Tag: federal budget

GOP’s Pledge to America

The House Republicans’ release of its “Pledge to America” has been met with criticism from across the ideological spectrum. While excoriation from the left was inevitable, those who were hoping that the GOP would set out a detailed agenda for limiting government were also not satisfied.

The 48-page document contains more pictures of Republican members of Congress than it does evidence that the GOP is seriously prepared to cut spending. While the introductory commentary is designed to appeal to the tea party movement, the actual “plan” to return budgetary sanity to Washington is both timid and incomplete.

The following are some thoughts on the pledge’s “plan to stop out of control spending and reduce the size of government”:

  • The document immediately notes that the “lack of a credible plan” to tackle the mounting federal debt causes uncertainty for employers and investors. The problem is the GOP leadership doesn’t have a credible plan to address the debt, or at least this document doesn’t offer one.
  • It disingenuously promises to “cut government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels” when in fact it only intends to do so for a small portion of the overall federal budget. The reduction would apply to discretionary, non-security spending, which only accounts for about 15 percent of total federal spending.
  • Not only does the GOP punt on the big-ticket programs like Social Security and Medicare, the document devotes an entire section to maintaining the interventionist foreign policy that is helping to bankrupt the country. The GOP doesn’t appear to understand that the American people are having an increasingly difficult time understanding why the government continues to take bricks out of our own economy in order to build nations around the globe.
  • The document says that the GOP will “root out government waste.” Waste goes with government the way peanut butter goes with jelly. Nancy Pelosi has made the same promise, which demonstrates the vacuous nature of the proposal.
  • The GOP says it will cut the operations budget of Congress. That’s fine, but the legislative branch’s budget is only about $5 billion.
  • Calling for an end to the federal government’s control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is a good idea. But that’s an easy position. They should instead be calling for an end to the government’s entire disastrous role in subsidizing homeownership.
  • The document calls for a freeze in federal non-security hiring. One would have thought the GOP would at least address exorbitant federal civilian employee pay. Freezing (or reducing) federal employment would take care of itself by eliminating agencies and programs, which is something the document doesn’t lay out a plan to do.
  • The GOP proposes to continue holding weekly votes to cut spending via its YouCut initiative. It’s a fine idea, but most of the cuts offered for consideration thus far have been relatively insignificant. For example, one of the cuts being proposed this week would “reduce funding for the wild horse and burro program to previously projected levels.” Not only would this only save $280 million over ten years, the GOP couldn’t even find the nerve to call for its outright abolition.
  • One piece of good news is that the GOP explicitly calls for the repeal of Obamacare.

With the Democrats content to irresponsibly promise more free lunches in the face of an unsustainable fiscal situation, it would have been refreshing for the House Republicans to square with the American people. However, with this document the GOP largely fell back on limited government platitudes.

Federal vs. Private Pay: A Response to OPM Director John Berry

The release of updated industry data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which show that the average federal employee continues to earn significantly more in compensation than the average private sector employee, has Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry on the defensive.

In light of Berry’s assertion that Cato and other critics of federal pay are not “advancing a factually-oriented debate,” I’d like to make a few comments:  

First, the Washington Post reports that top OPM officials point to Bureau of Labor Statistics data that “[f]ederal employees made on average 22 percent less than workers in similar private-sector jobs.” To Berry’s credit, he dismissed that figure (along with comparisons made using BEA data) as being “faulty.”

Even if the BLS data comparison were true, it would only reflect wages. Federal benefits are generally more generous than those found in the private sector. We use the BEA data because it provides the most comprehensive accounting for the value of employee benefits.

Second, defenders like Berry point to higher education levels in the federal workforce relative to the private sector as a reason for the higher average compensation in the former. Because the aggregate private data includes industries with lower-skilled employees, like restaurants, defenders say comparing averages isn’t fair. 

However, breaking the BEA data out across 72 industries shows that the federal civilian workforce as an industry ranks sixth in terms of average compensation. As one would expect, average compensation in the restaurant and bar industry is dead last, and financial services are at the very top. (See this blog for the breakdown.)  

Third, in addition to ignoring benefits, defenders also ignore other perks of federal employment, including extreme job security. According to BLS data, in 2009 a private sector employee was more than three times more likely to be laid off or fired than a federal employee. As my colleague Chris Edwards points out in an essay on federal pay, federal workers also “receive generous holiday and vacation schedules, flexible work hours, training options, incentive awards, generous disability benefits, and union protections.”

Fourth, BLS data shows that a federal employee is more than 8 times less likely to quit than a private sector employee. We’ve argued that this indicates that federal employees recognize that the generous combination of wages, benefits and job security is hard to match in the private sector, so they stay put.

Defenders of federal pay haven’t adequately addressed this point. Attributing this discrepancy to a selfless motivation on the part of federal employees to serve the nation would be nonsense. A question that defenders need to answer is: if comparable private sector pay is so much better, why don’t more federal employees leave for the private sector? If they’re as high-skilled and educated as defenders claim, why settle for less than they’re worth?

