The Bottom Line
When Congress returns from recess in early September, they will have to address two major upcoming challenges: pass appropriations for next year before October 1, and raise the debt limit before the nation bumps up against our legal cap on borrowing, which could happen as early as October. An inherent part of this debate is the fate of the sequester--whether Congress will keep the reduced spending levels created by across-the-board cuts, or replace them with a credible long-term plan to replace the deficit.
Former Representative Jim McCrery (R-LA), a member of Fix the Debt's steering committee, explains the recent improvement in short-term deficits. McCrery served as as Ranking Member to the House Ways and Means Committtee, which oversees both taxes and many entitlement programs.
At the heart of both of these issues is a fundamental disagreement among Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, about federal spending, budget priorities and deficits, and the national debt. Some appear satisfied that the deficit appears on track to narrow substantially for the first time in a long while. So far this year, the government has “only” run a deficit of $607 billion, compared to the $974 billion deficit accrued in the same 10 months of fiscal year 2012.
In addition to the two immediate concerns about the FY 2014 budget and the debt limit, McCrery argues that Congress has not done enough to tackle our nation's long-term debt problems:
The reality is Washington has yet to enact a plan to slow the growth in debt over the long term and promote long-term economic growth. If this inaction continues, our country faces rising interest rates, slow rates of economic growth, less budgetary flexibility in times of national emergencies, an increasingly destructive burden on our children and grandchildren, and a greatly heightened risk of a tragic fiscal crisis.
Therefore, America needs a bipartisan compromise, inclusive of comprehensive tax and entitlement reform, not some poorly conceived stop-gap measure like sequestration. When our Senators and Congressmen return to Washington in September, our budget and fiscal situation should be their top priority.
Read the full post here.
"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.
As part of an ongoing series of economic speeches entitled A Better Bargain for the Middle Class, President Obama spoke yesterday at the University of Buffalo on higher education, with additional speeches today at Binghamton University and Lackawanna College. Like his previous speeches on housing, the President laid out a series of policies to make higher education more affordable, some of which were included in his 2014 budget, others that are new.
Recent passage of the student loan bill created a permanent solution for student loan rates; by linking them to Treasury rates, they will remain low temporarily until the economy has recovered without adding to the deficit (the bill saved a modest $715 million over ten years, with greater long-term savings in theory). With this budget issue resolved the President has turned to proposing measures that could help foster competition, tie federal funds to performance for students and colleges, and reduce the burden of student debt.
Pay for Performance Measures: Many of these proposals are new, and the budgetary impact is unclear. The President proposes developing a college rating system based on "access, affordability, and outcome" and tying federal financial aid to those rankings. In particular, the White House suggests offering a bonus to colleges with greater numbers of Pell graduates. By itself, the proposal would increase the deficit, but offsets could be found in other areas, such as reducing payments to low Pell Grant schools. Low performing schools would also be required to disburse Pell Grant funding over the course of the semester, instead of in a lump sum, to prevent funding to go to those who drop out. Individual accountability would be enforced by requiring completion of a certain number of class or other progress measure before receiving next semester's Pell Grant. Included in this section is a request for an additional $1 billion in Race to the Top funding for state-based higher education reforms, also proposed in his FY 2014 budget.
Promote Innovation and Competition: Many of these measures will not have a budgetary impact, including greater use of online and "hybrid" courses, incorporating technology, recognizing dual-enrollment and other policies.
Student Debt Proposals: The President's main proposal, also included in his FY2014 budget, would expand Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE) to all borrowers. PAYE modified income-based repayment plans by limiting federal loan payments to 10 percent of a borrower's income, with a maximum of 20 years of repayment. Currently, those who took out loans before 2008 or have not borrowed since 2011 are not eligible for PAYE, and the proposal would expand the program at a cost of $4 billion over ten years. The New America Foundation's Education Policy Project has previously argued that the IBR changes may be giving a windfall to some wealthier borrowers and suggests a number of reforms that could better target resources.
Unfortunately, missing from the speech and supporting resources was any discussion of the nearly $50 billion funding shortfall that the Pell Grant program faces over the next ten years. The President's Budget allocated $12 billion in mandatory funding to supplement discretionary spending. The Bipartisan Path Forward and the New America Foundation's Education Policy Program also have addressed Pell Grant funding without increasing the deficit by finding other education savings. In order to maintain this program, the funding gap must be addressed.
Last week, we noted that it was the 78th birthday of the Social Security program, but cautioned that reform was needed before we could count on another 78 years of sustainability. According to the latest Trustees Report, Social Security's trust fund is due to become insolvent by 2033, well within the lifetime of many of today's workers, and a 23 percent cut would need to be leveled on all beneficiaries for spending to match revenues. But compared to the decisions that need to be made on sequestration, the expiring government funding bill, and the debt ceiling, one might ask: Why is it important to do this now?
Today, CRFB has released a new report that shows the significant costs of waiting. While there are many options that could be combined to ensure 75-year solvency (try our Social Security Reformer to see), the longer policymakers wait to make reforms, the greater the costs. The report presents four main reasons why lawmakers cannot afford to wait with quantitative analysis for each.
- Waiting to Act Places a Greater Burden on Fewer People
- Waiting to Act Reduces the Accumulation of Interest in the Trust Fund:
- Waiting to Act Makes Cuts to Real Benefits Harder to Avoid
- Waiting to Act Gives Workers Less Time to Plan and Adjust
For instance, the percent benefit cut needed to close achive 75-year solvency is one of many examples that we use in the paper to show the advantages of starting early.
Achieving solvency for the program will require tough choices, which lawmakers may wish to avoid, but the challenge will only become more daunting the longer we delay. As we conclude in our paper: The right time to act to reform Social Security was two decades ago. The next best time is now.
Click here to read the full report.
Click here to try our Social Security Reformer.
This is the second post in a new CRFB blog series The Tax Break-Down, which discusses tax breaks under discussion as part of tax reform.
Last-in, first-out accounting, or LIFO, is a preferential method of measuring profits from inventory sales and is one of the ten largest tax breaks in the corporate code. LIFO accounting has been part of the U.S. tax code since 1939, but it is a uniquely American invention; it is not permitted under International Financial Reporting Standards.
To determine taxable profit, a company must subtract costs from gross revenues. LIFO accounting allows companies to sell inventory and calculate the purchase cost of that inventory -- which determines the deduction they may take -- as if the most recent product sold was the most recent bought and stored as inventory.
By contrast, for normal accounting, most companies use first-in, first-out (FIFO) accounting, which assumes that the item sitting on the shelf for the longest is sold first. Since prices tend to rise over time, being able to sell the last product first often allows companies to claim they paid the highest price and therefore achieved the lowest amount of profit for tax purposes.
For many retail industries, where goods are bought and sold quickly, there is little difference between the accounting methods. However, in industries where inventories move slowly and prices change quickly (like industrial equipment or petroleum), the difference can be significant. This difference is most pronounced for companies that bought their first inventories decades ago.
