Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

The Federal Spending Juggernaut

Over the weekend, the Senate approved the $1.1 trillion Cromnibus spending package, which funds parts of the government through September 2015.

The ink isn’t even dry on this spending bill, and already big spenders in Congress are gearing up to increase next year’s spending above agreed upon limits. The Wall Street Journal describes the situation:

After four years of a divided Congress, Republicans will take full control of both chambers in January with hopes of passing individual spending bills under an orderly process rarely seen in recent years. But complicating their task will be the return of the across-the-board spending cuts known as the “sequester” birthed out of the 2011 debt-ceiling deal, which set caps on spending for the next decade.

A two-year bipartisan budget deal brokered by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) eased those cuts for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. But the $1.1 trillion bill passed over the weekend, which will fund most of the government through September 2015, marks the final stretch of that agreement.

In fiscal 2016 the cuts return in full force. Lawmakers broadly agree the reductions inflict blunt pain on the federal budget. But Democrats and Republicans are at odds about how to mitigate them in a dispute likely to grow in intensity during the coming months.

Government Job Security

Federal employees are generally overpaid. Federal, civilian employees made $81,076 in 2013 in wages, on average, compared to $55,424 in the private sector. Their benefit packages are particularly out of line with the private sector. Total compensation including wages and benefits for federal, civilian employees was $115,524 in 2013, on average, compared to $66,357 in the private sector.

A new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that the advantages of government employment include more than just higher compensation.  Government jobs are more secure, and employees are more likely to keep their jobs during economic downturns.

The authors of the study, Jason L. Kopelman and Harvey S. Rosen, used data for 800,000 workers from 1984 to 2012 to study the differences in job loss rates between workers in the private and public sectors. They wanted to determine how the differentials changed during recessions. They asked: Are government jobs more secure during recessions?

The results are striking. According to the researchers, “public sector jobs, while not generally recession-proof, do offer more security than private sector jobs, and the advantage widens during recessions. These patterns are present across genders, races, and educational groups.”

The researchers found that private sector workers are 4.2 percent more likely to lose their jobs than federal employees during nonrecession periods. The gap grows during recessions; private workers are 6.5 percent more likely to lose their jobs than federal employees. During the Great Recession, the gap narrowed slightly. Private workers were only 5.3 percent more likely than federal employees to lose their jobs.

The results for state and local government employees are similar. Private sector workers are 4.6 percent more likely than local government employees and 4.7 percent than state government employees to lose their jobs during a recession.

The study does not discuss the causes of the high federal job security, but a number of reasons seem obvious: civil service protections, the strength of federal employee unions, manager unwillingness to fire poor performers, and the greater budget stability in the government than the private sector.

In sum, the new NBER study provides input to the discussion about federal versus private pay. Federal workers received generous compensation packages, but they enjoy other advantages as well, such as higher job security.

Details of the Cromnibus

Last night, House and Senate negotiators released the legislative text for the government’s newest spending bill, dubbed the “Cromnibus.” The bill authorizes the government to spend $1.01 trillion on discretionary programs between now and September 30, 2015. The total spending level honors last year’s Ryan-Murray budget deal, but also makes a number of important changes to federal law.

These changes include:

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA’s funding was cut by $60 million over last fiscal year. The agency’s budget has been cut by 21 percent since fiscal year 2010.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Following President Obama’s executive action on immigration, Republican sought to limit funding for DHS. According to the deal, DHS is only funded through February. The incoming Congress will need to fund the agency for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS): The IRS’ budget is cut by $345.6 million.

ObamaCare: The bill does not cut funding to ObamaCare implementation, but it also does not include any new funding to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Internal Revenue Service, the two agencies with primary implementation responsibilities. The bill also limits ObamaCare’s risk corridor provision, which provided a bailout to insurance companies.

Marijuana: The District of Columbia voted overwhelmingly in November to legalize marijuana. The Cromnibus halts the legalization process.

Yucca Mountain: The bill continues funding for the proposed nuclear storage site. Earlier this year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed Yucca Mountain’s safety.

Overseas Contingency Operations: The budget deal also provides $64 billion in funding for military operations, including $5 billion for the fight against ISIS. The $64 billion is in addition to the $1.01 trillion in discretionary spending.

Internet Tax Moratorium: The federal moratorium on state and local internet taxes continues for one year.

 

Debunking the Debunking of Dynamic Scoring and the Laffer Curve

Many statists are worried that Republicans may install new leadership at the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) and Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

This is a big issue because these two score-keeping bureaucracies on Capitol Hill tilt to the left and have a lot of power over fiscal policy.

The JCT produces revenue estimates for tax bills, yet all their numbers are based on the naive assumption that tax policy generally has no impact on overall economic performance. Meanwhile, CBO produces both estimates for spending bills and also fiscal commentary and analysis, much of it based on the Keynesian assumption that government spending boosts economic growth.

I personally have doubts whether congressional Republicans are smart enough to make wise personnel choices, but I hope I’m wrong.

Matt Yglesias of Vox also seems pessimistic, but for the opposite reason.

He has a column criticizing Republicans for wanting to push their policies by using “magic math” and he specifically seeks to debunk the notion - sometimes referred to as dynamic scoring or the Laffer Curve - that changes in tax policy may lead to changes in economic performance that affect economic performance.

