The Bottom Line

May 14, 2015

With the Social Security trust funds facing a significant shortfall over the next 75 years and expected to run out of money within 20 years, Alicia Munnell of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College highlights two loopholes that could be closed to improve the program's solvency in a small but meaningful way.

Noting that creative ways to maximize Social Security benefits have been gaining popularity in recent years, Munnell focuses on two strategies to exploit loopholes she and her colleagues discussed in 2009 policy briefs, which have yet to be closed (the third loophole she highlighted has since been shut down through a new Social Security Administration regulation).

The first allows married beneficiaries reaching the normal retirement age (NRA, currently 66) to choose either to claim their own worker or spousal benefits (which is equal to one-half of your spouse's benefit), and the option to switch their choice later. This gives them the option of claiming a spousal benefit at age 66 and then switching over to their own unaffected retirement benefit when it maxes out at age 70, effectively giving the individual up to four years of the spousal benefit entirely on top of their own earned benefit. This loophole achieves no policy goal, and appears the result of a historical accident.

May 14, 2015

The budget resolution conference agreement has passed both the House and Senate. While we previously wrote about the conference's deficit reduction and budget process issues, a likely flash point between Congress and the President will be how the Congressional budget handles discretionary spending and the sequester. While the budget resolution does not call for changes in the discretionary spending limits set under sequestration, the discretionary spending levels in the budget directly and indirectly deviate from the Budget Control Act (BCA).

The conference agreement does this by cutting both non-defense discretionary (NDD) spending below sequester levels and using Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding to allow the defense budget to go above the sequester levels. For FY 2016, the conference agreement would keep spending at the levels set by the sequester. In addition the conference agreement leaves open a mechanism for sequester replacement in a fiscally responsible way, though this may still lead to conflicts between the House, Senate, and White House.

Discretionary spending in FY 2016

For the FY 2016 appropriations season, which we will continue to update on The Bottom Line as bills develop, the agreement abides by the sequester levels for non-war spending, although it would also effectively raise defense spending by creating a $38 billion slush fund in war spending. In effect, this takes the congressional budget to the total defense request in the President's budget, which instead provided sequester relief through the normal defense channel offset with other savings. The President’s budget also provided NDD funding above the sequester with offsets.

May 13, 2015

With the deadline for extending the surface transportation authorization just a few weeks away and Highway Trust Fund (HTF) bankruptcy approaching this summer, CRFB has released the The Road to Sustainable Highway Spending, a detailed plan to fix the HTF's finances and bring greater rationality to the process of determining highway spending and revenue. The plan would fully close the $175 billion trust fund shortfall through 2025 and set up processes to make future general revenue transfers to the fund much less likely.

Click here to read the full plan.

The plan first articulates three principles that any responsible highway solution should abide by:

  1. Act quickly to ensure adequate funding. Congress must extend the highway bill this month and provide sufficient funding to avoid disruptions this summer.
  2. Offset any general revenue transfers with real savings. While at least a short-term general revenue transfer is likely needed, it would be irresponsible to enact a transfer without equal-sized spending cuts or revenue increases to offset the cost. Resorting to gimmicks such as pension smoothing undermines the trust fund’s credibility.
  3. Close the structural imbalance. Lawmakers cannot rely on general revenue transfers in perpetuity and must ultimately bring highway spending and dedicated revenue in line. Plans should close this gap, and any that fail to do so should acknowledge that further action will need to be taken in the future.
May 8, 2015
CRFB Releases Mandatory Spending and Revenue Options Compendium

CRFB has released a new compendium of over 150 options to reduce mandatory spending and raise revenue. Despite declining in deficits in recent years, the debt is still projected to rise substantially over the long term. In addition, a series of upcoming Fiscal Speed Bumps will force lawmakers to make decisions about spending and revenue that could require large amounts of offsets, or potentially add almost $2 trillion to the debt.

Click here to see the full list of options.

