come.

So congratulations to Roland, Joelle, and the whole Coburn team for their late nights spent pouring through the budget, and for their great job documenting their findings with more than 3,000 endnotes.

Every Senate and House office should perform a similar exercise of proposing specific cuts. The government faces a debt crisis, yet only Coburn, Sen. Rand Paul, and perhaps a few others in Congress have put any effort into identifying unneeded programs.

Look on the official websites of most members of Congress and you will see discussions in support of spending on education, seniors, energy, research, highways and many other activities. When members are in front of TV cameras, they sound like they take the debt crisis seriously, but most congressional websites reveal a different mindset where federal spending is always wonderful and helpful to society.

Coburn’s staff tells me that about a dozen staffers chipped in on its Back in Black effort in recent months. If other House and Senate offices went through such an exercise, it would help members clarify their positions about the role of government and help them think about spending trade-offs.

My summer homework assignment for every congressional office is to go through a Coburn/Paul-style budget downsizing exercise. That could lead to more serious spending debates and more concrete proposals than the generally meaningless bullets points issued by the Gang of Six.

Will Obama Comply with the War Powers Resolution?

Six Republican senators are challenging President Obama’s authority to conduct an open-ended war in Libya without congressional authorization. The six conservative lawmakers (Rand Paul (R-KY), Jim DeMint (R-SC), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and John Cornyn (R-TX)) sent a letter to the president on May 18th asking if he intends to comply with the War Powers Resolution. The full text of the letter can be found here.

The law stipulates that the president must terminate military operations within 60 days, unless Congress explicitly authorizes the action, or grants an extension. The clock on the Libya operation started ticking on March 21, 2011. Congress has neither formally approved of the mission, nor has it granted an extension. Therefore, the 60-day limit expires tomorrow, May 20th.

Last week at The Skeptics, I noted Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he suggested that the administration wanted to comply, but was consulting with Congress about how to do so. The New York Times presented some of the creative ideas that the administration was considering in order to adhere to circumvent the law. But the senators can read the Times, too. In their letter to the president, they write:

Last week some in your Administration indicated use of the United States Armed Forces will continue indefinitely, while others said you would act in a manner consistent with the War Powers Resolution. Therefore, we are writing to ask whether you intend to comply with the requirements of the War Powers Resolution. We await your response.

Let me be clear about one thing: I’m not a huge fan of the War Powers Resolution, per se. To me, it is silly, sort of like a law that affirmed the Congress’s authority to levy taxes, borrow and coin money, and establish Post Offices. In the same section where these powers are delegated, the Constitution clearly stipulates that Congress shall have the power to declare war. So why does there also need to be legislation?

Most presidents have complied with the spirit of the War Powers Resolution, but more out of deference to the notion that Congress has some role in whether the United States goes to war, not out of genuine conviction that Congress does/should have the most important role in deciding such things. By all appearances, President Obama is bypassing the charade.

I anxiously await his response to the senators’ letter, and am likewise curious to see if other senators raise questions about the administration’s intentions.

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.

The Other For-Profit College Scandal

Because the evidence of wrongdoing and evasion is so clear, and the effect has been so damaging, I have devoted a lot of pixels to the GAO’s horrendous ”secret shopper” report on for-profit colleges, as well as the stonewalling about what caused the initial report to be so biased. A potentially even bigger story, though, is what appears to be the machinations of an unholy alliance of Department of Education officials, Senate HELP Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Wall Street short-sellers hoping to make big bucks off the demise of for-profit schools. This Daily Caller article, and the connected video of Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), are good places to start learning more about this, as is the website of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The problems with understanding scandals like this, of course, are trying to get the truth about things that have gone on almost entirely in real or virtual back rooms; knowing what is legal and what isn’t; and just figuring out who’s who. Such scandals also reveal little about whether for-profit schools are actually more or less effective than other higher ed sectors, arguably the main public policy concern.

What this sort of thing does start to reveal, though, is just how far out of public view policy is often made, as well as how people try to profit directly from government action. In other words, it’s a great case study in public-choice theory, and just how un-Schoolhouse Rock Washington really is.

So I can’t tell you everything about who said what to whom. However, at the very least it is clear, for instance, that famed short seller Steve Eisman had a huge amount to gain by testifying that for-profits are bad and there is a “bubble” in proprietary higher ed about to burst. After all, were either the Education Department or Senator Harkin – or both – to use his testimony to attack for profits, as indeed they have, Eisman would have a highly profitable self-fulfilling prophecy on his hands.

No matter how you feel about for-profit colleges – and my feelings are decidedly mixed– learning about how policy is really made can be a very unsettling thing. In fact, it can make you feel more than just a little sick.

GAO Report on Duplicative Programs

A Government Accountability Office report on duplicative federal programs is prima facie evidence that the government is a bloated mess. For example, there are 82 federal programs involved in teacher quality, 80 programs involved in economic development, and over 100 programs involved in surface transportation.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) summed it up best in his press release on the GAO report:

This report confirms what most Americans assume about their government. We are spending trillions of dollars every year and nobody knows what we are doing. The executive branch doesn’t know. The congressional branch doesn’t know. Nobody knows.

Nobody knows because no human being could possibly keep sufficient tabs on thousands of programs in a $3.8 trillion federal budget. Compounding the problem is the fact that policymakers devote much of their time to fundraising, campaigning, and other distracting activities.

The report’s takeaway, therefore, should be that the federal government’s scope needs to be drastically curtailed. Unfortunately, a typical response to the report has been to cite it as further evidence that policymakers must “eliminate waste” and “make government more efficient.” Coburn says “This report also shows we could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year without cutting services. And, in many cases, smart consolidations will improve service.”

No, no, no.

Most of the “services” discussed in the report need to be eliminated, not consolidated. Turning 82 teacher quality programs into, say, 10 doesn’t change the fact that the federal government should not be involved in education in the first place. (Not to mention that the federal government’s involvement in education has been a failure.)

Throughout the decades, numerous efforts have been undertaken to clean up the federal bureaucracy (e.g., Hoover Commission, Grace Commission, and Al Gore’s “Reinventing Government”). None of these house cleaning endeavors curbed the federal government’s expansion, let alone tamed the bureaucratic wilds.

James Madison wrote in Federalist 45 that the powers delegated to the federal government by the Constitution “are few and defined.” However, the federal government gradually assumed powers that are now many and undefined. Excessive bureaucracy is a natural, and inevitable, result. Thus, those policymakers who are sincerely concerned with bureaucratic duplication and waste should focus their efforts on reinstituting limits on the government’s capacity to spend. Policymakers who pretend otherwise are just wasting their time — and that of taxpayers.