The Bottom Line

July 31, 2014
CRFB President Signs Letter in Support

In late May, Representatives Tom Cole (R-OK) and John Delaney (D-MD) introduced the Social Security Commission Act of 2014, reflecting a bipartisan effort to extend the solvency of the Social Security program and make it more sustainable over the long term. On Monday, July 28, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget President Maya MacGuineas joined Jim Kessler of Third Way, Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, and Robert D. Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in signing a letter in support of the bill.

According to the recent Social Security Trustees Report, the growing gap between spending and revenue will lead to trust fund exhaustion in the next 20 years. At that point, all beneficiaries will see a 23 percent cut in benefits if Congress does not act. The letter touched on this looming insolvency:

There is widespread recognition across the political spectrum that Social Security, on its current path, will be unable to pay full benefits to disabled beneficiaries in 2016 and to retired and survivors of American workers in 2034 (2033 under a combined Trust Funds scenario). For many American families, these would be catastrophic events.

July 30, 2014

Note: CBO has issued a more detailed score of the bill. The table has been updated to reflect these numbers.

July 30, 2014

Last night, the Senate passed legislation extending highway funding through December and offsetting the cost with a number of deficit reduction measures. The Senate approach, which is based on an amendment from Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), is far more responsible than the House bill, which relies in large part on a gimmick called pension smoothing. As CRFB President Maya MacGuineas explained in a press release:

What we really need is a long-term highway funding solution, but in the meantime, the least we can do is responsibly pay for temporary bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund. There is no question that the Senate bill is the more responsible of the two highway bills.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Senate bill's savings fall $2.4 billion short of the general revenue transfer, according to a new CBO score. This deficit is mostly the result of a drafting error which causes its customs fees to raise $2 billion less than intended. The House has rightly objected to this shortfall and also expressed concern with some of the revenue-related provisions in the Senate legislation. Fortunately, the House has the power to correct this error, modify this bill, and work with the Senate to pass a responsible highway funding bill.

Score of Senate-Passed Highway Bill
Policy Ten-Year Savings/Costs (-)
Extension of customs fees $1 billion*
Increased mortgage reporting requirements $2.1 billion
Clarification of 6-year statute of limitations for overstatement of basis $1.3 billion
100% levy on payments to Medicare providers with delinquent tax payments $0.8 billion
Other provisions -$0.5 billion
Transfer from LUST trust fund $1 billion
Total Offsets $5.7 billion
Total Transfer $8.1 billion
July 30, 2014

We have already released our analysis of the 2014 Social Security Trustees' report, which showed that the program's long-term finances are largely similar but slightly worse than projected last year. Now it's time to turn to the Medicare report, which showed some improvement in the finances of the Hospital Insurance (HI) trust fund for Part A (which covers inpatient hospital and post-acute care) and lower Medicare spending on an apples-to-apples basis. However, the improvement in the Medicare outlook does not mean that the program is out of the woods. Even with assumptions that the Trustees question as too optimistic, the report forecasts a significant rise in Medicare spending, and the HI trust fund is projected to be insolvent in 16 years.

Hospital Insurance Trust Fund Solvency

The Trustees now foresee the HI trust fund being exhausted in 2030, four years later than they predicted last year, at which point payments from the trust fund would be cut by about 15 percent. The 75-year actuarial shortfall narrowed by one-quarter of a percentage point, from 1.11 percent of taxable payroll to 0.87 percent. These revisions are similar to those of Congressional Budget Office (CBO) earlier this month.

As a percent of GDP, Part A spending will rise from 1.5 percent this year to 2.1 percent by 2035 and 2.4 percent by 2070. Meanwhile, revenue will rise more slowly from 1.45 percent this year to 1.7 percent by 2035 and 1.8 percent by 2070. The HI fund is projected to run surpluses from 2015-2020, which would be the first time since 2004. However, deficits will quickly return and rise to 0.5 percent of GDP by the late 2030s, stabilizing at that level after.

July 29, 2014

Eugene Steuerle is the cofounder of the Tax Policy Center, a senior fellow at The Urban Institute, a columnist for Tax Notes Magazine, and a CRFB Board member. This morning, he testified before the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security. Below is a transcript of his spoken remarks, as posted on his blog.

July 29, 2014

With the release of the Social Security Trustees Report, CRFB held an event examining the trustees report on July 29, 2014, at the Hyatt Regency in Washington, DC. Video of the event is below.

