Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Talking Taxes with Rep. Ralph Hall

Rep. Ralph Hall is in the news for losing to a primary challenger in his Texas district. I first met 91-year-old Hall just last week as we were on a Capitol Hill panel together organized by the Texas Association of Business (TAB). In the photo, that’s Hall to my right and Rep. Kevin Brady and TAB head Bill Hammond on my left. (Photo credit: Office of Rep. Hall).

One thing we discussed was how tax reform has stalled because the two parties see “reform” so differently. Rep. Brady noted that the Democrats keep insisting on tax increases as part of any tax reform. I noted that the Democrats have moved so far to left on economics in recent years that it makes 1986-style tax reform very difficult to achieve.

The 1986 Tax Reform Act was a major bipartisan success, with Democratic leaders such as Dick Gephardt and Bill Bradley playing key roles. This 1985 article in Cato Journal by Gephardt reads almost like it could have been written by a Cato scholar, so you can see how the tax deal was possible.

The gulf between that article by a leading Democrat in the 1980s and the relentless drive today by the Obama administration to raise taxes in the most anti-growth of ways is huge. I discussed Democratic tax policy then and now in this op-ed.

Rep. Hall himself reflects the changing party ideologies. He had been a Democrat for decades and always considered himself to be a conservative. But a decade ago he finally switched parties to better line up his beliefs with his affiliation. His loss to a Republican challenger apparently stemmed from the desire to see a fresh face in the district. And yet, when it comes to fresh faces, I sure hope I look as good as Hall does at 91.

Veterans Affairs in the Federal Budget

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the fifth largest agency measured by spending. Looking at estimated outlays for 2014, VA spending of $151 billion comes in behind the Department of Health and Human Services at $958 billion, the Social Security Administration at $914 billion, the Department of Defense at $593 billion, and the Department of Treasury (mainly interest costs) at $469 billion. See Table 4.1.

Figure 1 below shows that VA spending has tripled since 2000. Figure 2 shows the breakdown of VA spending by function. Interestingly, the largest function is not hospital and medical care, but income security. Within income security, the largest item is compensation paid to veterans for disabilities incurred in, or aggravated during, active military service. (Figure 2 based on calculations from database here).

The Obama administration’s most recent budget summary for the VA is here. It promises “high quality and timely health care services” and “improvements in efficiency and responsiveness.”

The Obama budget also notes: “The Nation has a solemn obligation to take care of its veterans and to honor them for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States.”

VA Spending

VA Spending Outlays

Further VA budget details are here and here.

Is Obama Really the Most Frugal President of the Past 50 Years?!?

Two years ago, there was a flurry of excitement because MarketWatch journalist Rex Nutting crunched annual budget numbers and proclaimed that Barack Obama was the most fiscally conservative president since at least 1980.

I looked at the data and found a few mistakes, such as a failure to adjust the numbers for inflation, but Nutting’s overall premise was reasonably accurate.

As you can see from the tables I prepared back in 2012, Obama was the third most frugal president based on the growth of total inflation-adjusted spending.

And he was in first place if you looked at primary spending, which is total spending after removing net interest payments (a reasonable step since presidents can’t really be blamed for interest payments on the debt accrued by their predecessors).

So does this mean Obama is a closet conservative, as my old—but misguided—buddy Bruce Bartlett asserted?

Bush’s Big Government Legacy: DHS

In the months and years after the 9/11 disaster, federal policymakers did what they usually do after crises: they increased spending and seized more power. At the Bush administration’s urging, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 as a complex amalgamation of 22 different federal agencies.

President Bush promised that DHS would “improve efficiency without growing government,” while creating “future savings achieved through the elimination of redundancies inherent in the current structure.” The DHS would promote “operational efficiencies,” “better asset utilization,” “targeted, effective programs,” etc, etc.    

It did not turn out that way. Bush’s promise of creating a lean, efficient DHS was just empty rhetoric. DHS’s budget tripled from $18 billion in 2002 to $57 billion by 2013  (Table 4.1). The DHS workforce expanded from a huge 163,000 employees in 2004 to an even larger 193,000 by 2013.

A small bit of good news is that taxpayers may be spared the costs of a planned DHS Taj Mahal. From the Washington Post yesterday:

The construction of a massive new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, billed as critical for national security and the revitalization of Southeast Washington, is running more than $1.5 billion over budget, is 11 years behind schedule and may never be completed, according to planning documents and federal officials.

It looks like gridlock was the taxpayers’ benefactor in this case:

…the capital region’s largest planned construction project since the Pentagon — has become a monumental example of Washington inefficiency and drift. Bedeviled by partisan brawling, it has been starved of funds by both Republicans and Democrats.

Bigness and centralization rarely lead to quality and efficiency in government. So let’s hope that this Bush-era project is laid to rest and that policymakers start focusing on those “future savings” that we were promised.