To take an extreme example, assume a company purchased a barrel of oil for $1 in 1939, when LIFO was first adopted, and then purchased an additional barrel each year with the hopes of selling that oil starting in 2013. Under standard accounting "FIFO" rules, the first barrel of oil the company sold would generate about $100 of revenue at a $1 cost, leaving a $99 taxable profit. By comparison, LIFO rules would allow the company to subtract last year’s cost of about $90 and pay taxes on only $10 of profit – allowing a 90 percent reduction in the company’s tax burden.
Though the above example rarely occurs so starkly, many companies keep some inventory indefinitely, leading to a permanent deferral of some of their tax liability.
Below, we answer other questions about LIFO accounting rules.
How Much Does It Cost?
According to Joint Committee on Taxation, the cost of the LIFO tax break is about $5 billion in 2013, which we estimate at $60 to $65 billion over a decade. Most (85 to 90 percent) of the value of LIFO accrues to C-Corporations paying the corporate income tax, while the remainder accrues to pass-through entities which pay through the individual tax. Another related tax expenditure called lower-of-cost-or-market (LCM), which allows companies to deduct losses if inventory costs at market prices are below the purchase price, costs an additional $8 billion or so over a decade.
Because the transition from LIFO to FIFO would lead to the reclassification of current inventory, the revenue raised from repealing LIFO would be more than the value of the tax expenditure in the short run. According to our Corporate Tax Calculator, repealing LIFO on its own would raise enough revenue over ten years to reduce the corporate tax rate by 0.6 percentage points. Importantly, the corresponding rate reduction would be much less significant over the long-run.
Who Does It Affect?
LIFO is used primarily by a select group of companies who have had time to accumulate old inventories. A "LIFO reserve" is the cumulative total of the profit difference between using LIFO and if the company had been using FIFO in that year. It does not represent available cash, but the amount that past profits would be higher under a different accounting system. According to CFO Magazine, energy companies hold over one-third of LIFO reserves, and manufacturers about one-sixth. This chart only measures publicly traded companies ranked by Moody’s, as only publicly traded companies must disclose their LIFO reserve.
|Inventory and LIFO Reserve by Industry (millions)|
|Industry||Inventory||LIFO Reserve||Percent of Total|
|Metals and Mining||$8,876||$4,100||10%|
Source: Moody's Investors Service
What are the Arguments For and Against LIFO?
Repeal proponents argue that LIFO has no value as an accounting system and is only used to reduce tax liability. Put even more bluntly, critics have described LIFO as a "massive tax holiday for a select group of taxpayers." Repeal would end a system where taxpayers can permanently defer taxes on gains from rising prices. In addition, they argue that LIFO encourages an economically inefficient accumulation of inventory. In their view, LIFO is "the equivalent of a deduction for a cost that is never incurred" because of the tax deferral it represents.
Proponents of retaining LIFO, on the other hand, argue that LIFO encourages economically-valuable inventory investment and keeps inventory on comparable footing with other investments like machinery and buildings that benefit from accelerated depreciation. LIFO proponents also argue that LIFO accounting offsets what would otherwise be a tax on inflation, since inventory value may increase simply because prices do. Finally, they argue that repealing LIFO would mean taxing past decisions – as far back as 70 years ago – and claim "the extent of this retroactive reach by the government appears to be unprecedented in the history of the Internal Revenue Code."
What are the Options for Reform and What Plans Have Other Plans Done?
Most comprehensive tax reform plans would repeal LIFO accounting, including the President’s Business Tax Reform Framework, the Simpson-Bowles tax reform plan, the Domenici-Rivlin tax reform plan, and even the 2007 tax reform bill introduced by Charlie Rangel. The Wyden-Gregg bill from 2010 does not repeal LIFO, though it does propose a one-time adjustment for large oil companies which reduces the benefit of LIFO by re-valuing their inventory.
When it comes to repealing LIFO, however, there are a number of questions which have to be answered. For example, what accounting mechanism is it replaced with? And is the repeal accompanied with a repeal of lower-of-cost-or-market rules?
Furthermore, immediately repealing LIFO and replacing it with FIFO would cause companies to claim large one-time profits from their historic inventories, which would be a massive one-time tax increase. Most proposals to repeal LIFO would space out back taxes over a number of years. As a result, revenue estimates will vary based on reform plan – though they will always be substantially larger over the first decade than over the long-run. For instance, CBO estimates that repealing LIFO and spreading the profits over 4 years will raise about $100 billion over that per, but only
|Parameters and Revenue from Different LIFO Options|
|Re-valuate LIFO inventories for large integrated oil companies; repeal LCM||$12 billion (2011-2020)||Wyden-Gregg|
|Replace LIFO and lower-of-cost-or-market (LCM) with FIFO or specific identification method, phased in over 4 years||$112 billion (2014-2023)||CBO Budget Option|
|Replace LIFO with FIFO, phased in over 10 years||$78 billion (2014-2023)||President's Budget|
|Replace LIFO with FIFO, phased in over 8 years||$107 billion (2008-2017)||Rangel Bill (HR 3970)|
|Repeal lower-of-cost-or-market (LCM) method, phased in over 4 years||$5 billion (2014-2023)||President's Budget|
Where Can I Read More?
- Internal Revenue Service – FIFO/LIFO
- Tax Policy Center – 2011 Budget Tax Proposals (Repeal LIFO)
- Kleinbard, Plesko & Goodman – Is It Time to Liquidate LIFO?
- Alan Viard – Why LIFO Repeal Is Not the Way to Go
- Sherry Slater, The Journal Gazette – Is LIFO As We Know Over?
- Scott Gibson – LIFO vs. FIFO: A Return to the Basics (Oldies, Still Goodies)
- Dopuch & Pincus – Evidence on the Choice of Inventory Accounting Methods: LIFO Versus FIFO
* * * *
Repealing LIFO for inventory accounting would bring the United States in line with international accounting standards while eliminating a major source of tax deferral for businesses. At the same time, LIFO can adjust for gains due solely to inflation and maintain tax neutrality between inventory and other types of capital. With that said, retaining LIFO would take a sizeable amount of revenue off the table, even if more of that revenue is one-time, upfront revenue rather than a long-term permanent gain. But dealing with LIFO isn't just a matter of repeal or retain--policymakers must decide which accounting method works best to determine how inventory is counted in a business's taxable income.
Click here to read more entries in The Tax Break-Down.
With President Obama set to give a speech in the coming weeks on retirement security, the Center for American Progress (CAP) has released a report describing a new retirement account that intends to improve on current 401(k)-type plans. Their report discusses their Secure, Accessible, Flexible, and Efficient Retirement Plan (SAFE), and focuses primarily on the potential merits of collective defined-contribution (CDC) plans, as compared to traditional defined-contribution or defined-benefit plans. The report analyzes how such plans would outperform traditional 401(k)s and thus benefit retirees.