July 28, 2014

This afternoon, Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) announced compromise legislation to address the serious problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The authors said that the legislation would fund private health care for certain veterans, provide for hiring of additional health care providers by the VA, and make other changes in the VA health care system with a reported net cost of $12 billion.

July 28, 2014

The Social Security and Medicare Trustees reports provide a detailed projection of each program's finances over the next 75 years. In response, we have condensed the 250-page Social Security report into a concise, 6-page analysis.

July 28, 2014

Today, the Social Security and Medicare Trustees released reports on the financial state of the country's largest entitlement programs.

July 28, 2014

The American Enterprise Institute held an event Thursdsay commemorating the 50th anniversary of the start of the War on Poverty. The event, “Expanding Opportunity in America,” featured House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) as well as a panel of experts.

July 25, 2014

This week, the Senate agreed by unanimous consent to consider the House-passed highway bill, H.R. 5021. The agreement allows for the consideration of several amendments, including an amendment by Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), that would remove the pension smoothing offset, a gimmick that we have written about previously.

As outlined in the table below, the Carper-Corker-Boxer amendment would replace the offsets in the House bill with the measures approved by the Senate Finance Committee, excluding pension smoothing. This funding would be sufficient to keep the HTF solvent through December 20.

Short-Term Proposals to Fund Highways
Policy H.R. 5021 (passed by House)
Senate Finance
Carper-Corker-Boxer Amendment
Enact pension smoothing $6.4 billion $2.7 billion  -
Extend customs fees by 1 year to 2024 $3.5 billion $2.9 billion  $0.9 billion*
Increase mortgage reporting - $2.1 billion  $2.1 billion
Clarify of statute of limitations on overstatement of basis - $1.3 billion  $1.3 billion
Withhold payments from Medicare providers with delinquent taxes - $0.8 billion  $0.8 billion
Transfer funds from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Fund $1 billion
$1 billion $1 billion
Rescind old transportation earmarks - <$0.1 billion  -
Add due diligence requirement for tax preparers regarding the Child Tax Credit - <$0.1 billion <$0.1 billion
Other provisions - <$0.1 billion <$0.1 billion
Total Revenue Raised
$10.9 billion $11 billion $5.7 billion*
Percent Raised From Pension Smoothing Gimmick ~60% ~25% 0%
Date of Highway Trust Fund Exhaustion May 2015 May 2015 December 2014*
July 25, 2014

In a recent New York Times column, economist Paul Krugman argued that the focus on the national debt represented “an imaginary budget and debt crisis.” He stated that current debt increases are manageable, there is little danger of a debt crisis, and it would be “no big deal” economically to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio. He contends that those who focus on impending deficits are fear mongering and diverting the national attention "from its real problems — crippling unemployment, deteriorating infrastructure and more."

We find several flaws in Krugman’s budgetary logic, detailed below.

Claim: The Long-Term Outlook is "distinctly non-alarming"

In his column, Krugman argues that the latest Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections are "distinctly non-alarming" except to those engaging in scare tactics. We think Doug Elmendorf – Director of CBO – would disagree. In his recent testimony before the House Budget Committee, he warned that the debt projections could have "significant negative consequences," that further debt increases "could be especially harmful," and that the budget is on an "unsustainable current path."

July 24, 2014

In its release this week of the economic effects of the President's budget, CBO found it would increase the size of the economy, mainly due to immigration reform. As a result, under the President's budget Gross National Product (GNP) would be about 2.1 percent higher in 2024 than before the enactment of the budget, though GNP per capita would be about 1 percent lower. Importantly, higher economic growth would lead to additional revenue collection and lower deficits. Because CBO accounted for certain economic effects of immigration in its analysis of the President's budget, the additional economic effects would actually increase the deficit by less than $100 billion over ten years.

In analyzing the economic impact of the President's budget, CBO finds six main ways in which the budget would affect economic growth:

  • Increasing the size of the U.S. population, thus raising the number of workers;
  • Increasing federal budget deficits in the short term, mainly through higher government spending, which would boost aggregate demand and the use of labor and capital;
  • Reducing federal budget deficits in the long term, which would increase national saving and private investment;
  • Raising the marginal tax rate on labor income, thereby discouraging work;
  • Raising the marginal tax rate on capital income, thereby discouraging saving; and
  • Increasing federal investment in ways that would increase productivity and the skill level of the workforce.
July 23, 2014
Think Tanks on Left, Right, and Center Agree

In the coming days, the Senate will vote on the House-passed measure to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. The bill is a last-ditch effort to prevent the fund from going bankrupt, which would stall construction projects across the country.