Washington Steers Investment Astray

Experience shows that green business subsidies are a green light for misallocation and inefficiency. Subsidy programs seem to prompt company leaders to think:

  • “Washington experts say this is a good idea. Let’s do it!”
  • “Yeehaw, we’re getting free money. Let’s blow the bank!”

Those sorts of thoughts seem to have steered Southern Company into building a very expressive boondoggle project in Mississippi. The clean coal plant is to include a complex carbon capture system with a 62-mile pipeline. The Washington Post reports:

The only thing the Kemper power plant is burning now is money. The plant has suffered almost every kind of cost overrun, beset by bad weather, labor costs, shortages and “inconsistent” quality of equipment and materials, and contractor and supplier delays. Southern said in April that it was raising the projected cost of the plant by $235 million, to a total of $5.5 billion, more than double the original estimate.

So the Kemper plant yielded to Edwards’ Law of cost overruns. When the government subsidizes large and complex projects, costs tend to double. The Southern plant “received a $270 million grant from the Energy Department and $133 million of federal investment tax credits — though by blowing a deadline, Southern will lose some tax benefits.”

The Post story mentions another company that was led astray by the pied piper of green subsidies:

The electric utility AEP, one of the largest U.S. emitters of greenhouse gases, built a pilot plant (half financed by the Energy Department) for capturing and burying CO2 from its Mountaineer plant in New Haven, W.Va. But the project was abandoned because it was too expensive.

There is one more failure mentioned by the Post: “… for years a proposed carbon capture and storage consortium called FutureGen, backed in part by federal funds, has failed to get off the ground.”

These projects indicate that when considering the waste caused by business subsidies, you cannot just tally up the federal cash out of the door. You also need to consider the private money following the government money as it is flushed down the drain.

Would You Prefer Cronyism or Paternalism With Your Government Potatoes?

Government has so many ignoble tendencies, it’s often difficult to guess which ones are driving any particular policy choice.  For example, how does the government decide which products are available for purchase using WIC benefits?  As reported today in DC political newspaper, The Hill:

A new rider to the 2014 funding bill for the Agriculture Department forbids the agency from excluding “any variety of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables, except for vegetables with added sugars, fats, or oils, from being provided as supplemental foods” under the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) is a lead sponsor of the language and can be expected to defend it from attacks during a full committee markup of the bill. 

The Agriculture Department excluded white potatoes from its list of approved items in 2009 because it argued they do not contain enough nutritional value and people shouldn’t be encouraged to buy them. Lawmakers fighting the exclusion are predominantly from the largest potato-growing areas such as Idaho and Maine.

I’m hopeful that Congress and the USDA will figure out just the right mix of paternalism and cronyism needed to ensure the effectiveness of federal food assistance programs.

More Infrastructure? Cut Business Taxes

Infrastructure is in the news as policymakers face a deadline to pass a new highway bill. President Obama visited the Tappan Zee Bridge yesterday and said that “rebuilding America … shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” and then cast blame on the Republicans.

The president is right that America ought to have better infrastructure. But the leaders of both parties are overlooking the most straightforward and powerful way to do it: slashing taxes on business investment.

Most of America’s infrastructure is provided by the private sector, not governments. In fact, private infrastructure spending—on factories, freight rail, cell phone towers, pipelines, refineries, and many other items—is more than four times larger than federal, state, and local government infrastructure spending combined. BEA Table 1.5.5 shows that gross private fixed investment in 2013 was $2.56 trillion, while investment by all levels of government was $606 billion.

Private investment was $2.05 trillion when you take out residential. And government investment was $448 billion when you take out defense. Thus, when infrastructure is measured this way, private investment is also more than four times larger than government investment.

Why do U.S. companies spend more than $2 trillion a year on infrastructure? They do it in the hopes of earning profits years down the road from often risky investments. The government stands in the way of these growth-generating investments by confiscating a large share of those profits with income taxes.

We have the highest federal-state corporate income tax rate in the world at 40 percent, which sends a strong signal to manufacturers, utilities, energy firms, and other infrastructure companies not to expand and upgrade their facilities. If policymakers want infrastructure, they should slash the federal corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, which is the rate in Canada after recent reforms.

Another reform is “capital expensing,” meaning allowing businesses to immediately deduct the cost of new fixed investments. That tax treatment would be a huge simplification, and it would end the anti-investment bias in our income tax system. In recent years, Congress has passed temporary and partial capital expensing measures, but we really need a permanent policy change so that businesses could plan for the long term.

Also, expensing should be expanded to include business structures, such as factory buildings, and not just business equipment as has been the case in recent years. The chart at the bottom shows that real U.S. investment in structures was hammered by the recession and still remains at disturbingly low levels (BEA Table 1.5.6).