When it comes to reining in federal spending, House Republicans and the president have one idea in common: freezing nondefense discretionary spending. That category accounts for about 18 percent of total spending, so let’s see how such a freeze would affect the overall budget.
Today the Congressional Budget Office released updated budget figures and baseline projections of federal spending through fiscal 2021. Projecting the budgetary future is obviously an inexact science, and the CBO’s baseline reflects unrealistic assumptions. However, it does allow us to get an idea of the impact of a nondefense discretionary freeze on total federal spending.
Three proposals have been put forward:
Using the CBO’s latest figures, I calculated baseline spending from fiscal 2012-2021 under ten year freezes in nondefense discretionary spending at fiscal 2006, 2008, and 2010 levels:
Note: To make an apples-to-apples comparison, I extended the proposed Obama freeze at fiscal 2010 levels from five years to ten years, and I assumed a ten year freeze at fiscal 2008 levels for the House Republicans. Also, projected annual interest payments on the debt are excluded. Therefore, the chart refers to “baseline program spending,” which is the sum of nondefense discretionary, defense, and entitlement spending.
The chart makes it excruciatingly clear that freezing nondefense discretionary spending at the levels specified or implied by Republicans and Democrats is only a start toward needed reforms in the federal budget. Congress also needs to cut defense spending, and spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs.
Grousing about the GOP’s timidity in the battle against big government will probably become an ongoing theme over the next few months. Two items don’t bode well for fiscal discipline.
As they prepare to take power on Wednesday, Republican leaders are scaling back that number by as much as half, aides say, because the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, will be nearly half over before spending cuts could become law.
This is hardly good news, particularly since the discretionary portion of the budget contains entire departments, such as Housing and Urban Development, that should be immediately abolished.
That being said, I don’t think this necessarily means the GOP has thrown in the towel. The real key is to reverse the Bush-Obama spending binge and put the government on some sort of diet so that the federal budget grows slower than the private economy. I explain in this video, for instance, that it is simple to balance the budget and maintain tax cuts so long as government spending grows by only 2 percent each year.
It is a good idea to get as much savings as possible for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, to be sure, but the real key is the long-run trajectory of federal spending.
The second item is the GOP’s apparent interest in retaining Douglas Elmendorf, the current director of the Congressional Budget Office.
Many of you will remember that the CBO cooked the books last year to help ram through Obamacare. Under Elmendorf’s watch, CBO also was a relentless advocate and defender of Obama’s failed stimulus. And CBO under Elmendorf published reports saying higher taxes would improve economic performance.
But Elmendorf’s statist positions apparently are not a problem for some senior Republicans, as reported by The Hill.
The new House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), gave a very public endorsement of the embattled head of the Congressional Budget Office during his first major speech as committee head Wednesday night. …“You’re doing a great job at CBO, Doug,” Ryan said after receiving the first annual Fiscy Award for his efforts at tackling the national debt. He added that he looked forward to crunching budget numbers with him in the future.
In the long run, the failure to deal with the problems at CBO (as well as the Joint Committee on Taxation) may cause even more problems than the timidity about cutting $100 billion of waste from the 2011 budget. Given the rules on Capitol Hill, it makes a huge difference whether CBO and JCT are putting out flawed numbers.
I’ve already written that fixing the mess at CBO and JCT is a critical test of GOP resolve, and I actually thought this would be a relatively easy test for them to pass. It is an ominous sign that Republicans aren’t even trying to clean house.
I’ve already written about the terrible work of the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO did an awful job on the stimulus, for instance, repeatedly asserting that diverting money from the private sector to government somehow would create jobs. CBO also was a disaster on Obamacare, claiming that a giant new entitlement program would reduce budget deficits. And the legislative bureaucracy even has argued that higher tax rates boost growth.
That sounds absurd (and it is), but CBO is not the only taxpayer-funded bureaucracy on Capitol Hill producing this kind of nonsensical analysis. The Congressional Research Service just published a new report asserting that higher tax rates will boost economic performance. Here’s an excerpt from that CRS publication.
…it is ambiguous whether tax cuts lead to more or less work, saving, and investment. The expiration of the tax cuts would nevertheless reduce the budget deficit, absent other policy changes, which economic theory predicts would have a positive effect on the economy in the long run.
To be fair, CRS doesn’t actually claim higher taxes are good for growth. And neither does CBO. But CRS and CBO both assert that there is no clear evidence that higher taxes hurt growth. Budget deficits, however, supposedly have a very negative impact on economic performance according to these Capitol Hill bureaucrats. More specifically, CRS and CBO believe that government borrowing leads to higher interest rates, and they think that higher interest rates reduce investment. And since investment is a key to long-run growth, this leads them to endorse any policy – including higher taxes – that reduces red ink.