July 23, 2014

Although most of our analysis of CBO's Long-Term Budget Outlook has focused on debt projections, CBO also makes projections about the solvency of trust funds over the long term. And, unfortunately, it finds that most major trust funds will become insolvent in the not-too-distant future.

CBO has already projected the impending disruption of construction projects due to the Highway Trust Fund depletion later this year, the 20 percent across-the-board benefit cut facing Social Security Disability beneficiaries sometime in FY 2017, and the need to address the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation's Multiemployer Pension fund by 2021. In this report, it finds that the the combined Social Security trust funds (assuming the SSDI program borrows from the Old-Age trust fund) and the Medicare Hospital Insurance (HI) trust fund will both run out of money around 2030. In other words, CBO projects that all the major trust funds will be depleted just over fifteen years from now. And, at that point, significant automatic benefit/payment cuts would take place.

As we touched on before, Social Security's projected finances are worse than last year, a product of lower payroll tax revenue and lower interest rates. On the other hand, the HI insolvency date has been moved back about five years due to CBO's continued downward revisions to Medicare spending. Still, these changes give a 15-year clock for both the Social Security trust fund and the HI trust fund. These trust funds would experience a sizeable cut in spending (benefits) to bring outlays in line with revenue when the trust funds are exhausted.

Exhaustion Dates for Major Trust Funds
Trust Fund
Exhaustion Date
Percent Cut Required
Highway Trust Fund FY 2015 28%
Social Security Disability Insurance FY 2017 20%
PBGC Multiemployer Fund FY 2021 87%
Medicare Hospital Insurance ~2030 ~15%
Social Security Old-Age and Survivors Insurance 2032 ~30%
Social Security Combined 2030 ~27%

 Source: CBO, CRFB calculations

July 23, 2014

In our series on the long-term budget outlook, we covered how debt projections would change if some of CBO's economic and technical assumptions turned out differently. Uncertainty is clearly a factor in any budget projection and especially so for 75-year estimates. But CBO also points out that there are ways for policymakers to remove or lessen this uncertainty by changing federal policies, including by reducing federal debt to lessen the risk of negative revisions to projections.

Recall that the four parameters for which CBO evaluated alternate assumptions were mortality, productivity, interest rates, and health care cost growth. While it is difficult to insulate the budget from productivity shocks, government policy can mitigate the effect of shocks for the three other variables on the budget.


While lower mortality is clearly a good thing for the country, it is not the case for the budget, since it raises spending on retirement and health care programs (although it also can raise the number of years a person remains in the labor force). One way to make a positive development less negative for the budget is to index retirement ages, particularly for Social Security, to longevity. This would mean that the ratio of years worked versus years receiving federal retirement benefits for the average person would remain constant over time, rather than increasingly continuously as it does now. Alternatively, current Council of Economic Advisers chair Jason Furman wrote in a 2007 Brookings Institution paper that policymakers should focus on the concept of "robust solvency" for Social Security, by making it solvent enough to be robust to changes in demographics or other projections. As an example, he showed the effect of "dependency indexing" the payroll tax rate or the benefit formula, or changing those factors based on the projected ratio of workers to beneficiaries.

Health Care Cost Growth

July 22, 2014
How Long-Term Debt Looks With Different Assumptions

Any budget projection is inherently uncertain, and that uncertainty is magnified when the projection period is extended to 25 or 75 years, as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) does in its long-term outlook. That's why CBO publishes an Alternative Fiscal Scenario (AFS), to illustrate what would happen to debt if lawmakers cut taxes and increase spending differently than projected by current law (the Appendix of our analysis explains the differences). However, policy is not the only source of uncertainty in long-term projections; the economic and technical assumptions used also greatly affect CBO's estimates. Fortunately, CBO provides a band of assumptions for mortality, productivity, interest rates, and health care cost growth, showing how they would each affect debt in 2039 (at 111 percent of GDP in the Extended Baseline, including economic feedback effects). We delve into these details below.


