Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Failing to Clean Up the VA

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a long history of mismanagement. Last year, the public became aware of a wait-time scandal at the VA hospital in Phoenix. Veterans were forced to wait months for appointments, even as the hospital was reporting no delays in service and allowing its management to receive performance bonuses. Over 1,700 veterans were not placed on the official wait lists to hide the length of actual waits. The VA Inspector General suggested that the Phoenix VA was not the only center to modify its wait lists in this fashion.

In response to the crisis, Congress passed a  law that allowed veterans who were waiting for treatment to access non-VA providers. At the time, I cautioned about the risk of a possible large, unfunded entitlement program being created. Now it seems that there are other issues with the way that the VA is implementing the expanded program. Veterans continue to be shut out of service and providers are uncertain how to utilize the benefits.

The Washington Post reports:

The card gives veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for appointments or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility the chance to see a private doctor.

But instead, some veterans say that when they attempted to use their card, the VA told them they had to live more than 40 “miles in a straight line, or as the crow flies,” from their VA rather than Google maps miles, which makes the card harder to use. Several VA doctors e-mailed The Washington Post saying they themselves don’t understand how to use the program

Another reader wrote in saying that her stepfather, Charles Schuster, who died in 2009, recently received a card in the mail, a symbol of an agency still seemingly in disarray. “Gave me a good laugh,” she wrote.

So far, 27,000 veterans have made appointments for private care with their cards, the VA said last week. It’s a fraction of the 9 million veterans who depend on the delay-plagued VA health-care system, the largest network of health centers and hospitals in the country.

“As far as I can tell, the choice card has created more confusion and aggravation than improving access to clinical care, though it did gain political points,” said one VA primary care doctor, who says he’s on the front lines of doing intakes. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because VA employees are not allowed to speak to the media without permission. But he said he and other doctors “are confused by the choice card system and don’t understand how to implement it.”

The article  documents other instances of veterans being unable to utilize their choice cards.

The VA hospital system is a mess, showing the downsides of socialized health care. During last year’s scandal, Congress simply put a bandage on the problem by allowing some veterans to use outside providers. Congress should revisit the issue and institute more fundamental reforms to the Veterans Health Administration.

Congress’s Blank-Check Bills

Luke Rosiak at the Washington Examiner filed a report late last week on a little recognized, but important congressional practice: proposing open-ended spending. In the last Congress, fully 700 bills proposed spending without limits. That’s a lot.

A quick primer: congressional spending is a two-step process. First, there must be an authorization of appropriations. Then Congress appropriates funds, providing actual authority for executive branch agencies to spend.

The committees in Congress are divided by type between authorizing committees and appropriations committees. Authorizers are supposed to do the bulk of the oversight and authorize spending at amounts they determine. Appropriators would then dole out funds specifically. But over the years, the division of labor has shifted and power has collected in the appropriations committees, whose members are often referred to as “cardinals” … like “College of Cardinals.”

Backward incentives explain this. Members of Congress who authorize spending naturally appear to be pro-spending, which has political costs. The costs are at their worst when a specific amount is involved. “Senator So-and-So wants to spend $50 million on what?!” So many authorizing committees shirk their duties by eschewing reauthorization of the agencies in their jurisdiction. And sometimes the trick is authorizing spending of “such sums as may be necessary,” which doesn’t provide as good an angle for political attack.

representatives who wrote the most blank checksThat would make appropriators the only drag on spending, but it doesn’t because of a second perversion in politics. Appropriators get good enough at gathering the political emoluments of spending that they overcome the negatives and become an institutional pro-spending bloc. As Mike Franc of the Heritage Foundation put it in 2011, “appropriators, their professional staff, and legions of lobbyists serve as a mutually reinforcing triad bent on increasing spending today, tomorrow, and forevermore.”

Rosiak notes that the House Republican leadership cautioned against open-ended spending proposals at the beginning of the 113th Congress. Consequently, Republican blank-check bills are more rare. The top open-ended spenders are all Democrats, and they’re all on the party’s left wing.

So what’s to be done?

In 2010, the Senate joined the House in banning earmarks. This came after a few short years of applied transparency in the earmark area, including a contest to gather earmark data conducted by yours truly on WashingtonWatch.com. A group called Taxpayers Against Earmarks (now Ending Spending) applied some direct pressure. And a host of other groups were involved, of course.

The practice of proposing open-ended spending could similarly be curtailed with public oversight and pressure.

So who should do that work?