CAP first describes some of the shortcomings of current defined-contribution plans and how CDCs would address them. In short, current 401(k)s put the financial risk on the workers and rely on those individuals to make investment decisions. CAP argues that the latter point often results in adverse economic decisions, generally as a result of participants not weighting the riskiness of their portfolio in the optimal way. In addition, individual 401(k)s have higher management fees than would be the case under a CDC plan.
CAP's SAFE Retirement Plan would instead pool contributions to spread risk around, in addition to having the plan be professionally managed so as to take advantage of better investment strategies than may be the case if individual investors were managing it. In addition, the fund would manage risk by having a flexible reserve fund; one added to when returns exceed a certain amount and depleted when returns are negative.
The report's actuarial analysis shows that the CDC plan would hypothetically have provided a much higher replacement rate for retirees than a "real-world" 401(k) and a slightly higher replacement rate than a theoretical perfectly managed 401(k). They also show that the CDC plan would be less risky, showing that it would have much better protected workers who retired during the Great Recession.
The CAP report is a good reminder that while the three legs of retirement security -- Social Security, pensions, and individual savings -- are affected by different parts of the government, policymakers should keep in mind how the three could best work together when making changes to any individual one. Although the most important thing we can do for retirement security is to make Social Security solvent, it is important to consider all parts of the retirement system.
It's the dog days of August and with Congress in recess, we can do nothing but wait to resolve some of the upcoming fiscal challenges that lie ahead. We have made some progress, particularly in beginning to seriously discuss tax reform, but overall, there is a still a tremendous amount of work that remains to be done in the fall.
Today in Forbes, CRFB board member and former Congressman Bill Frenzel (R-MN) expresses his disappointment with the effort so far:
Just like in the stables, when the job is not done, work begins to pile up. The debt ceiling which reached its limit in May, has been postponed by clever manipulations at Treasury, but it will bite us sometime in the 4th quarter. No progress has been made there. Indeed, other than public statements of no concessions, the matter has hardly been discussed.
September 30 is the deadline for financing the government for Fiscal Year 2014. In its budget, the Senate dismissed the sequester. The House budget etched it in stone. There have been no real efforts to negotiate the differences yet.
No appropriations bills have been enacted, so another set of continuing resolutions will have to suffice, but the same budget differences must be negotiated there. Perhaps the appropriators will be better negotiators than the budgeteers, but there is no evidence of that yet.
The sequester poses a similar, but slightly different, problem. Both parties, and nearly all the policy makers, believe it is a thoughtless way to cut expenses. There is general agreement that it must be modified, but no agreement as to how. The Senate insists on wishing it away. The House demands that the total spending reductions be maintained and that other cuts be substituted for the unwise “meat-axe” approach.
Frenzel goes as far to say that a small deal will be the best possible outcome this fall. That might be too pessimistic, as there have been some signs that the leadership in Washington still sees a grand bargain as a real possibility. And as we showed last week, even a "mini deal" would contain some long-term savings and thus be a better option than one year of sequestration if lawmakers should fall short. Still, our long-term problem demands tax and entitlement reform, which will only get harder the longer we wait. Washington should heed the wake up call from Frenzel.
Click here to read the full piece.
"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.
Frequent readers of this blog will be familiar with projections of long term debt. But the Peterson Foundation has found an interesting interactive way to present that informs the viewers about what the long-term outlook looks like and what the possibilities are going forward.
Peterson's presentation contains both a four minute video explaining the long-term projections and an interactive graph that allows users to look closer at the numbers. The projections appear to be based on CBO's Alternative Fiscal Scenario and show that even with the fiscal cliff deal, the sequester, and some slowing in projected health spending, debt as a percent of GDP would be on a sharply upward path over the long term. This is also true of the CRFB Realistic baseline, although the path is not quite as sharp.
In addition to showing what the status quo looks like, the graphic also shows what the five fiscal plans presented at the Foundation's "Solution Initiatives II" last November do to the debt. As we said last year, all of the plans at least stabilize the long-term debt and generally put it on a downward path. Each plan's label also links to a full description of the policies involved, so viewers can see how the plans got to where they are. The interactive also includes a sliding breakdown of spending and revenue projections over the next 40 years, convincingly showing the growth of entitlements.
The new presentation is a helpful resource for understanding the long-term projections and what some think tanks have proposed to change them. You can see the video and graphic here.
Even though Washington slows down in August, several think tanks are staking out positions in advance of this fall's pending fight over the debt limit and next year's budget. For example, today two organizations - Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Fairness - have put forward two different approaches.
Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group, is encouraging legislators to maintain federal funding at reduced, post-sequester levels. In making their case, AFP highlights the fact that several appropriations bills that have stalled in the House over a seeming lack of Republican consensus regarding how to live within the existing, post-sequester caps. They express concern that if lawmakers remove the sequester without finding any offsetting savings, federal spending will be $1.2 trillion higher over the next 10 years. As the Financial Times reported,
AFP is raising its concern amid signs that a small number of Republican legislators are starting to balk at the tough austerity line the party has adopted since gaining the majority of the House of Representatives in 2010, including the budget mechanism known as "sequestration."
By contrast, Americans for Tax Fairness, a progressive group, released a report today comparing the price of certain corporate tax expenditures with the impact of various spending cuts under the sequester. Their plan suggests repealing certain corporate tax breaks and ending deferral of foreign-source income to raise revenue and offset some of the sequester's spending cuts. Their policy proposals include:
- Repealing accelerated depreciation for corporate jets
- Eliminating oil and gas preferences
- Taxing carried interest as ordinary income
- Limiting the size of retirement accounts for millionaires
- Closing stock option and performance bonus loopholes in rules for the deduction of executive compensation
- Marking derivatives to market and taxing related income and other financial institution reforms in the President's budget
First, we've said before that the corporate tax code is in need of reform, and there are many options on the table for consideration, including those listed above. However, we believe reforming the corporate code should be done as part of comprehensive tax reform that addresses both the individual and corporate side in order to make our tax system more efficient, effective, fairer and contribute to deficit reduction.
Second, we've said the sequester is not a smart way to cut the deficit, and therefore policymakers must come together on a comprehensive debt reduction package that replaces part of the sequester with smarter cuts, coupled with meaningful entitlement and tax reforms. It is encouraging to see think tanks acknowledge that repealing the sequester without offsetting replacements would be costly, and that any replacement should be fully offset. But given the opportunity over the coming months, we hope lawmakers go even further than addressing the sequester, and an agree upon a comprehensive plan that includes entitlement and tax reform that meaningfully addresses our long-term debt problem.
This is the first post in a new CRFB blog series The Tax Break-Down, which will analyze and review tax breaks under discussion as part of tax reform.