Our list of options is meant to assist in finding fiscally responsible Speed Bump solutions, achieve some of the unspecified savings in the budget resolution, and help make the country's fiscal situation sustainable.

This paper updates and expands a health care and revenue options report released during the fiscal cliff discussions in late 2012. The new list also focuses on revenue and health care but also includes options for other mandatory (non-health, non-Social Security) spending that may be useful in the months ahead.

May 7, 2015

In an homage to former Senator Tom Coburn's (R-OK) commitment to bringing attention to wasteful programs through his annual Wastebook and similar to freshman Rep. Steve Russell's (R-OK) Wastebook Watch No. 1, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) recently published America's Most Wasted, a catalog of what the Senator calls "questionable Washington spending habits." Senator McCain identifies at least $1.1 billion in waste and at least another $294 billion spent on programs that are no longer authorized to receive funding. 

As Senator McCain explained:

Today I am releasing a report titled America’s Most Wasted, which continues the remarkable work that Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn did for years with his annual Wastebook by highlighting, naming and shaming outrageous pork projects funded with your taxpayer dollars. This is just the first in a series of reports I will release this year, which will also spotlight wasteful spending at the Pentagon that I am committed to fighting as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

May 6, 2015

During the consideration of the FY 2016 budget, we continually wrote about the budget process provisions in the major budget resolutions as well as previewing the budget process issues heading into conference. As we noted in our initial analysis of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the conference report, the final budget resolution includes some useful budget process and enforcement improvement. Unfortunately, some of the better provisions were dropped or watered down from earlier versions, and some provisions that move budget process in the wrong direction made it into the final conference report.

CHIMPs

The budget begins to limit phony savings from Changes in Mandatory Programs (CHIMPs) used to pay for real increases in discretionary spending, although these limits were watered down relative to those in the Senate budget resolution. The conference report freezes the amount of CHIMPs that don't produce real savings at the FY 2015 level of $19 billion for 2016 and 2017, and then it gradually reduces the limit to $15 billion by 2019. The conference report also limits capping spending from the Crime Victim's Fund as an offset. However, a related provision prohibiting the use of mandatory spending rescissions with no outlay savings as an offset was dropped. An appropriations bill that exceeds the new limits on CHIMPs would be subject to a point of order in the House and Senate, with 60 votes required to waive the point of order in the Senate. For more information on CHIMPs, see our recent blog, complete with the requisite use of puns.

May 1, 2015

Yesterday, we discussed The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of the Budget Conference, where we showed how the budget conference agreement was a mixed bag when it came to important procedural and policy issues. This blog takes a step back to look at the overall savings the budget intends to produce and how it compares to the original House and Senate budgets.

Like the House budget, the conference agreement proposes bringing the budget into balance starting in 2024. Compared to a baseline that includes the physician payment law (HR 2), a drawdown of war spending, and the removal of one-time emergency spending, the conference agreement assumes savings of $5.3 trillion over ten years, splitting the difference between the House and Senate, which had savings of $5.6 and $5.1 trillion, respectively. The $5.3 trillion total consists of $4.4 trillion of policy savings, $718 billion of interest savings, and $124 billion from the fiscal dividend that incorporates the economic effects of deficit reduction.

These savings would put debt on a clear downward path from 74 percent of GDP this year to 56 percent by 2025, again splitting the difference between the House and Senate. This path would be a clear improvement on current law and well below where the President's budget is. However, the President's budget is much more specific, listing individual policies to claim deficit reduction, while the budget resolution leaves many of its savings unspecified; indeed, the Senate committee allocations put nearly $5 trillion of savings in the "unallocated" category, so no committee is responsible for achieving them.

