The Bottom Line

January 17, 2014

Yesterday, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), M.D., announced that he would retire at the end of the year, two years before his Senate term would normally expire. Dr. Coburn has had a long career in the Senate, and his decision represents a big loss for advocates of fiscal responsibility.

Dr. Coburn has been one of the most vocal Senators about the need to get the national debt under control. He went beyond the usual platitudes about the need to control both spending and tax loopholes, detailing his ideas in a $9 trillion deficit reduction plan Back in Black. For the last five years, his office published an annual Wastebook with detailed examples he identified as "wasteful government spending" (read about the latest edition here). His lists of targeted savings not only include trimming government spending, but also lists of wasteful tax expenditures to eliminate.

Coburn served on the Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Commission, which recommended changes to place debt on a downward path as a share of the economy. After those recommendations failed to get a vote in Congress, he joined the "Gang of Six," a bipartisan group of Senators that tried to update the recommendations and get a vote in the Senate.  

He has been vocal about reforming the Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) Program, before the DI Trust Fund runs out in 2016. Although he was one of the Senate's more conservative members, Coburn sought common ground on several key issues. As a notable example, he joined forces with Joe Lieberman (I-CT) to release a bipartisan list of savings to the Medicare program. In some examples from the last few months, he worked with Democratic senators to repeal ethanol mandates, control fraudulent drugs, and increase transparency around settlements with the federal government.

When they were both included on Time's 100 Most Influential People last year, President Obama wrote the tribute to Tom Coburn:

The people of Oklahoma are lucky to have someone like Tom representing them in Washington — someone who speaks his mind, sticks to his principles and is committed to the people he was elected to serve.

So long, Dr. Coburn. Your voice will be missed.

January 17, 2014

A large national debt has far-reaching consequences. On the blog, we often talk about the economic consequences of debt, as they are perhaps the most easily quantified. However, there are also moral and ethical consequences to leaving a large debt burden to future generations and risking a fiscal crisis. Yesterday, CRFB hosted a discussion that examined the less covered side of the budget debate.

The event, The Moral Case for Addressing America’s Fiscal Crisis, was moderated by Rev. Dr. David Gray, Senior Fellow at the New American Foundation and five panelists: Marc Goldwein, Committee for a Federal Responsible Budget; Josh Good, Values and Capitalism Project, American Enterprise Institute; Rev. John Allen Newman, Senior Pastor, The Sanctuary at Mt. Calvary Church; Dr. Jay Richards, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Faith, Work and Economics; and Mark Tooley, President, Institute for Religion and Democracy.

Marc Goldwein was the first speaker and laid out the current state of the budget, with a mixture of some good news, but unfortunately more bad news. Goldwein noted that our current debt levels are extraordinarily high: twice the historical average and the highest since WWII. The good news was that according to most projections, our debt will slightly decline over the next 5 years as a share of the economy and recent budget agreements indicate that Congress is actually starting to govern again. However, the types of deficit reduction enacted to date (large cuts to discretionary spending through sequestration) are the wrong kind of austerity debt reduction measures - upfront and anti-growth. Cuts to date have impacted low-income housing, education, and R&D, instead of implementing reforms to protect the most vulnerable and promote investments in future economic growth.

Perhaps the worst problem, said Goldwein, is that despite the deficit reduction, our debt problems are far from solved. Policymakers have not yet addressed the drivers of the debt: population aging and rising health care costs. The three fastest-growing programs— Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—have barely been changed. And, according to Goldwein, debt will return to its unsustainable path after 2018 or 2019.

Reverend Newman was second and talked about the importance of the faith community as a transcendent non-partisan voice that would call politics to a higher purpose. He remarked on the importance of hold politicians accountable for an honest discussion.

The third speaker, Dr. Jay Richards, asked an important question: "Is it just to borrow money that someone not party to the transaction must repay?" Richards argues that we do have a moral obligation to future generations that might not exist yet, and this creates a moral significance to our future debt burden.

Josh Good noted that a looming debt will eventually lead to austerity measures, the recent experience of Greece and Spain being prime examples. And when austerity measures do hit, they will not hit the very wealthy, but instead the poor. Good noted that while welfare policies might lead to "learned helplessness," government contracting could create a similar helplessness for those who received those contracts. However, there was every reason for optimism. There is still room to get ahead of the problem by making tough sacrifices.

Mark Tooley noted that deficit reduction plans are often challenged by a desire to protect programs that support the very poor. However, increased indebtedness will also hurt the very poor, especially the very poor of future generations. Fiscal responsibility remains key and lawmakers must not shy away from tough choices.