The state and local tax deduction is one of the largest in the tax code and allows individual income taxpayers who itemize to deduct from their income the cost of certain taxes paid to state and local government. Specifically, it allows for three different types of taxes to be deducted from income: income taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes – though the sales tax deduction expires at the end of the year.
The deductions for state and local taxes have been in place since the income tax was created in 1913 – though the sales tax deduction was removed in the Tax Reform Act of 1986 before being added back on a temporary (but continued) basis in 2004. Most other countries have no equivalent deduction, in part because the federalist nature of the United States (with autonomous state governments) is relatively unique.
Below, we answer a number of questions about this tax break.
How Much Does It Cost?
The state and local tax deduction is the seventh largest tax expenditure in the tax code costing the federal government $77 billion of foregone revenue in 2013 according to JCT and CBO and $1.1 trillion over the next ten years. OMB estimates the cost at $64 billion in 2013. Based on CBO's numbers, this amount of revenue could be sufficient to reduce all individual taxes by about 5 percent (which translates into 2 points for the top rate) or reduce each rate uniformly by about 1.5 points.
About three-fifths of the deduction’s cost comes from the income tax deduction and the remainder from the property tax deduction. A small portion – about 2% in 2011 – comes from the sales tax deduction which would cost $15-20 billion to extend over the next ten years.
Importantly, the value of the state and local tax deduction interacts significantly with the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) which allows no deduction for these taxes. Repealing the AMT, as a number of tax reform plans propose, would noticeably increase the size of the state and local tax deduction. According to numbers published in 2010 by the Tax Policy Center, when taxpayers recalculate their income under the AMT, roughly two-thirds of the increase comes from denying state and local tax deductions.
Who Does It Affect?
As an itemized deduction, only 27 percent of taxpayers take advantage of the state and local tax deduction every year. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a full 80 percent of the value of the preference flows to the top 20 percent of the income spectrum. Three tenths of the value of the deduction, meanwhile, flows to the top 1 percent of the population. Whereas the deduction increases after-tax income for the average taxpayer by about 0.8 percent, it increases after-tax income for the top one percent by 2.2 percent.
Yet the benefit of the tax deduction is skewed not just by income but by state. High-income, high-tax states like California and New York claim 17 and 13 percent, respectively, of the deduction, while residents in many low-tax states in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains see almost no benefit. As the Tax Policy Center points out, half the beneficiaries and over 60 percent of the amount deducted comes from just 10 states.
Eight states have no state income tax, and get much more benefit from the sales tax deduction. If the sales tax deduction expires at the end of the year, states that depend on sales tax revenues rather than the income tax, like Washington, Texas, Florida, and Tennessee will lose most of the deduction’s benefits.
What are the Arguments For and Against the Deduction?
Proponents of keeping the state and local tax deduction argue that the deduction prevents double taxation, since a portion of the taxpayer's income that would otherwise be taxed by the federal government is already taxed at the state level. Proponents also argue that the state and local tax deduction is a form of financial assistance to the states, by reducing the tax burdens of their residents. In addition, it is important to remember that the state and local tax deduction – or at least the income tax deduction – reduces taxpayer’s effective marginal rates by blunting the impact of high state income tax rates.
Critics point out that that deduction is regressive and provides a back-door subsidy to high-tax states and localities. This provision unwittingly has residents in low-tax states subsidize budgets in states with larger governments. The deduction also favors some state revenue sources over others, for example license fees and severance taxes – which fund much of the government in Delaware and Alaska, respectively, are not deductible. Finally, critics argue the $1.1 trillion cost of the deduction could be better used for repealing the much-loathed Alternative Minimum Tax while reducing rates or deficits.
What are the Options for Reform?
A number of options exist to reduce the cost of the state and local tax deduction. One possibility would be to eliminate it in its entirety (possibly in part of a trade to repeal the AMT), or to eliminate either the property or income portion of the deduction.
Short of elimination, the deduction could be converted into a credit, limited to a certain rate (i.e., the 28 percent rate), capped as a percentage of income, or limited to a certain dollar amount. The most recent available score of full repeal was in 2011, when CBO estimated $862 billion in ten year savings. In today’s terms measured against the laws currently in place, this would likely be the equivalent of nearly $1.1 trillion. More modest options would result in smaller amounts of savings.
|Options for Reforming the State and Local Tax Deduction|
|Repeal the S&L Tax Deduction||$950 billion|
|Repeal the Income Tax Deduction Only||~$600 billion|
|Repeal the Property Tax Deduction Only||~$350 billion|
|Cap the Deduction at 2 percent of Income||$720 billion|
|Cap the Deduction at $5,000 Per Person (indexed)||$600 billion|
|Limit the Value of the Deduction to the 28% Bracket||$150 billion|
|Replace the Deduction with a 15% Credit||$240 billion|
What Have Tax Reform Plans Done With The Deduction?
Unlike some of the other large tax expenditures, there appears to be substantial support among bipartisan plans for a full repeal of the state and local tax deduction. Since the 1984 Treasury paper that launched the 1986 tax reform effort called for its complete repeal (which was not achieved in 1986), a number of plans have followed in step.
President Bush's 2005 tax reform panel called for complete elimination, arguing that state and local taxes pay for public services and “should be treated like any other nondeductible personal expense, such as food or clothing, and that the cost of those services should be borne by those who want them – not by every taxpayer in the country.” The Fiscal Commission illustrative plan and the Domenici-Rivlin tax reform plan also fully repealed the deduction.
To be sure, not all tax reform plans follow that model. The Center for American Progress, for example, replaces the state and local tax deduction with an 18% credit. And the Wyden-Coats Bipartisan Tax Fairness and Simplification Act leaves the deduction in its entirety (though it would likely be used less, because the standard deduction is tripled). It remains to be seen what the tax reform bills put forward by Chairmen Camp and Baucus do with the deduction.
Where Can I Read More?
- Congressional Budget Office – The Deductibility of State and Local Taxes
- Yuri Shadunsky (Tax Policy Center) – Tax Facts: State and Local Tax Deductions
- Tax Policy Center – State and Local Tax Policy: How does the deduction for state and local taxes work?
- National Review Online – The Blue Tax
- Federal Reserve Bank of Boston – The Subsidy from State and Local Tax Deductibility
- Kim Rueben (Tax Policy Center) – The Impact of Repealing State and Local Tax Deductibility
- Louis Kaplow – Fiscal Federalism and the Deductibility of State and Local Taxes under the Federal Income Tax
- Bruce Bartlett – The Deduction for State and Local Taxes
* * * *
The state and local tax deduction is expensive, regressive, targeted toward a small number of states, and is certainly ripe for reform. At the same time, any changes to the deduction, unaccompanied by other reforms, could modestly reduce work incentives, make some states less appealing to live in, and substantially increase the tax burden of some taxpayers.
How far policymakers are willing to go in modifying the state and local deduction may depend in large part on what they are able to achieve with regards to tax rates and the Alternative Minimum Tax. Even without the outright repeal recommended in a host of bipartisan tax plans, many options exist to trim the cost of this tax break.