The question of worth leads to the fifth, and in my opinion, the most important point.

I think the most valid criticism defenders of federal pay offer up is that we’re comparing “apples and oranges.” However, although they have a point, it’s not for the reasons they suggest.

In the private sector, an employee’s compensation is a reflection of his or her value in the market. For instance, one may not like that LeBron James makes millions of dollars playing basketball, but that’s what the market for professional basketball players says his production is worth. It’s no different for a considerably lower-paid employee in the restaurant industry.

What’s a federal employee worth? How does one measure a government employee’s production? Government isn’t subject to market disciplines. It can’t go out of business. It has no competitor. It doesn’t need to earn a profit or even break even. It doesn’t receive its revenue from voluntary transactions – its revenues are obtained via taxation, which is paid by individuals under compulsion and force.

Therefore, federal employee compensation is a function of the political process. Government employees are plugged into a pay scale, and can move up the scale by simply sticking around. President Obama proposed in his fiscal year 2011 budget that federal civilian employees receive an arbitrary across-the-board 1.4 percent pay increase. What does that figure have to do with a federal employee’s worth?

Federal and private employees are apples and oranges because the former is dependent on the latter for its existence. In the natural world, this relationship is call parasitism. This is not a pejorative statement. Every dollar earned by a federal employee is one less dollar that a private sector employee earns. One can argue over a federal employee’s value to society, but one cannot argue that the perceived value doesn’t come at the expense of the private sector.

According to the BEA, total federal wages and benefits amounted to $240 billion in 2009. That’s $240 billion in economic resources extracted from the private sector. Given that the private sector has lost millions of jobs while federal employment continues to expand, defenders of federal pay can’t just dismiss the critics as being “unfair.”

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GOP Spending Cap

Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee have announced support for caps on the discretionary spending portion of the federal budget. According to press reports, discretionary spending under the cap for fiscal year 2011 would be approximately $20 billion less than what the president has proposed.

Appropriators – often referred to as the “third party” in Washington – exist to do one thing: spend other people’s money. Getting appropriators to agree to place any sort of limit themselves is a plus.

However, it’s hard to get excited about spending $20 billion less than the president. As the following chart shows, discretionary outlays have soared in the past decade:

With three months still to go in the current budget year, the federal deficit has already hit the trillion dollar mark. By year’s end the government will have borrowed about $1.4 trillion. It’s like the entire discretionary budget – defense and hundreds of other activities – are all financed by borrowing from the next generation.

Republicans apparently want agitated voters to see this gesture as evidence that the party is serious about out-of-control spending and deficits. But capping spending at the already exorbitant levels that Republicans helped reach isn’t exactly a big reform. Instead, Republicans need to propose the elimination of entire agencies and major programs for them to be taken seriously as a party willing to confront the nation’s looming financial crisis.

Senate Rejects Capping Fannie/Freddie Losses

Yesterday the Senate rejected an amendment by Senators McCain, Shelby and Gregg that would have capped the taxpayer losses on Fannie and Freddie at $200 billion each.  The amendment would have also brought Fannie and Freddie onto the Federal budget, forcing the government to admit what most of us already suspect: we’re on the hook for their bad behavior.  All Republicans, with the additions of Democrats Feingold and Bayh, voted for the failed amendment.  As a substitute, which passed along party lines, Senator Dodd proposed that the Treasury Department would “study” the issue and report back to Congress.

While it was not surprising that Dodd lead the opposition to the McCain amendment (it is not the first time he’s protected Fannie and Freddie), what was surprising was his repeated explanation that the National Association of Realtors and National Association of Home Builders opposed the amendment.  With all of Obama’s talk about taking on special interests, I was starting to think the Senate might be serious.  But what’s a few $100 billion of taxpayer dollars to insure that real estate agents can get a few more fat commissions.

Even more bizarre was Dodd’s claim that his substitute amendment was a “tough study”.  What exactly is so tough about requiring Treasury to do a study that they’ve already said they were going to do.  For that matter, what’s so tough about a “study”?  The failings of Fannie and Freddie, and their inherent conflicts, have been studied extensively for years. The rejection of the McCain amendment illustrates why we need GSE reform now, as the special interests are already claiming that another study is all we need.

Ed Morrissey on The Struggle to Limit Government

Ed Morrissey kindly mentioned The Struggle to Limit Government and responds to the advice for Tea Partiers in my video.

Morrissey says:

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that some Tea Partiers “like” big government; it’s more like some aren’t enthusiastic about dismantling as much of the federal government as others, especially the more doctrinaire libertarians.