The questions presented to the speakers also presented some important questions to keep in mind in the budget debate. One question presented to the panel was the size of government. Richards noted that small governments could also have unsustainable debt, so that really the question was how to support the government that the people have chosen. Newman noted the importance of balance and staying above the fray, as it was possible to justify your own socioeconomic status through scripture. The faith community needed to rise above that to help guide the country said Newman.

The full discussion is worth watching as it covers many issues that we do not normally talk about on The Bottom Line. The budget discussion is more complicated than just revenues and spending, which makes solving the problem more difficult, but it's clear that the stakes go beyond economics as well. The decisions we make today will affect future generations that are not able to voice their opinion.

January 16, 2014

Largely due to changing demographics, the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted within the next 20 years. To avoid this, most reform plans follow the model used by the last major change to Social Security in 1983: modest adjustments to taxes and benefits to extend the life of the Social Security Trust Funds without dramatic changes. However, other reformers say that the current system does not adequately meet the nation's retirement needs and should be rethought. Yesterday, two Social Security experts, one from the left and one from the right, presented their ideas for a major overhaul of Social Security on a panel at the American Enterprise Institute. The event was entitled "More or Better? Rethinking Social Security for the 21st Century."

On the "More" Social Security side, was Michael Lind, one of the co-founders of the New America Foundation. Lind advocates for a large expansion of Social Security. He contends that Social Security is the most successful form of retirement savings, and that the other two forms (private savings and employer pensions) have not met the needs of low-income individuals. He recommends leaving Social Security in place, but also creating an entirely new entitlement program "Social Security B."

The new system would provide a flat benefit for all seniors regardless of income level. Between both Social Security programs, every retiree would be guaranteed benefits at least at the poverty line, and even the highest earners would see a benefit increase. By eliminating most tax incentives for private savings, Lind's plan would shift most private savings into the public system. Such a benefit expansion would need significant new revenues.

On the "Better" Social Security side was Andrew Biggs, a former deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration and currently a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Biggs agrees Social Security has a funding problem, but argues that the United States does not have a retirement crisis. Because of the way data is measured, government surveys tend to understate the retirement savings available to most workers. In addition, the financial and mutual fund industry has an incentive to encourage people to oversave. Biggs argues that to improve the health of the retirement system, we would want people to work longer, save more, and retire later. However, he contends that the current system does the opposite—encouraging people to work less, save less, and retire earlier.

Biggs would overhaul the existing Social Security system, and scrap the current system where people receive more benefits by contributing more. Similar to Lind's system, retirees would receive a flat benefit at the poverty line. Such a system would cost less than the existing Social Security system (and collect less in tax revenue), so people could put more money into private savings accounts.

Both thinkers would add a new government benefit at the poverty line, decreasing elderly poverty from 15% to approximately zero, but use different approaches. Lind would decrease the role of private savings, while Biggs would expand it. We've written before about Social Security's pending fiscal problems and explained that it may be unwise to expand benefits without first bringing the system back into balance. We also put together the Social Security Reformer, a tool which lets people put together their own plan to fix Social Security's solvency through some of the most commonly discussed options.

See a summary of the event, or watch the archived video here.

January 16, 2014

Last month's Ryan-Murray budget deal set overall spending levels for the government at $1.1 trillion, but it did not set specific spending levels for each agency. On Monday, the Appropriations Committee released an omnibus spending bill detailing how the money is allocated between agencies, along with dozens of specific instructions directing what projects agencies must and must not fund.

The Winners

Although the bill represented a $26 billion dollar increase from last year's enacted spending, not all agencies saw an increase. As measured as a percentage increase from 2013 enacted levels, some of the omnibus bill's biggest winners were:

USDA Rental Assistance Agency - Gained $227 million (26%): The Rental Assistance Agency provides housing assistance to low-income families in rural areas.

General Services Administration (GSA) Federal Buildings Fund – Gained $1.35 billion (17%): As the Senate Committee explained, "For the past 3 years, funding levels for construction and repair of buildings have been drastically reduced, causing a backlog and disadvantaging federal tenant agencies that have been paying rent but not receiving needed building repairs or improved buildings"

Wildland Fire Funding – Gained $417 million (12%): This funds Department of the Interior and the Forest Service at the 10-year average, and fully reimburses the agencies for borrowing in fiscal year 2013.

Army Corps of Engineers - Gained $495 million (10%): The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the nation's waterway infrastructure.

Head Start - Gained $612 million (8%): The increase to Head Start more than fully reverses sequester cuts.

Architect of the Capitol - Gained $39 million (7%): The additional funding completes deferred maintenance on the historic Capitol Buildings, and continue restoring the Capitol dome.