See the other tax preferences discussed in The Tax Break-Down here.
Today, a piece in the Financial Times shows the unnecessary damage being done by the ongoing sequester -- in this case, sharp cuts to federal support for low-income housing. We've said before that the abrupt, across-the-board cuts would slow economic growth and reduce spending in vital areas, despite doing little to address our long-term debt problem. But the piece is a reminder that these cuts do have real world consequences. The FT tells of one single mother of two who found out that her government subsidized rent would be increasing by $1,000 a month:
"It was definitely shocking because the amount is not feasible for me," said Ms. Bearden, a 28-year-old single mother of two from San Jose, California. "Here I am with six weeks to move into a smaller unit in a less-fortunate part of town, or I can pay my entire month’s income to keep my son stable in his school."
Similar dilemmas are being faced by low-income families across the US as public housing programmes try to absorb the costs of sequestration – the across-the-board budget cuts in Washington, imposed amid political wrangling in Congress, that have slashed $930m from federal housing assistance programmes. The squeeze will affect 125,000 families.
We have argued before that sequester's method of blunt, indiscriminate cuts is not a smart way to achieve deficit reduction, and it will further cut discretionary spending, of which low income housing support is a component, despite that the majority of deficit reduction has been achieved through discretionary cuts. In fact, even if the sequester were repealed, as assumed in the CRFB Realistic Baseline, discretionary spending is projected to fall from 7.6 percent of GDP in 2013 to 5.4 percent in 2023. By contrast, combined spending on Social Security and health care will increase relative to the economy, from 9.8 percent of GDP to 11.7 over the same time period. The growth in those programs is especially notable in the second decade as the Baby Boom generation retires, rising to 13.8 percent of GDP by 2033 and 15.0 percent by 2043.
Note: Projections based on CRFB Realistic Baseline
Yet while many would like to replace the sequester to prevent these cuts to vulnerable populations, many also feel certain reforms to entitlement programs, which are driving our debt problem, should be off the table. A recent article from The Nation takes a look at pushback received by Members of Congress during the August recess on one possible reform, switching a more accurate measure of inflation called the chained CPI. It highlights those who argue it should be off limits because of its impact on Social Security benefits.
As we've argued before, switching to chained CPI would grow benefits at the more accurate rate of inflation - on average, slightly slower than the current measure. Given that Social Security's trust fund faces insolvency in twenty years, chained CPI would be a much better option than the 23 percent benefit cut that would be required at that point.
Importantly, many entitlement reforms, including proposals to switch to chained CPI, include protections for the most vulnerable. The President's chained CPI proposal includes an old-age bump up that would help those who outlive their savings, as does The Bipartisan Path Forward. The same is true with many other entitlement reforms; we've previously identified $600 billion in health savings that, on whole, would help disadvantaged populations.
The sequester will negatively impact the most vulnerable, but so will continuing to kick the can down the road when it comes to addressing the core drivers of our debt challenges. Policymakers must come together on a comprehensive debt reduction package that replaces part of the sequester with smarter cuts, coupled with meaningful entitlement and tax reforms. And unlike the sequester, this can be done in ways that protect, and in some cases improve, the economic well-being of the most vulnerable.
We've written many times before about the $1.3 trillion of tax breaks currently littering the code, urging policymakers to focus on paring back tax preferences in order to reform the tax code and reduce rates and deficits.
Encouragingly, the Blank Slate approach put forward by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch effectively puts all these tax expenditures on the table, requiring any that remain to be justified on economic, fairness, or policy grounds.
Our new blog series, The Tax Break-Down, will take a closer look at these tax breaks one at a time, showing their cost, describing who benefits from them, providing arguments for and against keeping them, and offering options to repeal or reform them. We’ve written in the past about more efficient ways to design the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable deduction, and the employer-provided health care exclusion and offered a list of options for reforming all three. This series will go beyond the most popular and well-known provisions to do a deeper dive on both the individual and corporate sides of the income tax.
Tax expenditures represent a large and often overlooked portion of government policy. Like programs in the regular budget, they provide support for housing, health care, philanthropy, infrastructure, research, education, retirement, domestic production, child care, work, aid to states, and a number of other functions. At $1.3 trillion in annual cost, they cost more than all discretionary spending and as much as Social Security and Medicare combined.
Many of these tax breaks serve important or desirable public policy purposes, though they do so with varying degrees of success. At the same time, many tax breaks complicate the code, reduce the progressivity of the code, and distort economic decision making. Every dollar spent on retaining a tax preference is a dollar which is unavailable for other purposes.
As Washington engages in the important debate on what tax reform should look like, we'll be offering information and analysis on the tax breaks under discussion. Tomorrow we will post our first Tax Break-Down, a discussion of the state and local tax deduction.
Posts in the Tax Break-Down:
- The State & Local Tax Deduction
- Last-In, First-Out (LIFO) Accounting
- Preferential Rates on Capital Gains
- Child Tax Credit
- Section 199, the Domestic Production Activities Deduction
- Municipal Bonds
- Cafeteria Plans and Flexible Spending Accounts
- Accelerated Depreciation
- Individual Retirement Accounts
- American Opportunity Tax Credit
- Intangible Drilling Costs
- Foreign Earned Income Exclusion
- FICA Tip Credit
- Low-Income Housing Tax Credit
A New York Times piece today lays out a possible "mini-bargain" to move past the debt ceiling and expiration of government funding. The piece, "Puzzle Awaits the Capital: How to Solve 3 Fiscal Rifts," discusses the three upcoming fiscal disputes facing Washington: the debate over whether to fund "Obamacare" or risk a government shutdown, the question of how to address the 2014 sequester, and the need to raise the debt limit. The article argues that the first challenge appears to be resolving itself and the third challenge has a still-not-clear future, but it floats an idea for the second challenge.
In short, the article suggests policymakers might waive a portion of two years' worth of sequester cuts (remember, the sequester continues through 2021) in exchange for an equivalent amount of other deficit reduction over ten years. The article suggests that policymakers could first enact a temporary continuing resolution, and then negotiate the details:
The aim of negotiations after that would be to come up with new savings approaching $200 billion.
Part of the savings would come from entitlements, but programs like farm subsidies, rather than the more politically volatile Social Security and Medicare. Part would come from new revenues, but “user fees” tied to special government services, rather than broad-based tax increases.
That could allow both sides to tell key constituencies that they did not violate core principles. And it would be enough to replace cuts in military and domestic programs for about two years, without increasing the deficit.
This solution, of course, would be less than ideal. Ideally, policymakers would use the sequester as it was intended -- as an impetus to develop a comprehensive debt solution. If policymakers do undertake this approach, however, they must at minimum fully offset the cost of any sequester repreal with permanent savings that do not rely on budget gimmicks. There is no question that sequestration is bad policy, but repealing any part of it it without fully offsetting its costs would be unacceptable and undermine our fiscal credibility.