 

April 30, 2015
Congress Should Not Use OCO as a Slush Fund

One of the most troubling elements of the budget conference agreement was the use of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account as a slush fund to circumvent the spending limits under the Budget Control Act (BCA). Specifically, the budget conference report allocated $96 billion in spending for OCO in FY 2016, $38 billion more than the President’s request, with the expectation that the additional spending would be used to increase funding for the base Department of Defense (DoD) budget above the limits under the BCA (it also provided funding above the President's budget for 2017-2021 for the same purpose). This strategy will face its first test today when the House of Representatives votes on a series of amendments by Representative Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) and Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) striking OCO funding in the appropriations bill for Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilCon/VA).

The MilCon/VA bill reported by the House Appropriations Committee included a new section for OCO that provided $532 million in spending for construction projects that were in the DoD budget request. Reps. Mulvaney and Van Hollen offered a series of amendments that would strike this funding. While the amount of funding involved is relatively modest, the principle is very important. The votes on whether or not to maintain funding for the base defense budget that uses OCO to get around the BCA caps will set an important precedent about whether or not Congress will follow through on the plan to use OCO to circumvent spending limits.

During the House debate on the amendments, Rep. Mulvaney argued that if Congress believes the BCA spending limits are too low, it should change the law and increase the spending limits instead of using OCO to circumvent the spending limits. Ranking Member Van Hollen noted that the use of OCO to fund items in the base defense budget was in conflict with the position taken by the House Budget Committee last year in their report accompanying the FY 2015 budget resolution. The report described the use of OCO for spending in the base defense budget as a “backdoor loophole that undermines the integrity of the budget process” and pledged to exercise oversight on the use of OCO that is not war-related and oppose increases above the levels military commanders say are needed to carry out operations.

April 29, 2015

With the budget conference complete, it is now up to each chamber of Congress to pass the FY 2016 concurrent budget resolution. We've already written about the House and Senate budgets in detail, and the final budget resolution aims to find compromise between the two.

As CRFB President Maya MacGuineas said in a press release today:

Congress should be commended for actually having a budget this year and for proposing to put the debt on a sharp downward path relative to the economy. Unfortunately, the budget fails to give lawmakers the tools to accomplish this important goal, and in some areas actually facilitates higher deficits.

Below we take a more detailed look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the final product.

April 29, 2015

A group of House Democrats introduced a bill yesterday to repeal the tax on high-cost health insurance plans, commonly known as the "Cadillac tax," set to take effect in 2018. The repeal joins a similar House Republican bill released back in February. Needless to say, repealing the tax would be very expensive - CBO has estimated the tax raises $87 billion through 2025 while raising growing amounts over time - and likely counter-productive to health care cost control efforts. Importantly, the tax already seems to be having clear effects on the design of employer-provided health plans and has shown itself to be an important tool to slow private health spending growth (and may be playing a role in the recent slowdown). At the very least, lawmakers should plan to offset the lost revenue from repeal, but they should focus on policies that can also bend the health care cost curve.

The Cadillac tax is a 40 percent excise tax on employer-provided health insurance plan premiums that exceed $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families. Those thresholds are adjusted for inflation in future years so they would provide tighter limits over time since health care costs have almost always grown faster than inflation. As a result, it will raise growing amounts of revenue over time.

April 28, 2015

Lawmakers cleared their second Fiscal Speed Bump of the year - the expiration of the one-year "doc fix" - earlier this month, scuttling the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula for good by adding $141 billion to deficits through 2025 ($175 billion with interest). As a result, CBO's last baseline in March is now slightly out of date, and the agency usually doesn't release new ten-year numbers until August, so here's our estimate of what the baseline looks like in the post-SGR world.

The new law increases debt by about one percentage point of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2025, from 77 percent to 78 percent. It also increases ten-year deficits and health care spending by about one-tenth of a percent of GDP while slightly increasing interest spending from 2.9 to 3 percent of GDP in 2025. Not surprisingly, the law slightly increases the share of spending going to health care and interest.