CBO's projections assume that population-wide mortality rates decline at 1.2 percent per year. This is somewhat higher than the 0.8 percent decline that the Social Security Trustees assume and is a main reason why CBO's Social Security projections look worse than the Trustees'. CBO evaluates what would happen to debt through 2039 if mortality rates declined 0.5 percentage points faster or slower annually. These different declines result in life expectancy for a 65 year-old being about one year longer or shorter than the default by 2039.

Different life expectancy and mortality rate assumptions affect spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (and certain other mandatory programs), but they also can affect revenue by changing the labor supply; CBO assumes that every additional year of life expectancy would cause a worker to spend three more months in the labor force. However, these alternative assumptions make little difference for debt through 2039: it rises from 111 percent of GDP to 113 percent with the faster decline in mortality and goes to 110 percent with the slower decline. These differences would compound over time though, so greater separation would occur in later years.

July 21, 2014

The Bipartisan Policy Center held an event Tuesday commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Congressional Budget Act, which became law on July 12. The event featured two panel discussions: The first panel included six former directors of the Congressional Budget Office (including CRFB Board members Alice Rivlin, Rudy Penner, and Dan Crippen), and the second panel consisted of former chairmen and members of the House and Senate Budget Committees (including CRFB Co-Chair Bill Frenzel and Board member Jim Jones). Bill Hoagland, another CRFB Board member, presided over the event. Both panels touched on the merits of the Congressional Budget Office, which the Budget Act created, and the failure of Congress to pass concurrent budget resolutions in recent years. The speakers also touched on many of the issues raised in our recent paper on the problems with the budget process. On the whole, the panelists stated that the political polarization of Congress, not inadequacies in the Budget Act, was a main reason for the gridlock in the process.

See the full videos of the panels here.

July 21, 2014
Easier to add debt than choose

Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, served as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee from 2005 to 2007 and ranking member from 2007 to 2011. He recently wrote an op-ed featured in The Hill. It is reposted here.

The United States debt now stands at $18 trillion. This is double what it was just a few years ago. The trend, under the presently proposed budgets of President Obama, is that it will triple in another five to seven years.

People point facts like this out all the time. But the response from the president and the Congress is to add more spending that has not been paid for, thus increasing the debt problem.

The two most recent cases are the supposed ‘fix’ of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the highway bill.

July 21, 2014
The Two Budgeteers: All for One in Effort to Update Budget Act

Kent Conrad, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota, and Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, are both former chairmen of the Senate Budget Committee. They recently co-wrote an op-ed featured in Roll Call. It is reposted here.

Since ratification of the constitutional authority given to Congress to tax and spend in 1788, our government has struggled to manage the federal budget. After numerous failed budget concepts and commissions, the Budget Act was finally enacted in 1974 to establish the modern-day budget process. Almost exactly 40 years since the Budget Act was signed into law, there is growing consensus among policymakers and budget observers that the system no longer functions as intended.

As former chairmen of the Senate Budget Committee, we have personally witnessed the transformation away from a functioning regular order and toward an ad hoc approach to fiscal policy. Congress adopted an annual budget resolution, approved by both chambers, each fiscal year from 1976 through 1998. Since then, however, there have been eight fiscal years in which Congress has not approved a budget resolution. Government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, temporary fixes and retroactive policy changes — all without serious consideration of our nation’s fiscal health — have become the new budgetary world order. Even when budget rules are in place, lawmakers evade them with gimmicks, emergency designations and waivers that result in the costs being added to our debt.

One of the core functions of Congress is to review and allocate discretionary spending each year through 12 appropriations bills. If not done by the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, then either the government shuts down or operates on a continuing resolution. As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget points out in a new paper detailing the problems with the current process, the average length and breadth of continuing resolutions has increased in recent years. These temporary funding extensions, along with shut downs, postpone important funding decisions and hamper the efficiency across the federal government.

We also know too well that even when budgets are produced on time, they are often political documents that lawmakers never expect to implement or enforce. Consideration of budget resolutions on the floor of the United States Senate in particular often devolves into late-night “vote-o-rama” sessions where hundreds of political messaging amendments geared to inspire campaign commercials are filed, while there is little debate on the ways to address the long-term drivers of our debt such as the need for tax reform and entitlement reform. In fact, we found the constraints of the budget process and the lack of political will to address the debt so stifling that we worked together to author legislation to create a special commission, later known as the Fiscal Commission or Simpson-Bowles, to bypass some of these process challenges.

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