Census Bureau - Gained $58 million (6%): While the bulk of Census Bureau activity occurs with the Decennial Census Program (with the next census to occur in 2020), the agency performs smaller surveys every year like the Current Population Survey.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  - Gained $320 million (6%): This includes increased funding to the National Weather Service, which operates weather satellites and issues storm alerts.

The Losers

Repealing a portion of the sequester prevented what would have been even bigger cuts to many of these programs. However, the relief was not distributed evenly. Some of the bill's biggest losers were:

The Department of Defense generally suffered a 5 percent decrease in funding, with cuts to all major functions except personnel, which had a 1 percent increase. The level of DoD spending is still $20 billion higher than it would have been without the Ryan-Murray agreement, yet lower than either party wanted. Nevertheless, defense spending is higher, in inflation-adjusted terms, than any time during the 1980s.

  • Defense R&D budget - Lost $6.9 billion (10%)
  • Defense Operations and Maintenance Budget – Lost $13.6 billion (8%)
  • Defense Procurement - Lost $7.5 billion (8%)
  • Military Construction - Lost $817 million (8%)
  • Several defense budgets were funded above DoD’s request, including funds for Israeli missile defense and building new Virginia-class submarines
  • The Pentagon received $6 billion more than it had requested in war funding (called Overseas Contigency Operations). This funding does not fall under budget caps, and as we noted in another blog yesterday, additional funding here might be used to offset a portion of the budget cuts in the regular Pentagon budget.
  • The bill also corrected the military pension cost-of-living adjustment reduction contained in the Bipartisan Budget Act. That change applied to disabled veterans' pensions by mistake.

Foreign Aid & International Presence

  • Economic Support Funds - Lost $1.5 billion (24% decrease): Economic Support Funds are used to provide non-military foreign aid, such as infrastructure and development, in countries where the U.S. has "special security interests."
  • U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) - Lost $207 million (15%): USAID is the agency responsible for administering civilian foreign aid, including development and humanitarian assistance.
  • Embassy Security, Construction and Maintenance - Lost $224 million (8%): The bill funds the implementation of the recommendations of Benghazi Accountability Review Board for embassy security.
  • Foreign Military Financing (FMF) - Lost $393 million (6%): Foreign Military Financing is given to foreign governments to finance the purchase of American-made weapons, services and training.
  • Decreases are partially offset with a $491 million (10% increase) in humanitarian assistance accounts, including the Food For Peace program.

Transportation Security Administration - Lost $226 million (4%) - The bill also promotes the use of private security screeners and caps the number of TSA screening personnel at 46,000.

Internal Revenue Service - Lost $503 million (4%) - The IRS lost $500 million since last year's budget despite last week's warning from the IRS Taxpayer Advocate's warning this week that 2013 levels were not adequate to support customer service. The agency may also have difficulty closing a still significant tax gap, owed taxes that are not collected by the IRS.

The Others

  • 1 percent pay raise for federal workers, who have had a pay freeze for the past three years.
  • Bans any funding from being given to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
  • Bans any foreign aid from being given to Afghanistan before a new bilateral security agreement is reached and bans aid to Libya until the Libyan government cooperates with ongoing investigations into the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi attacks
  • Bans any federal spending on high-speed rail projects, even in the Northeast (where improvements have been ongoing).

(Source for numbers: Minority House Appropriations Committee summary of the bill)

January 15, 2014

Lawmakers in the House moved quickly to pass the omnibus appropriations bill released two days ago with a 359-67 vote. Earlier in the day, the Senate passed a three-day continuing resolution by a 86-14 vote, clearing the way for passage of the broader package later in the week. Read our analysis of the bill here.

Update: The blog has been corrected to state that the Senate has passed a CR, not the omnibus bill.

January 15, 2014

Among the many things we noted yesterday on the blog about the omnibus appropriations bill was the similarity between war spending in the bill and in the past fiscal year. Spending for overseas contingency operations declined by only $1 billion -- from $93 billion to $92 billion -- between 2013 and 2014, and spending was more than $20 billion higher than what CBO assumes in its drawdown scenario. Since OCO spending is not subject to spending caps the way that base defense spending is, this relatively elevated amount of war spending could be seen as a way to back-fill accounts in the base budget.