The New Ten-Year Budget Outlook (Percent of GDP)
  2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2016-2025
Revenue 17.7% 18.4%
18.3% 18.1% 18.1% 18.1% 18.1% 18.1% 18.2% 18.2% 18.3% 18.2%
                         
Health Care* 5.2% 5.4% 5.3% 5.2% 5.5% 5.5% 5.6% 5.9% 5.9% 5.8% 6.1% 5.7%
Medicare 3.0%
3.0% 2.9% 2.8% 3.0% 3.1% 3.2% 3.5% 3.4% 3.3% 3.6% 3.2%
Medicaid/CHIP 2.0% 2.0% 2.0% 2.0% 2.0% 2.0% 2.0% 2.1% 2.1% 2.1% 2.1% 2.1%
Exchange 0.2% 0.3% 0.4% 0.4% 0.4% 0.4% 0.4% 0.4% 0.4% 0.4% 0.4% 0.4%
                         
Social Security 4.9% 4.9% 4.9% 5.0% 5.1% 5.2% 5.3% 5.4% 5.5% 5.6% 5.7% 5.3%
Other Mandatory 2.6% 2.9% 2.8% 2.6% 2.5% 2.5% 2.4% 2.5% 2.3% 2.2% 2.3% 2.5%
Discretionary 6.5% 6.3% 6.0% 5.8% 5.7% 5.6% 5.5% 5.4% 5.3% 5.2% 5.1% 5.5%
Interest 1.3% 1.5% 1.7% 2.0% 2.2% 2.4% 2.6% 2.7% 2.8% 2.9% 3.0% 2.4%
Total Spending 20.5% 20.9% 20.7% 20.6% 21.0% 21.2% 21.4% 21.9% 21.8% 21.7% 22.2% 21.4%
                         
Deficit -2.7% -2.5% -2.4% -2.5% -2.9% -3.2% -3.3% -3.8% -3.7% -3.5% -3.8% -3.2%
                         
Debt 74.2% 73.9% 73.5% 73.2% 73.5% 73.9% 74.5% 75.4% 76.2% 76.8% 77.8% N/A

Source: CRFB calculations based on CBO data
*Includes net Medicare, Medicaid/CHIP, and health insurance exchange subsidies

April 28, 2015

Our partners at Fix the Debt released a graphic yesterday highlighting the fiscal irresponsibility of the 114th Congress in the few months it has been in session so far. On top of the $7.2 trillion in deficits the federal government was already expected to run over the next ten years, they have already added $180 billion more to debt by 2025 through the Department of Homeland Security funding, the physician payment law that we have written extensively about, and additional interest costs produced by these two measures and some other pieces of very small deficit increasing legislation.

 

 

We hope that Congress will reverse this debt-digging trend and begin to fill in the budget holes with additional savings and revenues to make up for the position they have dug us into.

April 27, 2015
Congress's Foot is on the Gas Pedal

Congress sped through this year's second and third "Fiscal Speed Bumps" in March, ignoring the return of the statutory debt limit (though the hard deadline for the debt limit is not until this fall, due to the Treasury Department's "extraordinary measures") and hurrying through a fiscally irresponsible, though permanent, solution to the expiration of the Medicare "doc fix." We've updated our Speed Bumps graphic, below, showing lawmakers barreling full speed to the end of May when the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money.

This week, the House and Senate will announce their conferenced budget resolution, which outlines their blueprint for Fiscal Year 2016. The passage of the concurrent budget resolution signals the start of the appropriations process, which must be completed before an October 1 deadline. That deadline also coincides with the expiration of the Ryan-Murray budget deal and the return of sequestration discretionary spending levels. As we wrote last week, the House jumped the gun and has already started work on several appropriations bills in advance of the final resolution.

April 24, 2015

The House Appropriations Committee kicked off appropriations season this week by starting to mark up their Fiscal Year 2016 bills at the same time that the House of Representatives approved its allocations to the individual appropriations subcommittees. Technically, the House is jumping the gun by marking up appropriations bills before the Budget Committees complete their conference agreement that will set topline spending limits.

