Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

OMB Director Sets a Low Bar for Deficit Reform

Jonathan House reported [$] in the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. government’s budget deficit narrowed in its 2014 fiscal year to its lowest level in six years, as an improving economy boosted tax revenues.

The annual deficit for fiscal year 2014 fell 29% to $483.35 billion, the Treasury Department said Wednesday… the lowest deficit since 2008. …

The 2014 deficit fell to 2.8% of the country’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic output. This measure, preferred by economists because it offers greater context, was at its lowest level since the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007.

“This is not only a reduction of the deficit, it’s also a return to fiscal normalcy,” said White House budget director Shaun Donovan.

The Obama administration’s definition of “fiscal normalcy” is a deficit just under half a trillion dollars, larger than in any year before 2009.

The national debt, which was about $5.7 trillion when George W. Bush entered office and $11 trillion when he turned the White House over to Barack Obama, is now at just a shade under $18 trillion. And the director of the Office of Management and Budget declares that a “return to fiscal normalcy.” Where is Warren Harding now that we need him? 

But hold on, there’s more: Donovan also noted that the federal government has abandoned its “harmful excessive budget austerity.” So we can expect more spending, and more deficits, and more debt, in the years to come.

Accuracy of Macroeconomic Forecasts

One of my first professional jobs 25 years ago was with the economic forecasting firm DRI/McGraw-Hill. It was fun work, but I noticed that the firm’s gross domestic product forecasts with models hundreds of equations long were no better than simple forecasts based on the interest rate yield curve.

I’m sure that macroeconomic models have grown more sophisticated today, but they still can’t predict very well. Former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, Edward Lazear, has a terrific piece today describing the inaccuracy of government forecasting models:

My analysis of 1999–2013 reveals that the [Congressional Budget Office]’s real GDP growth forecasts for the next year were off, on average, by 1.7 percentage points, either too high or low. Administration forecasts were similarly off by a slightly larger 1.8 percentage points on average, also too high or too low. Given that the average growth rate during this period was only 2.1%, errors of this magnitude are substantial.

Perhaps most damning: History is a better predictor of annual growth than government forecasts. Simply assuming that GDP growth will be 3.1% in each year—the average annual rate for the 30 years that precede the study period—results in an average forecast error of 1.5 percentage points.

Lazear’s article should be posted above the desk of every reporter and pundit writing about the macroeconomy. And it should be kept in mind by politicians, who often claim that such-and-such policy will create such-and-such number of jobs based on such models.

The lesson for federal budget policy should be one of prudence. We don’t know where the economy is headed, so policymakers should cut spending, zero out deficits, and start paying down debt now while we’re enjoying a run of sustained growth.

Less Is More in the Federal Government

Daniel Henninger nailed it in his article “Killer Bureaucracies,” which discussed the poor performance of so many federal agencies recently. He called for “scaled-down, distributed public responsibilities” to reduce bureaucratic failure.

To that end, Congress should pursue three reforms:

  1. Eliminate bureaucracies that we do not need. Departments that mainly pump out subsidies and intrude on properly state, local, and private activities should be terminated, including the Departments of Agriculture, Education, and Energy. Federal organizations that perform useful business functions should be privatized, including USPS, FAA, TSA, Amtrak, TVA, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
  2. When feasible, scrap department superstructures—such as Homeland Security—because they add complexity and blur responsibility. Homeland agencies, such as the Secret Service and Border Patrol, should stand on their own, have narrowly-defined tasks, and report directly to the president.
  3. Assign the oversight for each agency to a single House and single Senate committee so that citizens know which politicians are to blame for failures. Homeland Security is currently overseen by more than 90 committees and subcommittees, but that’s absurd because when every politician is responsible, none of them are.

The federal bureaucracy can work better, but only if it is much smaller.

The Great Society Meets the Taxpayer

President Lyndon Johnson’s legacy was the so-called Great Society (read: entitlement programs). As these programs have matured, along with the U.S. population, the proportion of the people dependent on the State has soared. Indeed, spending on entitlement programs gobbles up bigger and bigger chunks of the federal budget.

As the population grows older, entitlements will grow. Worryingly, the ratio of people receiving government benefits to those paying taxes will continue to climb, too. As the accompanying chart shows, those who receive government goodies already number the same as those who pay taxes (the ratio is one). With the steady progression of the ratio, it will be very hard to put the genie of the Great Society back in the bottle. Can you just imagine how difficult it will be to cut entitlement programs when those who are dependent on the government outnumber taxpayers by two to one?

Overpaid Federal Employees

With the election only weeks away, pundits are visualizing how a Republican-controlled Senate would impact future policy decisions.  Today’s Washington Post highlights the supposed plight of federal workers under a Republican Congress.