For the portion of OCO that specifically goes to the Pentagon, the omnibus bill provides about $6 billion more than the Pentagon requested in its FY 2014 budget. Interestingly, this plus-up above the request for OCO spending occurs while the base Department of Defense spending amount is about $30 billion below the Pentagon's request (and about equal to the 2013 post-sequester level). The plus-up in OCO funding was primarily due (subscription required) to a $5.6 billion increase above the request for operations and maintenance (O&M) accounts. At the same time, the omnibus bill cut funding for operations and maintenance in the base defense budget by more than $15 billion (nearly 9 percent), accounting for approximately half of the reductions below the President's request despite representing approximately one-third of base defense spending. It is possible that some of this increase in OCO funding was used to backfill the O&M cuts in the base budget.

Maintaining last year's funding level for 2014 may be justified since troops in Afghanistan are not scheduled to be withdrawn until the end of the year. But there is concern that OCO funding provides an avenue to circumvent the caps on discretionary spending, which is why we have called for establishing a cap on OCO. The cap would not only prevent OCO from being used as a "slush fund" for base defense spending, it would also encourage more careful spending on the war.

January 15, 2014

Today, the House Ways and Means Committee launched a new website on tax reform, compiling all of the Committee's useful resources on the subject. We've talked about the great benefits of reforming the tax code by eliminating the many of the complicated, inefficient, and regressive tax expenditures that will cost the federal government over $1.2 trillion in forgone revenues in 2014.

But pictures speak better than words: the House Ways and Means Committee has put many of the best arguments for tax reform into an informative video. Their new website also contains links to past hearings and the Committee's three discussion drafts.

Getting our fiscal house in order will likely require taking a serious look at our outdated tax code. Broadening the base through tax reform represents an opportunity to raise the revenues needed as part of a comprehensive deficit reduction plan, lower marginal rates and simultaneously promote economic growth. We hope tax reform can make more progress in 2014.

January 14, 2014

Last night, Congressional appropriators unveiled a $1.1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill that would fund the government for the rest of FY 2014. The announcement comes just in time to avoid a government shutdown after tomorrow; lawmakers are working on a three-day stopgap to buy time to pass the broader package. There are a number of different resources to read more about the omnibus bill, including at the House and Senate Appropriations Committee websites, the CBO, CQ, and Politico.

The agreement adheres to the new spending cap levels enacted in the Bipartisan Budget Act, which repealed a portion of the sequester for FY 2014 and FY 2015. Total base discretionary spending is $1.012 trillion, up from the current $986 billion level and the 2014 sequester level of $967 billion but below the pre-sequester 2014 level of $1.058 trillion. The bill also includes about $100 billion of other spending on the war, disaster relief, and program integrity provisions -- with war spending comprising the vast majority of that amount -- to bring the total to $1.11 trillion.

Compared to FY 2013 post-sequester levels, defense spending remains roughly the same while non-defense spending increases by about $20 billion. Thus, a number of non-defense programs turn out to be winners in the deal compared to current levels. Funding for things like Head Start, the National Institutes of Health, and Community Health Centers got sizeable boosts, in many cases pushing funding above 2013 pre-sequester levels.

Source: CBO, CQ

The bill also includes $92 billion for war spending ("overseas contingency operations"), $1 billion below last year's final levels but more than $20 billion above what CBO assumes (and what we assume) for 2014 in a drawdown scenario. Defense spending in total is almost exactly the same as the current level but almost $40 billion below the pre-sequester 2013 level.

Source: CBO, CQ

Compared to the House and Senate budget resolutions, the omnibus bill provides $30 billion less for defense spending than either budget did. On non-defense spending, the level is $15 billion below the Senate level but $75 billion above the House level. As such, non-defense allocations are generally much closer to the Senate than the House, while defense spending is below both.

Source: CBO, CQ

One important change that was widely anticipated was to make a correction to the military pension cost-of-living adjustment reduction contained in the Bipartisan Budget Act. That change also applied to disabled veterans' pensions by mistake, and the omnibus bill corrects that.

The table below shows funding levels for each of the 12 appropriations bills and war spending (overseas contingency operations), compared to 2013 pre-sequester levels, 2013 post-sequester levels, and the allocations that the House and Senate Appropriations Committees were previously using.