The House Appropriations committee has approved both the Energy and Water bill (E&W) and the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill (MilCon/VA) on voice votes. Those bills will now head to the House floor for full consideration. 

The E&W bill provides $35.4 billion in discretionary funding, which is $1.2 billion above the FY 2015 level but about $0.6 billion below the President’s request. This is not surprising since the President's budget proposes a higher overall non-defense spending limit for FY 2016 than that prescribed by the sequester.

The MilCon/VA bill provides $76.6 billion in discretionary budget authority ($4.6 billion above FY 2015 and $1.2 billion below the President's request), of which $532 million is from Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding. OCO funding is not subject to the Budget Control Act limits on discretionary spending, and we have written extensively in the past month about our concerns that both the House and Senate budgets allow a very high OCO budget of $96 billion without offsetting the increased cost with savings elsewhere. This funding level is $38 billion higher than the President’s request of $58 billion and $22 billion above the FY 2015 level. By providing significant funding above the President’s request, OCO will likely become a slush fund for regular defense spending to circumvent the spending cap.

April 23, 2015

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget is pleased to announce three new job openings. Those who are interested can visit our jobs page for a detailed description of each position's responsibilities and qualifications.

The positions are:

  • Legislative Director: The Legislative Director will contribute to the organization’s ongoing legislative efforts in the areas of federal tax, health, disability, budget, and economic policy. The Director will be a member of the senior team. We are looking for a team player who has previous Hill experience as well as a strong commitment to advocating for responsible fiscal policies.
  • Policy Analyst: The Policy Analyst will contribute to the organization’s analysis of federal tax, health, disability, budget, and economic policy issues. We are looking for a team player interested in writing, researching, and publishing new content, analyzing new legislation and approaches to federal budget policy, and becoming part of a growing team of fiscal policy thought leaders.
  • Policy Writer: The Policy Writer will assist the policy team in drafting and editing content on a variety of fiscal topics including federal tax, health, disability, budget, and economic policy. We are looking for a team player who is able to distill complex policy material into accessible and compelling content.

Applicants should send a resume, cover letter, and contact information for three references to info@crfb.org. Those applying for the Policy Analyst and Policy Writer positions should also send a writing sample of six pages or less.

April 22, 2015

Big economic policy news came last week when lawmakers announced a bipartisan agreement (H.R. 1890) to revive Trade Promotion Authority in order to give fast-track consideration for trade deals. Flying somewhat below the radar are two accompanying bills introduced in the House (H.R. 1891 and 1892) that would extend various trade-related provisions and fully offset them. The Senate Finance Committee is marking up versions of these bills today, although there is only a CBO score for the Senate equivalent of H.R. 1891. Here's a rundown of what's in the House bills:

  • Trade Adjustment Assistance: A main sticking point in the agreement was the fate of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which helps domestic workers who are adversely affected by imports. The deal extends TAA through June 2021 at a cost of $2.7 billion over ten years. In addition, the deal revives and extends the closely-related Health Coverage Tax Credit that subsidizes health insurance premiums for TAA recipients (among others). The credit expired at the end of 2013, but was one of the few provisions not revived in last year's tax extenders legislation. This legislation revives the credit retroactive to 2014 and continues it through 2019 at a cost of $173 million.
  • Trade Preference Extensions: A separate bill from the TAA legislation would revive/extend several trade preferences. Specifically, it would revive the Generalized System of Preferences (expired since July 31, 2013) and extend it through 2017, extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act (which expires at the end of September) through FY 2025, and extend several preferences for Haiti (which expire in 2018 and 2020) through 2025. These extensions cost $5.8 billion.
  • Customs and Merchandising Fees: Customs user fees have frequently been extended a year or two at a time, providing savings in the tenth year of the budget window. The most recent extension pushed them through 2024 in last year's highway bill and it was the only legitimate savings found in the bill. This bill would extend those fees through 2025, saving $1.7 billion. In addition, the trade preference legislation extends merchandising fees originally enacted in the Korean free trade agreement from June 2020 to June 2025, saving $5.9 billion.
April 22, 2015

At the end of May, lawmakers will have to reauthorize surface transportation spending, and by the summer, they will need to have a solution to address the Highway Trust Fund's impending insolvency. Hopefully, they will use an enduring and, more importantly, fiscally responsible solution in contrast to the irresponsible physician payment legislation.