Taking the CRS and CBO analysis to its logical extreme (and neither bureaucracy has stated that there are limits to their methodology), tax rates of 100 percent would be the most effective way of maximizing prosperity.
This video explains that the real problem is spending, and that deficits are just a symptom of a government that is too big. This is not to say that CRS and CBO are completely wrong. We have record budget deficits and very low interest rates today, but it’s possible that interest rates might be even lower without all the red ink. And it’s certainly true that interest rates are one of the many factors that determine investment choices, so there’s nothing wrong with including them in the equation.
But magnitudes matter. For all intents and purposes, CRS and CBO want us to believe that more government borrowing will have a very significant impact on interest rates and that those higher interest rates will have a very negative impact on investment. Yet neither bureaucracy offers any evidence for these linkages, in large part because the academic research shows that the relationships between deficits, interest rates, and investment are weak.
By contrast, CRS and CBO have no problem supporting higher tax rates – including more double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Yet there is considerable evidence that punitive tax rates have a significant impact not only on decisions to earn income and be productive, but also on decisions whether to consume today or to save and invest (and thus consume in the future). CRS and CBO also assume, rather naively, that politicians would use any additional revenue for deficit reduction instead of new spending.
Let’s call this the triumph of left-wing theory over real-world evidence. To add insult to injury, the sloppy analysis at CRS and CBO is financed by our tax dollars. So we pay bureaucrats so they can tell politicians to seize more money from us. Gee, what’s not to love about a scam like that?
P.S. If Republicans are actually serious about restraining government spending, CRS and CBO are target-rich environments. Just saying.
While I’m glad Republicans are finally talking about smaller government, I’ve expressed some disappointment with the GOP Pledge to America. Why “reform” Fannie and Freddie, I asked, when the right approach is to get the government completely out of the housing sector. Jacob Sullum of Reason is similarly underwhelmed. He writes:
In the “Pledge to America” they unveiled last week, House Republicans promise they will “launch a sustained effort to stem the relentless growth in government that has occurred over the past decade.” Who better for the job than the folks who ran the government for most of that time? …Republicans, you may recall, had a spending spree of their own during George W. Bush’s recently concluded administration, when both discretionary and total spending doubled – nearly 10 times the growth seen during Bill Clinton’s two terms. In fact, says Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, “President Bush increased government spending more than any of the six presidents preceding him, including LBJ.” Republicans controlled the House of Representatives for six of Bush’s eight years.
Redemption is a good thing, however, so maybe the GOP actually intends to do the right thing this time around. One key test is whether Republicans do a top-to-bottom housecleaning at both the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation.
These Capitol Hill bureaucracies are not well known, but they have enormous authority and influence. As the official scorekeepers of spending (CBO) and tax (JCT) bills, these two bureaucracies can mortally wound legislation or grease the skids for quick passage.
Unfortunately, that clout gets used to dramatically tilt the playing field in favor of bigger government. It was CBO that claimed that Obama’s stimulus created jobs, even though the head of CBO was forced to admit that the jobs-created number was the result of a Keynesian model that was rigged to show exactly that result . You would think that would shame the bureaucrats into producing honest numbers, but CBO continues to produce absurd job creation estimates regardless of the actual rate of unemployment.
CBO favors deficits and debt when it is asked to analyze proposals for more spending, but it rather conveniently changes its tune when the discussion shifts to tax increases. Since we’re on the topic of twisted economic analysis, CBO actually relies on a model which, for all intents and purposes, predicts that economic performance is maximized with 100 percent tax rates.
The Joint Committee on Taxation, meanwhile, is infamous for its assumption that taxes have no impact - at all - on economic output. In other words, instead of showing a Laffer Curve, JCT would show a straight line, with tax revenues continuing to rapidly climb even as tax rates approach 100 percent. This creates a huge bias against good tax policy, yet JCT is impervious to evidence that its approach is wildly flawed.
And don’t forget that CBO and JCT both bear responsibility for Obamacare since they cranked out preposterous estimates that a giant new entitlement would lead to lower budget deficits.
Not that we need additional evidence, but the head of the CBO just repeated his higher-taxes-equal-more-growth nonsense in testimony to the Senate Budget Committee. With this type of mindset, is it any surprise that fiscal policy is such a mess?