He asks nine questions and then provides his version of the right answers. Let’s analyze those answers and see which of his points have merit and which ones fall flat.

But even before we get to his first question, I can’t resist pointing out that he calls dynamic scoring “an accounting gimmick from the 1970s” in his introduction. That is somewhat odd since the JCT and CBO were both completely controlled by Democrats at the time and there was zero effort to do anything other than static scoring.

I suppose Yglesias actually means that dynamic scoring first became an issue in the 1970s as Ronald Reagan (along with Jack Kemp and a few other lawmakers) began to argue that lower marginal tax rates would generate some revenue feedback because of improved incentives to work, save, and invest.

Now let’s look at his nine questions and see if we can debunk his debunking:

Government Waste Continues

Earlier this week, I noted that some Inspectors General provide insufficient oversight of federal government activities. They should be more aggressive in uncovering waste and abuse in federal agencies.  

Nonetheless, many Inspectors General issue helpful reports that alert Congress and the public to wrongdoing. Here is a sampling of recent reports showing the widespread mishandling of federal tax dollars:

  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS): Tax fraud by incarcerated individuals amounted to $1 billion in 2012, growing from $166 million in 2007. One inmate defrauded the government of $4 million over a 10-year period.
  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS): The Inspector General for DHS issued a new report highlighting 68 ways that the agency has wasted tax dollars. The list includes a $1.5 billion cost overrun for construction of the agency’s new headquarters, FEMA’s botched handling of relief for Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac, DHS employees claiming unearned overtime, and insufficient oversight of DHS’s procurement processes.
  • Housing and Urban Development (HUD): According to HUD’s Inspector General, New York City misspent $183 million it received from the federal government to rebuild hospitals following Hurricane Sandy. The city used the funds for employee pay and benefits, which were not allowable grant expenses.
  • Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA): Over the course of 20 years, the DEA allowed an individual running a Ponzi scheme to conduct onsite investment training for employees. The trainer, Kenneth McLeod, used the seminars to solicit clients for his bond investment fund, which promised risk-free returns of 8 to 10 percent. More than half of McLeod’s 130 investors came from the DEA. The Inspector General cites DEA for numerous oversight lapses including failing to verify McLeod’s credentials.

Even with the recent politicization of some Inspector General reports, the reports can be useful to illuminate waste, mismanagement, and fraud within the federal government.

Mississippi Copies Misguided Energy Subsidies

The federal government has a long history of “green energy” failures. Many states have also foolishly subsidized green energy, including Mississippi.

KiOR biofuels launched several years ago with much fanfare. The company was supposed to turn wood chips into liquid hydrocarbons for use as fuel and promised to revolutionize the energy industry. Its chief investor, Vinod Khosla, described KiOR’s refinery as “an amazing facility.”

The company benefited from a federal biofuel requirement that mandated refiners use 16 billion gallons of biofuels annually by 2022. It then sought out state subsidies. The company decided to locate in Mississippi after the state offered a $75 million, no-interest loan. In exchange, the company promised to create 1,000 jobs by December 2015.

Yet the company had financial problems that were apparent from the start. Operating costs  ran $5 to $10 a gallon. The Washington Post reports that court papers estimated KiOR’s revenue at just $2.25 million but losses of $629.3 million.  

Production issues also plagued the facility. The system that fed wood chips into the plant frequently malfunctioned. The process converted less than 40 percent of its inputs into gasoline or diesel, leading to higher costs.

The problems were too much for the company to overcome. It filed bankruptcy in November and  still owes Mississippi $69.5 million.

This loan is just one of the many types of energy subsidies that Mississippi provides to green energy companies. The state exempts some green energy manufacturers from taxes. It has provided grants and loans to multiple companies.

Tax Money Down the Drain

There are many types of federal government waste. Perhaps the most glaring is spending on projects that simply do not work. The money is spent, but taxpayers receive no benefit.

From the Washington Post:

Social Security officials have acknowledged that the agency spent nearly $300 million on a computer project that doesn’t work. The agency, however, is trying to revive it. The program is supposed to help workers process and manage claims for disability benefits.

Six years ago, the agency embarked on an aggressive plan to replace outdated computer systems overwhelmed by a growing flood of disability claims. But the project has been racked by delays and mismanagement, according to an internal report the agency commissioned.

As a wild guess, let’s say that skilled computer techs cost $150,000 a year in wages and benefits. Apparently then, about 333 of them have been paid for six years, yet have made little or no progress on this mishandled Social Security project.

Here’s a much larger taxpayer black hole, also reported in the Washington Post this week:

One of the first casualties was the Crusader artillery program, which was canceled after the Pentagon spent more than $2 billion on it. Then there was the Comanche helicopter debacle, which got the ax after $8 billion. More than twice that amount had been sunk into the Army’s Future Combat System, but that program got killed, too.

In all, between 2001 and 2011 the Defense Department spent $46 billion on at least a dozen programs—including a new version of the president’s helicopter—that never became operational, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Any organization will go down some wrong paths when it comes to advanced technologies, but $46 billion is a remarkable amount to have sunk into dead-end projects. Let’s say that engineers, machinists, managers, and other workers at defense firms earn an average of $200,000 a year. The $46 billion lost would be like having a small city of 23,000 such high-skill people beavering away for a decade on projects that all end up in the trash bin. I’m not an expert on procurement, but I do know that is a lot of human talent for the government to waste.