Fortunately, last week a bipartisan group of House members led by Reps. Jim Renacci (R-OH), Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), Reid Ribble (R-WI), and Dan Lipinski (D-IL) introduced the Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act, which would use fuel tax increases as an enforcement mechanism to force Congress to find a permanent solution to the HTF's financing issue. The HTF faces a $168 billion shortfall through 2025, and there are many possible ways to close that shortfall, as we detailed last year.

The bill would start by indexing fuel taxes dedicated to the HTF to inflation, a policy the sponsors estimate would generate $27.5 billion of revenue over ten years. On its own, this policy would not buy much time, since it would only raise a few billion dollars per year while the FY 2016 shortfall alone is $11 billion. Instead, the bill would use the revenue as an offset for what is essentially a loan from the general fund of $16 billion, closing the FY 2016 shortfall and leaving the $5 billion cushion the Department of Transportation says is necessary to avoid disruptions in HTF operations. To avoid a double-counting issue -- the fuel taxes couldn't offset a general revenue transfer on their own since both would go into the HTF -- the HTF would repay the general fund the $16 billion over a period of time.

April 21, 2015

We published a paper with our partners at Fix the Debt last week to help answer questions about the budget conference committee that met for the first time yesterday. The paper answers many common questions about a budget conference – from its goals and its timeline to the differences that the conferees need to settle –and tells us what we can expect when they agree to a concurrent resolution. Below are some of the highlights.

Click here to read the full paper.

What is a budget conference?

A budget conference is a process by which the House and Senate iron out the differences in the budget resolutions they each passed separately to arrive at a unified “concurrent budget resolution” that each chamber will then vote on whether to adopt. The leaders of each party and budget committee in both the Senate and House chose members to participate in the conference committee.

What is a concurrent budget resolution?

After both chambers agreed to their own budget resolutions that set spending and revenue levels over the coming years, they must pass a single agreed-upon concurrent resolution. Although the House and Senate both vote on a concurrent budget resolution, it is not signed by the President and thus does not carry the force of law; however, it can establish rules for Congress that make future laws easier or harder to enact. For more on the rules aspects in these budgets, see our paper Budget Process in the FY 2016 Budget Resolutions.

April 17, 2015

Earlier this week, CRFB analyzed a new plan from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie that, among other things, would close about 60 percent of the program's funding shortfall.

What we failed to mention is that our readers could analyze this and other plans themselves through CRFB's interactive Social Security Reformer tool. The Social Security Reformer allows users to simulate an existing plan or create their own. Although the Social Security Reformer does not have every permutation of every Social Security policy out there, it has enough capability to understand the broad financial impact of most Social Security plans, as well as the impact in each year.

Below, we take the Social Security Reformer for a test drive, showing how it can be used to analyze Governor Christie's plan as well as a plan from Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

April 16, 2015

In an ode to former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and his work to shed light on government waste with the annual publication of his Wastebook, freshman Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK) published Waste Watch No. 1 last week. It is the first publication in a series that hopes to expose areas where Russell thinks money could be spent more wisely. This installment identifies wasteful spending over the last few years in just ten government projects.

In Rep. Russell's words:

The items listed in this report total over $117 million. For the most part, this money has already been wasted. However, each item points to larger, ongoing issues that merit further oversight, investigation, or action by Congress in order to protect taxpayer money. Due to my 21-year background in the Army, most of the articles relate to defense and foreign policy—but I intend to scrutinize all areas of the federal budget. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to dig into these and other issues to identify ways to save taxpayer money.

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