Douglas Elmendorf said extending breaks due to expire at year’s end would increase demand in the next few years by putting more money in consumers’ pockets. Over the long term, he said, the tax cuts would hurt the economy because the government would have to borrow so much money to finance them that it would begin competing with private companies seeking loans. That, in turn, would drive up interest rates, Elmendorf said.
I’ve already written once about how the GOP sabotaged itself when it didn’t fix the problems with these scorekeeping bureaucracies after 1994. If Republicans take power and don’t raze CBO and JCT, they will deserve to become a permanent minority party.
I hope the title of this post is an exaggeration, but it’s certainly a logical conclusion based on what is written in the Congressional Budget Office’s updated Economic and Budget Outlook. The Capitol Hill bureaucracy basically has a deficit-über-alles view of fiscal policy. CBO’s long-run perspective, as shown by this excerpt, is that deficits reduce output by “crowding out” private capital and that anything that results in lower deficits (or larger surpluses) will improve economic performance – even if this means big increases in tax rates.
CBO has also examined an alternative fiscal scenario reflecting several changes to current law that are widely expected to occur or that would modify some provisions of law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period. That alternative scenario embodies small differences in outlays relative to those projected under current law but significant differences in revenues: Under that scenario, most of the cuts in individual income taxes enacted in 2001 and 2003 and now scheduled to expire at the end of this year (except the lower rates applying to high-income taxpayers) are extended through 2020; relief from the AMT, which expired after 2009, continues through 2020; and the 2009 estate tax rates and exemption amounts (adjusted for inflation) apply through 2020. …Under those alternative assumptions, real GDP would be…lower in subsequent years than under CBO’s baseline forecast. …Under that alternative fiscal scenario, real GDP would fall below the level in CBO’s baseline projections later in the coming decade because the larger budget deficits would reduce or “crowd out” investment in productive capital and result in a smaller capital stock.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with CBO’s concern about deficits, but looking at fiscal policy through that prism is akin to deciding who wins a baseball game by looking at what happened during the 6th inning. Yes, government borrowing drains capital from the productive sector of the economy. And nations such as Greece are painful examples of what happens when governments go too far down this path. But taxes also undermine economic performance by reducing incentives to work, save, and invest. And nations such as France are gloomy reminders of what happens when punitive tax rates discourage productive behavior.
What’s missing for CBO’s analysis is any recognition or understanding that the real problem is excessive government spending. Regardless of whether spending is financed by borrowing or taxes, resources are being diverted from the private sector to government. In other words, government spending is the disease and deficits are basically a symptom of that underlying problem. Indeed, it’s worth noting that there’s not much evidence that deficits cause economic damage but plenty of evidence that bloated public sectors stunt growth. This video is a good antidote to CBO’s myopic focus on budget deficits.
Prior to last week’s passage of another $26 billion in bailout money for state and local governments, I noted that the legislation wasn’t really offset:
Congressional Democrats say the measure is paid for with a combination of spending cuts elsewhere and tax increases. However, the new spending is front loaded and much of the spending cuts wouldn’t be realized until after 2013. For example, the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the legislation shows savings from the food stamps program of $12 billion from 2014-2018. Congress can come back any time before that and rescind the cuts.
It’s typical Beltway budgetary sleight-of-hand: increase spending up front and “cut” spending on the back-end to get a more deficit-friendly score from the CBO. Democrats don’t really intend to see these cuts actualized, and have indicated as much. That hasn’t stopped media outlets from across the ideological spectrum from running sensationalist headlines.
A headline from CBS News says “Food Stamps Slashed to Pay for Teachers Job Bill.” A hysterical headline at the leftish Huffington Post reads “Cutting Food Stamps to Save Teacher Jobs: A Hateful Trade-off.” And a headline on the conservative Human Events website claims “Democrats Rob Food Stamps to Pay Teachers.”
Adding to the heat is legislation moving through Congress that would “cut” future food stamps spending to help pay for increased child nutrition programs. But as was the case with the bailout legislation, the only change that’s being proposed is to move forward the expiration date for the temporary food stamp expansion contained in the 2009 stimulus bill.
In addition to unnecessary hand-wringing over the future, the near past is all but being ignored. As the following chart shows, the cost of the food stamps programs has exploded over the decade thanks to the recession and benefit increases under presidents Bush and Obama:
The food stamps program needs to be cut. In fact, the entire federal welfare system needs to be devolved to the states, or preferably, private charity. That phantom cuts following a massive increase in food stamps spending would cause such angst indicates that those of us who believe the needy aren’t best served by Uncle Sam have our work cut out.
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