We’ve already started. Rosiak’s story was produced using the Cato Institute’s Deepbills data.

Governors Love Federal Funding

ObamaCare gives states the option to expand Medicaid to cover all individuals below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is approximately $33,500 a year for a family of four. To encourage states to expand, the federal government agreed to fund 100 percent of expenditures for the newly-eligible participants until 2016, and then slowly decrease the match to 90 percent in 2020 and into the future.

Democratic and Republican governors alike are showing their penchant for “free” federal dollars by supporting expanded Medicaid roles in their state. Republicans governors—who often say they dislike Obamacare—are in many cases pushing their legislatures to expand Medicaid to take advantage of this windfall.

GOP Governor Bill Haslam in Tennessee announced that he would support Medicaid expansion. His administration promoted the plan by saying, “Insure Tennessee will leverage the enhanced federal funding which will pay for between 90 and 100 percent of the cost and in doing so will bring federal tax dollars Tennesseans are already paying back to the state.”

To help minimize the state’s contribution and maximize federal funding, Haslam decided to expand the state’s health provider tax. Under a provider tax, a state agrees to increase Medicaid reimbursements to the providers paying the tax, such as hospitals. The higher reimbursement level draws a higher federal contribution. So state politicians and hospitals win, but federal taxpayers lose.  

In this case, luckily, Tennessee’s legislature denied Haslam’s  expansion attempts.

Admitting FutureGen’s Failure

The Department of Energy (DOE) is admitting that it failed. Last week, it announced that it will stop development of FutureGen 2.0, a federally-financed, coal-fired power plant in Illinois. FutureGen, and its successor FutureGen 2.0, wasted millions of tax dollars, and was beset with multiple delays and cost overruns.

FutureGen was one of many federal energy projects experimenting in so-called “clean coal” technology. FutureGen sought to demonstrate the technical capabilities of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. CCS attempts to capture carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants and store it underground, eliminating an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

FutureGen was launched in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration as a public-private partnership to demonstrate CCS with a site chosen in Illinois. Costs would be shared among the federal government and 12 private energy companies. The project’s estimated cost grew from $1 billion to $1.8 billion by 2008, when it was cancelled due to the cost overruns.  

In 2010 the Obama administration revived the project using stimulus funding. The new project, FutureGen 2.0, was allotted $1 billion from the federal government, with private investors supposed to be providing additional funding.

Regulations and Taxes: Democrats Then and Now

In recent decades, the Democratic Party has moved far to the left on economic policy. I have discussed the leftward shift on tax policy, which was illustrated once again by President Obama’s generally awful proposals in his new budget (see here, here, and here).

What about regulations? Consider the following statement by President Jimmy Carter on his signing a landmark railroad deregulation bill in 1980. Have you ever heard President Obama express such views or push for similar sorts of legislation?

Today I take great pleasure in signing the Staggers Rail Act of 1980. This legislation builds on the railroad deregulation proposal I sent to Congress in March 1979. It is vital to the railroad industry and to all Americans who depend upon rail services.

By stripping away needless and costly regulation in favor of marketplace forces wherever possible, this act will help assure a strong and healthy future for our Nation’s railroads and the men and women who work for them. It will benefit shippers throughout the country by encouraging railroads to improve their equipment and better tailor their service to shipper needs. America’s consumers will benefit, for rather than face the prospect of continuing deterioration of rail freight service, consumers can be assured of improved railroads delivering their goods with dispatch …

This act is the capstone of my efforts over the past 4 years to get the Federal Government off the backs of private industry by removing needless, burdensome regulation which benefits no one and harms us all. We have deregulated the airlines, a step that restored competitive forces to the airline industry and allowed new, innovative services. We have freed the trucking industry from archaic and inflationary regulations, an action that will allow the startup of new companies, encourage price competition, and improve service. We have deregulated financial institutions, permitting banks to pay interest on checking accounts and higher interest to small savers and eliminating many restrictions on savings institutions loans.

Where regulations cannot be eliminated, we have established a program to reform the way they are produced and reviewed. By Executive order, we have mandated regulators to carefully and publicly analyze the costs of major proposals. We have required that interested members of the public be given more opportunity to participate in the regulatory process. We have established a sunset review program for major new regulations and cut Federal paperwork by 15 percent. We created a Regulatory Council, which is eliminating inconsistent regulations and encouraging innovative regulatory techniques saving hundreds of millions of dollars while still meeting important statutory goals. And Congress recently passed the Regulatory Flexibility Act, which converts into law my administrative program requiring Federal agencies to work to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens on small business. I am hopeful for congressional action on my broad regulatory reform proposal now pending, to help complete congressional action on my regulatory reform proposals.

