Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Wasting Billions on Improper Payments

Federal outlays in 2014 topped $3.5 trillion. Over the next ten years, federal outlays are expected to climb to $6.1 trillion. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) tries to keep tabs on some of the obvious waste in the vast federal budget. One of its efforts is an annual report highlighting areas of duplication, improper payments, and other types of inefficient spending.

Last week, GAO released a report analyzing whether or not Congress and the executive branch have followed their past recommendations. GAO said that only 29 percent of its recommendations have been fully addressed.

The report discusses a number of themes within previous duplication reports, but devotes a large section on the increasing problem of improper payments by federal agencies. The federal government spent an estimated $125 billion in 2014 on improper payments across 124 programs, an increase of 18 percent from 2013.

Slow Federal Spending and Stop Debt with the Niskanen Amendment

While the Obama administration lectures Europe about the latter’s fiscal policies, Washington continues to run deficits. The problem is bipartisan. When George W. Bush took office, the national debt was $5.8 trillion. When Barack Obama took over, it was $11.9 trillion. Now it is $18.2 trillion.

These numbers will look like the “good ole’ days” when the entitlement tsunami hits in coming years. Economist Laurence Kotlikoff figures total unfunded liabilities today run about $200 trillion.

It long has been obvious that the American political system is biased toward spending. Public choice economics explains how government agencies have interests and why spending lobbies so often prevail over the public.

Congress demonstrates a “culture of spending” in which members tend to back higher expenditures the longer they serve. Washington richly rewards legislators for “growing” in office and joining the bipartisan Big Government coalition.

Some analysts still hope that electing the “right people” will fix the system. But without creating some institutional barriers to political plunder the system will continue to produce the same overall results, despite slight differences in exactly how much is spent on whom and when.

The late William Niskanen proposed a measure that was simple and impossible to game. Niskanen, acting Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Ronald Reagan, left that position to become Chairman of the Cato Institute.

Two decades ago Niskanen proposed a simple 125-word amendment requiring a three-fifths vote to increase the debt limit or raise taxes and federal compensation to states and localities for any mandates. These provisions would be suspended in the event of a declaration of war. “Nothing has changed in the interim to render Niskanen’s proposal obsolete or impractical,” noted Lawrence Hunter of the Social Security Institute in a new study for the Carleson Center for Welfare Reform.

The measure would put taxing and borrowing on a level playing field, eliminating the current bias for piling up debt. Moreover, the three-fifths requirement would make it easier for legislators to reconsider outlays than to collect more money to waste. This would create a useful corrective for the pervasive pro-spending bias built into the system today.

However, it has become evident that the Senate filibuster, with a three-fifths rule, has proved to be only a limited impediment to the growth of government. Thus, the required super-majority should be two-thirds. Wrote Hunter, experience makes clear that the three-fifths requirement is “not sufficiently stringent to overcome the enormous bias in the legislative process.”

Moreover, Hunter noted that Congress has subverted the debt limit by effectively setting a floating number “suspended” to accommodate whatever amount Congress ends up spending. Thus, he proposed that the Niskanen Amendment be updated to explicitly restrict any suspension to no more than 30 days per Congress, and require the same super-majority vote to suspend the limit.

Finally, Hunter proposed prioritizing spending in the event that borrowing hits the debt ceiling. Hunter would set repayment of the national debt, both principal and interest, as the top priority to eliminate any possibility of default. Then Washington would repay Social Security recipients to prevent big spenders from threatening retirees’ livelihoods.

Congress must again address the debt limit by the Ides of March. It would be a good time to push the Niskanen Amendment. Equally important, any debt increase should include language prioritizing payments with existing funds. Let President Barack Obama threaten to veto a debt measure because it includes language requiring him to pay the most important claims first.

While it would be hard to reject a debt limit increase for spending already approved, congressional Republicans should begin preparing for the next debt fight. As I point out in American Spectator online: “The only hope for reducing the growth in federal debt is to create institutional barriers to its growth. Otherwise the red ink likely will rise until Uncle Sam is both insolvent and bankrupt.”

Grading the Rubio-Lee Tax Reform Plan

In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I explained that the three biggest warts in the current system:

  1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior.
  2. Pervasive double taxation that discourages saving and investment.
  3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that bribe people to make less productive choices.

These problems all need to be addressed, but I also acknowledged additional concerns with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms an civil liberties.

In a perfect world, we would shrink government to such a small size that there was no need for any sort of broad-based tax (remember, the United States prospered greatly for most of our history when there was no income tax).

In a good world, we could at least replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

In today’s Washington, the best we can hope for is incremental reform.

But some incremental reforms can be very positive, and that’s the best way of describing the “Economic Growth and Family Fairness Tax Reform Plan” unveiled today by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

Long Range Bomber’s Big Bill

Over the next several months the Pentagon will award the contract for the Long Range Strike Bomber. If the Department of Defense’s history repeats itself, cost overruns on the project seem likely.

According to 2010 estimates each new plane is officially expected to cost $550 million. More recent estimates are higher. A 2014 report from the Congressional Research Service included estimates of up to $810 million per bomber. The Air Force is expected to buy 100 planes, which would cost a total of $55 billion even if the low official estimate per plane panned out.