So what about this proposal to offset two years' worth of costs without really touching "entitlements" or directly increasing taxes? Using policies in the President's budget, we took a go at designing such a package. It is certainly possible to do so, though not easy.
By our math, repealing the sequester for two years would cost roughly $210 billion after accounting for various interactions. We assumed that one third of the sequester would be left in place, one third would be offset with what one might consider direct spending cuts, and the remaining third with user fees and revenue from minor changes. Of the direct spending cuts, we took about $15 billion from health care to pay for the health portion of the sequester and the rest from federal retirement contributions and farm subsidies. On the revenue side, we relied on as many user fees as possible -- some of which would technically be classified as "offsetting receipts" and others as revenue -- but we also had to assume about $20 billion in taxes from improving tax reporting and restoring the recently-expired unemployment insurance surtax. It is possible these savings could be replaced with other user fees from outside the President's budget.
Our illustrative deal did not address a number of other provisions that will expire at the end of the year such as the doc fix, expanded unemployment benefits, and the tax extenders. Although we are optimistic on the chances of a permanent doc fix this year, one could see a two year replacement -- costing about $30 to 40 billion -- being replaced with something like a reduction in payments for Medicare bad debts, a combination of a one-year freeze in post-acute care payments, and an extension of the freeze of income-related thresholds for premiums.
The package outlined above could certainly be seen as an improvement over current law. It would replace $140 billion of deficit reduction at a time when we don't particularly need it with an equivalent amount over the next decade and an additional $200 billion to $250 billion of further savings in the folllowing decade.
On the other hand, the package would do little to alter the trajectory of our debt since it would not address the drivers of our long-term debt problem -- the growing costs of entitlement programs -- nor would it do anything to improve the tax code.
Additionally, this package would virtually pick dry the remaining low-hanging fruit of deficit reduction. The same game could not be repeated to replace the next two years of sequester and the two years after that. There simply isn't enough money left from the small basket of user fees and other mandatory programs.
Ultimately, the only sources big enough to pay off the sequester and put our long-term debt on a sustainable are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the $1.3 trillion of tax breaks in the code. A "grand bargain," even a smaller grand bargain, would allow policymakers to address many of these issues together while also incorporating much of the "low-hanging fruit" and finding a permanent solution of the sequester.
Sooner or later, the available "hard choices" will be the only ones left, and policymakers will have wished they acted sooner to make them. Offsetting the sequester is certainly better than waiving it, but a permanent solution is likely to be the best answer for the short-term economy, the long-term economy, and the unsustainable long-term debt burden we face.
In his column in today's Wall Street Journal and an accompanying audio clip, David Wessel takes on the question before Washington: Is the budget deficit falling, or does it pose a serious threat to the nation's prosperity? His answer: Yes to both. On one hand, the budget deficit is shrinking, due in large part to the recovering economy but also due to some of the savings lawmakers have enacted over the past year. On the other hand, the federal debt remains a high level and will begin to rise as a share of the economy after 2018.
As baby boomers retire and health care costs continue to grow, pressures on the debt will escalate leading to a dangerous upward trend, as the chart below shows, particularly in the second decade.
Note: Based on CBO's old GDP numbers
As Wessel notes, debt is far beyond the historical average, which gives us far less flexibility until debt returns to more normal levels - a concept we refer to as fiscal space. In addition, deficit reducing policies have a greater chance of success if they are phased-in gradually. Without some lead time to allow taxpayers, agencies, and beneficiaries to adjust and slowly phase-in these policies, the needed changes could invoke unneccessary pain. With the long-term problem well established, Wessel argue that lawmakers need to be prudent and anticipate the coming problem. Writes Wessel:
Prudent politicians would be aiming to gradually reduce the debt burden, both by money-saving changes to benefit programs and money-raising tax policies and by doing what's necessary to quicken the long-run pace of economic growth.
It's natural to focus on next year's appropriations, but they are not related to the long-term problem. While recognizing the deficit reduction savings enacted to date, Wessel criticizes the focus on the discretionary portion of the budget which is neither large nor growing in comparison to the entitlements. We made this same point recently, arguing that our growing debt can be entirely attributed to growing entitlement costs as the population ages and health care costs continue to rise.
Prudent politicians would be making changes today that will reduce the share of the budget that goes to interest 10 years from now.
And then there are the immutable demographic facts. America is aging, which means more folks on Medicare. And health-care costs per person continue to rise faster than most everything else...Prudent politicians would be seeking ways to slow health-cost growth and temper the costs of the retirement of the baby boomers.
Unfortunately, until recently, Congress has not been taking Wessel's advice:
So what is Congress doing? Heading for a fiscal showdown this fall, and perhaps a government shutdown. But that fight isn't about any of the above issues. It's over how much to spend on the one-third of domestic and defense outlays that are appropriated annually, spending that is not driving deficits.
Thankfully, there are some signs that Washington may again be turning to a comprehensive deal that addresses our long-term problem. In the fiscal discussions ahead, we expect that the President and Congress will use the opportunities ahead to work out a bipartisan compromise on entitlement and tax reform. The debt problem may feel far off now, if lawmakers kick the can now and wait until the last minute to make changes, they will regret not taking on the issue earlier.
Click here to read the full editorial.
It's August 14 and that means it is Social Security's birthday! The program has been around for 78 years, providing retirement security to the elderly and support for the disabled. But the demographics have changed over the past 78 years and financial projections clearly show that reforms will be needed to ensure the program can continue to provide those benefits.
As we discussed in our analysis of the latest Social Security Trustees Report, the combined trust fund is due to become insolvent as early as 2033. At this time, benefits will need to be cut by 23 percent to match revenues. This year's projections were similar to last year's, with a 75-year actuarial shortfall now at 2.72 percent of payroll (0.98 percent of GDP) from the 2.67 percent of payroll (0.96 percent of GDP) mark in last year's report. However, another lost year gives us less time to slowly phase-in the changes need to restore solvency for the program.
While the gap needed to be made up is significant, there are many options that lawmakers could consider that could make the program solvent. CRFB has developed a useful tool, The Reformer, which allows users to select from a variety of revenue and benefit options will the goal making the program sustainably solvent, closing the gap between revenue and spending over 75 years and in the 75th year. We've even used the Reformer to show the effects of Social Security reform plans from Simpson-Bowles, Domenici-Rivlin, the National Academy of Social Insurance, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), and Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI).
Social Security is one of the most important programs in the federal government. But each passing year forfeits an opportunity to enact phased-in, gradual changes that allow beneficiaries and taxpayers time to adjust. With the Disability Insurance portion of the program due to become insolvent by 2016, Washington will need to make some decisions about the future of Social Security. Try The Reformer and develop your own plan to make the program sustainable for generations to come.