Today these efforts continue with deregulation of the railroad industry and mark the past 4 years as a time in which the Congress and the executive branch stepped forward together in the most significant and successful deregulation program in our Nation’s history. We have secured the most fundamental restructuring of the relationship between industry and government since the time of the New Deal.

In recent decades the problems of the railroad industry have become severe. Its 1979 rate of return on net investment was 2.7 percent, as compared to over 10 percent for comparable industries. We have seen a number of major railroad bankruptcies and the continuing expenditure of billions of Federal dollars to keep railroads running. Service and equipment have deteriorated. A key reason for this state of affairs has been overregulation by the Federal Government. At the heart of this legislation is freeing the railroad industry and its customers from such excessive control.

Obama’s Transportation Plan

President Obama proposed an expansive spending plan for highways, transit, and other infrastructure in his 2016 budget.

Here are some of the problems with the president’s approach:

  • Misguided Funding Source. The president proposes hitting U.S. corporations with a special 14 percent tax on their accumulated foreign earnings to raise $238 billion. This proposal is likely going nowhere in Congress, and it is bad economic policy. The Obama administration seems to view the foreign operations of U.S. companies as an enemy to be punished, but in fact foreign business operations generally complement U.S. production and help boost U.S. exports.
  • Increases Spending. The Obama six-year transportation spending plan of $478 billion is an increase of $126 billion above current spending levels. Instead of increasing federal spending on highways and transit, we should be cutting it, as it is generally less efficient that state-funded spending. To close the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) gap, we should cut highway and transit spending to balance it with current HTF revenues, which mainly come from gas and diesel taxes.
  • Increases Central Control. The Obama plan would increase federal subsidies for freight rail and “would require development of state and regional freight transportation plans,” according to this description. But freight rail has been a great American success story since it was deregulated by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. So let’s not reverse course and start increasing federal intervention again. Let’s let Union Pacific and the other railroads make their own “plans;” we don’t need government-mandated plans.
  • Undermines User Pays. For reasons of both fairness and efficiency, it is a good idea to fund infrastructure with charges on infrastructure users. In recent decades, the HTF has moved away from the original user-pays model of gas taxes funding highways, as funds have been diverted to mass transit, bicycle paths, and other activities. Obama would move further away from user pays, both with his corporate tax plan and with his proposed replacement of the HTF with a broader Transportation Trust Fund.
  • Expands Mass Transit Subsidies. The Obama plan would greatly increase spending on urban bus and rail systems. But there is no proper federal role in providing subsidies for such local activities. Indeed, federal transit subsidies distort efficient local decision making—the lure of “free” federal dollars induces local politicians to make unwise and wasteful choices. Arlington, Virginia’s million-dollar bus stop is a good example.

For background on the transportation battle heating up in Congress, see my articles here and here. And see the writings of Randal O’Toole, Robert Poole, Emily Goff, and Ken Orski.

And you can check out the writings of Robert Puentes of Brookings, who joined me on C-Span today to discuss these issues.

When Mean-Tested Benefits Rose, Labor Force Participation Fell

The U.S. job market has tightened by many measures – more advertised job openings, fewer claims for initial unemployment insurance, substantial reduction in long-term unemployment and the number of discouraged workers.  Yet the percentage of working-age population that is either working or looking for work (the labor force participation rate) remains extremely low.  This is a big problem, since projections of future economic growth are constructed by adding expected growth of productivity to growth of the labor force.

Why have so many people dropped out of the labor force?  Since they’re not working (at least in the formal economy), how do they pay for things like food, rent and health care?

One explanation answers both questions: More people are relying on a variety of means-tested cash and in-kind benefits that are made available only on the condition that recipients report little or no earned income.   Since qualification for one benefit often results in qualification for others, the effect can be equivalent to a high marginal tax rate on extra work (such as switching from a 20 to 40 hour workweek, or a spouse taking a job).  Added labor income can often result in loss of multiple benefits, such as disability benefits, supplemental security income, the earned income tax credit, food stamps and Medicaid. 

This graph compares annual labor force participation rates with Congressional Budget Office data on means-tested federal benefits as a percent of GDP.  The data appear consistent with work disincentives in federal transfer payments, labor tax rates and refundable tax credits.