The piece discusses House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal:

Under the Ryan budget, the contribution of most federal employees toward their retirement plan would increase by 5.5 percentage points with no increase in benefits — effectively a pay cut. Ryan emphasizes a “defined-contribution system” that centers on employee payments to their retirement program instead of the current system, which includes pensions from the U.S. government. He estimated his plan would save the government $125 billion over 10 years.

That $125 billion in savings, however, would come from the pockets of federal employees.

The piece continues in a similar vein discussing Republican-supported legislation that would make it easier for federal employees to be disciplined, fired, and restricted in their conference expenditures–all  reasonable proposals. It cites federal employee union officials on the difficulties these policies would place on federal workers.

Failing to Track Highway Spending

The problems with federal highway spending are well documented. The program distorts project incentives and distributes money inefficiently. A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) adds to the list of problems, detailing improper fund management within the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

In 2014 the highway trust fund collected $39 billion in fuel tax revenues, but spent $53 billion, creating a $14 billion deficit. This was not an isolated event. Since 2008 Congress has provided  $50 billion of general federal revenues to prop up the highway trust fund. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the highway trust fund will require another $157 billion of general revenues by 2024.

Funds from the highway trust fund are spent by several agencies, with the bulk allocated by FHWA. In fiscal year 2013, FHWA spent $41 billion, or 80 percent, of all highway funds. Of that, $39 billion was sent to states; the majority going to road and bridge construction and improvement.

But GAO found that FHWA is poorly tracking how this money is being spent. According to GAO,  “FHWA tracks and reports aggregate obligations for its “major projects” (projects with a total cost of $500 million or more), it does not collect and report aggregate obligations for other projects, which represented nearly 88 percent of all fiscal year 2013 spending.” GAO’s analysis states that $36 billion in federal highway funding is not being properly tracked by FHWA.

Tracking this information would allow FHWA to provide greater oversight on projects, and to provide Congress and the public greater detail about spending projects and priorities. The agency could track cost growth on projects and perhaps stop cost overruns, which are common on transportation projects.

FWHA already has the technology to make these improvements. GAO notes that FHWA’s computer system already has the capability to track this data, but the agency does not feel inclined to use this capability.

Congress’ current short-term patch to the highway trust fund expires in May. FHWA’s adoption of GAO’s recommendations would allow both Congress and the agency to better control spending and lower the imbalance between spending and revenues.

Department of Homeland Security: Who Needs It?

The Secret Service is scandal prone. It spends excessively on foreign presidential trips, and it has agents who get in trouble with prostitutes and liquor bottles. The recent White House fence-jumping incident was a stunning failure. Despite the Service spending $1.9 billion a year, a guy with a knife jumped the fence, sprinted across the lawn, pushed open the front door, galloped through the Entrance Hall, danced across the East Room, and almost had time to sit down for a cup of tea in the Green Room.

In the wake of the incident, the head of the Secret Service resigned. But the Service is an agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the head of DHS, Jeh Johnson, did not resign. Indeed, he said very little about it, presumably to evade responsibility. So what is the purpose of having the DHS bureaucratic superstructure on top of agencies such as the Secret Service? If DHS does not correct problems at agencies when they fester for years, and if DHS leaders do not take responsibility for agency failures, why do we need it?

A new survey of 40,000 DHS employees reported in the Washington Post finds that the department has severe management problems:

The government’s 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey portrays a Department of Homeland Security still facing debilitating morale problems that have plagued it for years but worsened during the Obama administration — and which have grown more serious since Johnson took over in December.

While the survey shows that the vast majority of DHS employees are hard-working and dedicated to their mission to protect the homeland, many say the department discourages innovation, treats employees in an arbitrary fashion and fails to recruit skilled personnel.

At the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, for example, only 21 percent of employees in this year’s survey held positive views of their leadership’s ability to “generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce,’’ according to results for that division.

Since its inception, the department has been plagued by poor morale and a work environment widely seen as dysfunctional, which has contributed to an exodus of top-level officials in recent years, many of whom have been lured by private security companies.

Only 41.6 percent of DHS employees said they were satisfied with the department, down from 44.4 percent a year earlier.

In 2013, only 29.9 percent of employees department-wide had a positive view of their leaders’ ability to “generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce.’’ That number plunged to 24.9 percent this year.

That’s all pretty pathetic. But this is the most stunning result from the survey: “Asked if their leaders ‘maintain high standards of honesty and integrity,’ just 39.1 percent of employees responded positively.”

The 2002 creation of DHS was a mistake. Congress should revisit its handiwork, and begin unbundling the department and closing it down. Some DHS agencies, such as the Secret Service, should be stand-alone organizations that report directly to the president. Some DHS agencies should be moved to existing departments. And some DHS agencies, including TSA, ought to be abolished.