Yesterday, we noted the revisions that CBO has made to its historical budget data going back to 1973, in light of the Bureau of Economic Analysis's revisions to GDP numbers going back to 1929. Although the nominal dollar totals are unaffected, numbers that were estimated as a percentage of GDP have all been revised downward, as a result of the higher GDP. We pointed out that the revisions were noticeable but certainly not huge.
But even if the revisions to past data were not course-altering, budget wonks and lawmakers will be watching closely to see how budget projections will change as a result. In this post, we use the CRFB Realistic baseline to show how budget projections might change, with the caveat that these are, of course, not official numbers and may not fully represent the changes that would be made to either budget or economic projections as a result of the GDP revisions. In particular, we have used the new GDP levels but assume the same growth rates CBO has in its projections.
First, there is spending and revenue, which have been revised down compared to the old GDP numbers by about half a percentage point each year. Spending and revenue in 2023 equal 22 percent of GDP and 18.5 percent, respectively, whereas they had previously been 22.7 percent and 19.1 percent. The ten-year average of spending and revenue is revised down from 22.1 percent and 18.9 percent, respectively, to 21.3 and 18.3 percent.
Source: CBO, BEA, CRFB
The new GDP numbers lower yearly deficits as a share of GDP by about one-tenth of one percentage point annually, only a small difference. For debt, the new GDP levels lower debt-to-GDP by about 2.5 percentage points annually. Under current Realistic projections, debt will rise to 76.5 percent of GDP in 2014, fall to a low of 71.9 percent in 2018, and then rise to 75.5 percent by 2023. After incorporating the new numbers, debt would rise to 74 percent by 2014, fall to a low of 69.5 percent by 2018, and then rise to 73 percent by 2023. Note that while the levels of debt have fallen, the trajectory is very similar.
Source: CBO, BEA, CRFB
In addition, we have used the new GDP numbers to re-estimate debt-to-GDP in the budget plans from the President, the House, the Senate, and the Bipartisan Path Forward. Again, the debt trajectories remain the same, but the level of debt in 2023 is about 2 to 3 percentage points lower than previously estimated. 2023 debt in the House and Senate budgets (adjusted for changes in CBO's May baseline) are revised down from 52 percent and 67 percent, respectively, to 64.4 percent and 50 percent. Debt in the President's budget in 2023 is revised down from 69.8 percent to 67.5 percent. And 2023 debt in the Bipartisan Path Forward is revised down from 66.2 percent to 63.8 percent.
Source: CBO, CRFB
Note: House, Senate, and BPF numbers have been adjusted from original reported numbers for changes in CBO's baseline.
Importantly, all of these re-estimates assume that projected GDP growth rates stay the same. However, BEA's revisions also bumped up the average GDP growth rate from 1929-2012 by 0.1 percentage points annually. If we assume that would hold true going forward, it would further lower numbers calculated as a percent of GDP, although not by as much as the changes in GDP levels. Incorporating the new growth would have spending and revenue in 2023 at 21.7 percent of GDP and 18.3 percent, respectively, while debt would be 72.2 percent of GDP in that year.
Ultimately, we will see how much has changed when CBO releases its long-term outlook in September. At that time, it will likely incorporate the new GDP numbers but will not change its ten-year budget projections (although its projections beyond 2023 will change). Based on what we have calculated, the GDP revisions will change the level of the budget metrics but not the trajectory, which we consider to be the most important.
Over at Calculated Risk, Bill McBride has created an animated chart showing America's age distribution evolve, as far back as 1900 to the current day to the projected age distributions through 2060. We've written before on The Bottom Line that population aging will be one of the key drivers of the long-term debt problem going forward, along with rising health care costs. Aging is projected to account for 75 percent of the increase in spending on Social Security and health care by 2037. After seeing the chart, that is not a surprise.
While long-term budget projections are inherently uncertain, population aging's effect on the budget is relatively predictable. We know that demographics will push up spending on retirement programs which will be a main driver of increased spending and debt in the coming decades. By acting now, we can deal with our current unsustainable path while minimizing any negative effects on beneficaries.
Nearly two weeks ago, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released its GDP report with a $560 billion upward revision for 2012. As we explained at the time, the BEA has adopted a new accounting system, which changes the way GDP is measured. Now R&D and artistic creation are accounted for as investments, instead of as immediate expenditures. As a result, GDP appears larger than under previous measurements.
Today, the Congressional Budget Office revised its historical data to incorporate BEA's accounting changes. Actual past budgets are unaffected by this change, but because historical GDP has been revised upward, both spending and revenue as a share of GDP appear slightly smaller than old estimates.
The change appears even less dramatic when comparing the old estimates of historical debt-to-GDP figures to the revised estimates.
Another measure often discussed in the budget is the 40-year historical average for the different budget metrics, which is used as a barometer of the fiscal size of government, deficits, and debt in recent history. Obviously, with higher GDP numbers, these averages are now lower. For example, historical spending and revenue used to be about 21 percent of GDP and 18 percent, respectively, but now average 20.4 percent and 17.4 percent. Notably, the official 40-year averages match what Donald Marron estimated when the GDP numbers originally came out.
|1973-2012 Averages, Percent of GDP|
|Memorandum: Estimate of 2013 Debt||75.1%||72.5%|
Source: Marron, CBO, BEA
Going forward, the higher GDP numbers will likely revise down the levels of budget metrics as a percent of GDP slightly but should not change the projections themselves. It is likely we will see lower levels of debt in the next CBO budget outlook, however the trajectory of debt will remain unchanged.
Click here for CBO's new historical data.
Before leaving for August recess, Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced S. 1476, which would end the ability of businesses to deduct any executive salaries over $1 million. Currently, regular salaries over $1 million cannot be deducted for the five highest-paid employees, but performance-based incentives are fully deductible, per section 162(m) of the tax code. According to Reed’s press release, the bill to expand this deduction limitation to cover performance-based pay would raise $50 billion over ten years.
Reed and Blumenthal refer to their bill as closing a “loophole” which is currently “subsidizing” corporate bonuses. In fact, however, the deductibility of executive compensation is not a tax preference or tax expenditure; it is a normal feature of the income tax system. The corporate income tax system taxes net profits, which means companies deduct business expenses such as employee salaries in order to calculate their taxable income. Rather, this deduction is what we called a “Non-Tax-Expenditure Base Provision” (NTEBP).
In the CRFB paper, “Beyond Tax Expenditures," we describe NTEBPs: provisions in the tax code that narrow the tax base and allow for a reduced tax burden but are not classified as tax expenditures and are not automatically eliminated under a "clean slate" exercise because they do not represent a divergence from a clean tax code. Although most NTEBPs represent sound tax policy and should remain in place, others may warrant reform.