One reason for the projected overruns is that there are only a few suppliers of military aircrafts to the Department of Defense (DoD), and so companies take advantage. The Washington Post describes the situation:

‘Given the steep barriers to entry, it is not surprising that no one has disrupted the combat aircraft market,’ [Todd] Harrison [Director of Defense Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments] said. Unlike the space launch industry, which also flies commercial satellites, the market for combat aircraft is dominated by a single customer: the U.S. government.

The technical challenges are great, the costs high, the industry highly regulated. And barriers to exit are low: Lose one major contract and you could be out of an industry forever. All of which is why many companies have left the business but “nobody has entered the business of building aircraft since 1969 to any meaningful degree,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group.

And so while Silicon Valley innovation and verve upends industry after industry, the companies vying for the bomber contract are the same stalwarts that have dominated military aviation for decades.

Bottom 90% Pretax Pretransfer Income is no Proxy for Median After-Tax Income

bottom 90 percent vs CBO median

This graph illustrates a few points made in my recent Wall Street Journal article.  First of all, the Piketty & Saez mean average of bottom 90% incomes per tax unit is not a credible proxy for median household income, particularly since the big reductions in middle-class taxes from 1981 to 2003.

Second, the red bars claiming bottom 90% incomes in the past six years have been no higher than they were in 1980 (Sen. Warren) or even 1968 (see the graph) is literally unbelievable.  If that were true then all other income statistics – including GDP – would have to be completely false.  

If You Want Good Fiscal Policy, Forget the Balanced Budget Amendment and Pursue Spending Caps

Back in 2012, I shared some superb analysis from Investor’s Business Daily showing that the United States never would have suffered $1 trillion-plus deficits during Obama’s first term if lawmakers had simply exercised a modest bit of spending restraint beginning back in 1998.

And the IBD research didn’t assume anything onerous. Indeed, the author specifically showed what would have happened if spending grew by an average of 3.3 percent, equal to the combined growth of inflation plus population.

Remarkably, we would now have a budget surplus of about $300 billion if that level of spending restraint continued to the current fiscal year.

This is a great argument for some sort of spending cap, such as the Swiss Debt Brake or Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

But let’s look beyond the headlines to understand precisely why a spending cap is so valuable.

Infrastructure: Privatization and Innovation

Tomorrow at CPAC, I will discuss some advantages of infrastructure privatization. Perhaps the largest advantage is innovation. Unlike government bureaucracies, private firms in a competitive environment are eager to maximize the net returns of projects, so they find new ways to reduce costs and improve quality.     

The benefits of innovation are obvious in fast-moving industries such as high-technology. But innovation can also be important in long-established, hard-hat industries such as highway building. Numerous countries are ahead of the United States in privatizing and partly privatizing (“public private partnerships” or “P3s”) government assets such as highways, airports, seaports, passenger rail, and air traffic control. Experience around the world shows that much innovation is possible after such industries are liberated from the bureaucratic yoke.

A House hearing last year looked at the international experience with privatization. The head of a provincial P3 agency in Canada said that P3 projects are more likely to be completed on time and on budget than traditional government infrastructure projects. And he said, “Competition and the profit motive can lead to startling results, where the winning proposal provides solutions that the public owner never contemplated. This happens over and over again.” Isn’t that interesting?

In his latest newsletter, Robert Poole provides more evidence of the “innovative effect” of P3s. He discusses $2 billion of cost savings from P3 highway projects in Texas, which are examined in a paper by Fidel Saenz de Ormijana and Nicolas Rubio:

Texas DOT has been gradually increasing the extent of design flexibility it gives project developers, via two methods. One is to encourage P3 developers to submit “alternative technical concepts” (ATCs) as part of their proposals in response to an RFP. The other is to encourage potential developers to present innovative ideas during the industry review meetings that precede issuance of the RFP. In the latter case, those ideas may be included in the RFP as options for all potential bidders to consider.

The largest cost savings discussed in the paper concern the LBJ (I-635) project in Dallas, where TxDOT’s conceptual design called for the express lanes to be constructed in a new tunnel beneath the existing general-purpose lanes, due to severe right of way constraints. During design review, the authors’ companies (Ferrovial and Cintra) suggested the alternative of a depressed center section for the express lanes, with the rebuilt general-purpose lanes partly cantilevered over the express lanes. This was presented in the RFP as an option, and the authors’ consortium’s bid that used this approach came in at substantially lower cost, contributing a large fraction of the resulting $1.3 billion construction cost savings.

The other cases described in the paper deal with several phases of the North Tarrant Express project in Fort Worth. In these cases, the developer-proposed changes were of two types. Some were changes in the design and placement of lanes and ramps, to provide better traffic flow (and generate more toll revenue). Others were changes in phasing, so as not to incur premature construction costs for lanes needed only in the ultimate configuration (10 to 20 years in the future), while designing now to facilitate their later addition within the long term of the concession agreement. These changes saved $480 million in NTE 1 and 2W and another $150 million in NTE 35W.

… By looking at the LBJ and NTE projects as businesses, the team was strongly motivated to come up with alternative designs and more-careful phasing of improvements to make the projects financially feasible. And to its great credit, Texas DOT was willing to accept many of those changes, resulting in projects that will provide very tangible benefits, without putting taxpayers at risk.

For more on infrastructure P3s and privatization, see here.