In the video I noted that polls showed a majority of the people who identify with the Tea Party movement also thought the entitlement programs were worth their cost. My colleague, Jagadeesh Gokhale, has estimated that paying for current entitlements would require 9 percent of GNP in perpetuity. This is unlikely. Entitlements will have to be changed since too much has been promised. People who think the programs have been worth their cost are not likely initially to support reining in the entitlements. In saying that, I expressed a concern, not a prediction. It may be that Tea Party people will also come to recognize, as Ed Morrissey does, that the entitlement state cannot continue.

I said in the video that Tea Party people should recognize that “Democrats are not always the enemy.” Morrissey rightly says I should not talk about enemies in domestic politics. He adds that the current House Democratic caucus does not deserve support because its leaders favor expanding government. He’s right. Divided government is what we need now. However, I had in mind the more centrist Democrats that supported the tax and spending cuts of 1981 and the tax reform of 1986. I am urging Tea Party people to avoid becoming too partisan. Perhaps some of them will still be in Congress in 2011.

Then there’s the question of foreign policy and defense spending. In the video I said that a limited government movement like the Tea Party should start thinking outside the box on spending. I suggested rethinking America’s expansive commitments in foreign affairs as a way to reduce our military spending.  I did not deny – who could deny it? – that the Constitution entrusts the common defense to the federal government. I also recognize that the United States continues to have enemies. The question is: what should the government do to provide the common defense consistent with limited government?

In the past decade, we have spent enormous sums trying to transform two nations and the entire Middle East into liberal democracies. This was our “forward strategy” for dealing with terrorism. It reminded me of past Progressive crusades at home and abroad.   The strategy was a domestic political disaster, and we shall see whether our massive outlays eventually produce stability in Iraq or Afghanistan. For my part, I remain partial to the conservative virtues of realism, restraint, and prudence in dealing with other nations.

The United States is currently spending about half of all military spending in the world. We have some room for restraint without endangering American lives. We will still have a Navy that protects trade routes to the extent they are threatened. As I said in the video, we need to rethink our overall place in the world if we are to corral the big government beast. The Tea Party folks can lead the way here.

The Pentagon is not most of the federal budget. It is the only part historically, however, that can vary downward as well as upward. Sometime soon, the non-defense parts of the budget are going to have to vary downward rather than just upward.  Being serious about limiting government, however, requires that all spending be considered. Since I think the Tea Party movement is serious about cutting government, it would be better if they had a look at all spending from the start.

Congress to Skip the Budget Process—-a Transparency Problem at the Very Least

You are required by law to file your taxes by the end of the day tomorrow, and you get penalized if you don’t. Meanwhile, Congress will not meet its April 15 requirement to pass a budget resolution. The budget resolution is the plan for FY 2011 revenue and spending that dictates the amounts in forthcoming annual spending bills.

It’s an understatement to say that skipping the annual budgeting process is a transparency problem. It’s a management problem, a spending problem, a leadership problem, a responsibility problem …

More commentary and a timetable of the congressional budget process is on the WashingtonWatch.com blog. Politico broke the story (so far as I can tell). Reuters quotes Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) saying, “We’re going to go full speed ahead” with the budget.

You have until the end of the day tomorrow, senator.

My Big Fat Greek Budget

Since we’re already depressed by the enactment of Obamacare, we may as well wallow in misery by looking at some long-term budget numbers. The chart below, which is based on the Congressional Budget Office’s long-run estimates, shows that federal government spending will climb to 45 percent of GDP if we believe CBO’s more optimistic “baseline” estimate. If we prefer the less optimistic “alternative” estimate, the burden of federal government spending will climb to 67 percent of economic output. These dismal numbers are driven by two factors, an aging population and entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. For all intents and purposes, America is on a path to become a European-style welfare state.

If these numbers don’t depress you enough, here are a couple of additional observations to push you over the edge. These CBO estimates were produced last year, so they don’t count the cost of Obamacare. And as Michael Cannon repeatedly has observed, Obamacare will cost much more than the official estimates concocted by CBO. And speaking of estimates, the long-run numbers in the chart are almost certainly too optimistic since CBO’s methodology naively assumes that a rising burden of government will have no negative impact on the economy’s growth rate. Last but not least, the data above only measures federal spending. State and local government budgets will consume at least another 15 percent of GDP, so even using the optimistic baseline, total government spending will be about 60 percent of GDP, higher than every European nation, including France, Greece, and Sweden. And if we add state and local spending on top of the “alternative” baseline, then we’re in uncharted territory where perhaps Cuba and North Korea would be the most appropriate analogies.

So what do we do? There’s no sure-fire solution. Congressman Paul Ryan has a reform plan to reduce long-run federal spending to less than 20 percent of GDP. This “Roadmap” plan is excellent, though it is marred by the inclusion of a value-added tax. Bill Shipman of CarriageOaks Partners put forth a very interesting proposal in a Washington Times column to make the federal government rely on states for tax revenue. And I’ve been an avid proponent of tax competition as a strategy to curtail the greed of the political class since it is difficult to finance redistribution if labor and capital can escape to jurisdictions with better tax law. Any other suggestions?