Efforts to limit the deductibility of CEO income fall under one of the criteria we identified for determining if an NTEBP merits reform: if the NTEBP works against a public policy goal. In this case, the goal was reducing inequality. For that reason, the deductibility of performance pay has been limited since the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993
However, they left a broad exception: companies could still deduct executive pay over $1 million if it was performance-based and pre-approved by the shareholders. This exception was so wide that the law did little to discourage higher executive pay. In the 20 years since the provision was created, executive salaries have risen dramatically, with little evidence that it is more closely tied to performance than before. As Senator Chuck Grassley, then-chair of the Finance Committee, explained in 2006:
162(m) is broken. … It was well-intentioned. But it really hasn’t worked at all. Companies have found it easy to get around the law. It has more holes than Swiss cheese. And it seems to have encouraged the options industry. These sophisticated folks are working with Swiss-watch-like devices to game this Swiss-cheese-like rule.
The Joint Committee on Taxation, which recommended repealing the deductibility limits entirely on the last page of its report on the Enron scandal, noted that the tax rule was ineffective at limiting executive compensation and suggested addressing the inequality concerns outside the tax code. Still, if Congress chooses to keep the limit in place, closing the performance-based exception should help it be more effective.
The bill put forward by Reed and Blumenthal would aim to address these flaws by making performance-based pay above $1 million non-deductible just like regular pay, and by expanding the limit to all employees as opposed to just the top five. As policymakers continue to work to enact tax reform, policies like this should certainly be taken under consideration. A comprehensive tax plan to lower the rates, broaden the base, and reduce the deficit will require looking at tax expenditures and Non-Tax-Expenditure Base Provisions alike.
This weekend in The New York Times, former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors Glenn Hubbard and the Hudson Institute's Tim Kane challenged both parties' approach to dealing with one of our of nation's most important problems and suggested ways to help maintain fiscal discipline.
As a result of the short-term improvements in budget projections, argue Hubbard and Kane, both ends of the political spectrum have been eager to turn the focus away from deficit reduction. Some on the left have used the projections to argue for a focus on things like the short-term economy, while some on the right have turned the focus to shrinking government. But the debt problem is still not solved, especially in the long term. We have made some progress, but a fiscal solution will require more difficult reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code, on which we have been far less successful.
The good news is that the tone from both parties has changed recently, as leaders are beginning to realize the difficulty in operating with the sequester (and the debt limit looming). As the conversation moves forward, Hubbard and Kane offer two possible improvements to the budget process: improving the current fiscal accounting and fiscal rules.
On accounting, Kane and Hubbard emphasize that current budgetary accounting may not give enough emphasis to the long-term outlook, especially when considering entitlement programs:
Starting with loosely binding ropes, Congress should modify the budget treatment of entitlement programs. The federal government continues to analyze Social Security and Medicare through the lens of cash accounting: counting up the costs of new long-term obligations not in the year the obligation is made, but off in the distant future when they must be paid...Changes in the accrued liabilities of Social Security and Medicare, in particular, should be assessed on the federal budget each year.
Considering the fiscal gap along with the current budget measures could help show the magnitude of the long-term problem. The Intergenerational Financial Obligations Reform (INFORM) Act that a bipartisan group of Senators introduced in July would better show the sustainability of our entitlements through the use of generational accounting.
Hubbard and Kane then suggest a form of a balanced budget amendment which would limit current year spending to the average revenue collected over the previous seven years. They explain:
If our goal is to “balance” instead of just “starve” the federal beast, the amendment will trust voters to choose the amount of government it wants so long as the sticker price is honest, and there will be as many Democratic senators on board as Republicans. Here are three practical modifications that Congress should consider in a new balanced budget amendment.
First, because reconciling expenditures and revenues would be impossible in real time, the constraint should be on expenditures only. A good rule would be this: Congress shall spend no more in the current year than it collected, on average, over the previous seven years. No more overspending in fat years and no draconian cuts to expenditures during future recessions.
Second, any amendment should be simple, focused only on fiscal balance. The best mix of tax and expenditure changes is for each generation of voters to decide.
Third, there should be an exception to the spending constraint for national emergencies.
Hubbard and Kane's suggestions are useful contributions in thinking about the budget process. There have been a number of other balanced budget amendments proposed which seek to find an optimal balance between being restrictive but flexible enough to allow for deficits when they are truly necessary. The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform discussed having an aspirational goal to balance the budget over each business cycle. Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced a bill to eventually cap total spending at 20.6 percent of the preceding three years' average GDP.
However, given that debt is the key concern, rules focused on targeting a debt level or path may be the most helpful. For example, the Bipartisan Path Forward would require lawmakers to put the debt on a downward path, with tax and spending enforcement mechanisms and a 67-vote threshold to overturn them. The President proposed targeting debt to be on a downward path by the end of the ten-year window, enforced by cuts to most spending and tax expenditures. The Peterson-Pew Commission suggested having a series of debt targets enforced by across-the-board spending cuts and tax increases. The Commission also created a fiscal toolbox comparing a number of different enforcement mechanisms that lawmakers and budget experts had previously proposed.
While changes to fiscal accounting and the creation of rules are not the end-all be-all of deficit reduction, they certainly help in making budgetary trade-offs more explicit and encouraging sustainable fiscal policy.
As the Senate Finance Committee looks to take up tax reform, one of the higher ranking members on the Committee who will likely shape the process is Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who has already authored a bipartisan tax reform plan with Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN). In today's Oregonian, Wyden's predecessor, former Senator and CRFB boardmember Bob Packwood (R-OR) expains the need for a rewrite of our nation's complicated and ineffective tax code. As a veteran of the 1986 reform, he argues that a similar effort is far overdue:
...many of the gains made in cleaning up the tax code 27 years ago -- made possible through bold leadership and bipartisan compromise -- have gone by the wayside. Deductions, exclusions and other preferences have returned over time in the form of roughly $1.3 trillion in annual backdoor spending that now litters the tax code.
Packwood commends Wyden for championing a bipartisan, pro-growth approach to reform. He also approves of the "blank slate" approach taken by Baucus and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and believes this development could lead to the comprehensive reform we need. Writes Packwood:
All told, this is undoubtedly a positive step, because we indeed need to reform our tax code, which is littered with expensive, regressive and economically distorting deductions and credits that increase complexity, reduce fairness and let the government pick winners and losers. A blank slate would eliminate egregious deductions, improve simplicity and fairness, encourage economic growth and help reduce the deficit.
As a subject-matter expert, I applaud the proposed "blank slate" approach because it will require advocates of tax preferences to justify the existence of their favored preference rather than requiring policymakers to justify each reform. It will also force policymakers to agree that tax preferences have a cost: More tax expenditures mean higher rates, larger deficits, or both.
When members of Congress return to work after Labor Day, I hope they take this issue very seriously within the context of budget negotiations. The time is now for leaders to lead and do what I was able to do in 1986 on the backs of bipartisan compromise. Inaction is simply not an option any longer.
Click here to read the full op-ed.
"My Views" are published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.