Allocations in Omnibus Appropriations Bill (billions of budget authority)
  2013 Pre-Sequester 2013 Post-Sequester House Appropriations Senate Appropriations Omnibus
Agriculture $20.5 $19.6 $19.5** $20.9** $20.9
Commerce-Justice-Science $50.2 $47.0 $46.8** $52.3** $51.6
Defense $517.6 $486.3 $512.5* $516.6** $486.9
Energy-Water $36.7 $34.3 $30.4* $34.8** $34.1
Financial Services $21.5 $19.9 $17.0** $23.0** $21.9
Homeland Security $39.6 $37.8 $39.0* $39.1** $39.3
Interior-Environment $29.8 $28.2 $24.3^ $30.1^ $30.1
Labor-HHS-Education $156.9 $149.6 $121.8^ $164.3** $156.8
Legislative Branch $4.3 $4.1 $4.1** $4.4** $4.3
Military Construction-VA $71.9 $70.9 $73.3* $74.4** $73.3
State-Foreign Ops $42.1 $40.4 $34.1** $44.1** $42.5
Transportation-HUD $51.8 $48.4 $44.1** $54.0** $50.9
Subtotal, Base Budget $1,043.0 $986.4 $966.9 $1,058.0 $1,012.2
           
Overseas Contingency Operations $98.7 $93.3 $92.3 $84.5 $91.9
Disaster Relief $11.8 $11.2 $5.6 $5.8 $5.6
Program Integrity $0.5 $0.5 $0 $1.3 $0.9
           
Total $1,153.9 $1,091.4 $1,064.8 $1,149.6 $1,110.7

 Source: CBO, CQ, Appropriations Committees
*Passed by full chamber
**Passed by Appropriations Committee
^Not passed by Appropriations Committee
Note: Disaster relief does not include one-time Hurricane Sandy relief.

To see supplemental data for the table, click here.

January 14, 2014
Helping the Budget $150 Billion at a Time

Congress entered 2013 with a great deal on its plate, but it still has some work left to do. Our budget problems are still far from solved and ideally lawmakers would make a comprehensive deficit reduction deal a priority. However, at the very least, they can do no harm.

In today's The Hill, CRFB President Maya MacGuineas writes that one of the greatest accomplishments of the Murray-Ryan deal was being able to fully pay for a reduction in the sequester, with a little extra savings on top. But sequestration was not the only important issue that needed to be resolved in 2014. Congress still has quite a bit of unfinished business to attend to, including the expiration of unemployment benefits, the expiration of the three-month "doc fix" signed at the end of last year, and the expiration of many temporary tax provisions known as "tax extenders."

MacGuineas proposes pay for these three expiring provisions with three separate $150 billion savings packages:

Already, discussions are underway about an extension of unemployment insurance. Given the still weak condition of the economy, it makes sense to extend unemployment benefits and to consider doing a larger package to create jobs and spur the economy. A package could extend and reform unemployment benefits, along with other measures such as infrastructure investments, job training, or targeted tax breaks aimed at promoting job growth or investment.

One option to pay for this, would be to switch to chained CPI—a more accurate way of measuring inflation—and use $150 billion of the non-Social Security portion of the savings to pay for the growth package and some deficit reduction. (The additional savings that would come from the Social Security program should be used to help shore up the program and provide enhancements to low income beneficiaries.) Such a deal would have the multiple benefits of helping the economy, the fiscal situation, and, separately, Social Security.

A second $150 billion package could pay for fixing the impending 25 percent cut in doctors’ payments, or the unsustainable “Sustainable Growth Rate” (SGR). The Congressional health committees have put forward packages which would replace the SGR with a formula that promotes quality over quantity of care and encourages participation in coordinated care models. What they have not done? Proposed how to pay for it.

Congress could pay for these reforms with a $150 billion package of structural health reforms that help slow its cost growth. Such a package could include expanding new forms of cost-controls like bundled payments and readmission penalties; restricting supplemental health plans which lead to the overconsumption of health care; reforming overly-complicated cost-sharing rules; increasing the use of generic drugs; and expanding the means testing of Medicare premiums.

Finally, a third $150 billion package could pay for a one-year extension of the “tax extenders” which expired at the end of 2013, along with a permanent extension of the low-income support from the child tax credit and earned income tax credit scheduled to expire in 2017. One payfor option would be a plan developed by myself, Dan Feenberg and Martin Feldstein of Harvard University, where the amount of tax breaks any one individual can claim are limited to a certain dollar amount, or share of one’s income. It’s not comprehensive tax reform which we need, but it’s a step in the right direction.

At the very least, lawmakers should pay for extensions of expiring provisions with permanent savings that would help our long-term outlook. We will need to do more, but in the meantime, lawmakers can show their commitment to fiscally-responsible budgeting.

Click here to read the full op-ed.

"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. 

January 13, 2014

Last month, President Obama gave a speech on rising income inequality in the United States, which is a theme expected to be prominent throughout the President's 2014 agenda. He noted that the majority of the economic gains since 1979 have gone to the richest households, and "the income of the typical family has increased by less than eight percent." As part of the speech, Obama proposed a number of solutions: raising the minimum wage, encouraging education reforms, supporting the social safety net, and extending unemployment benefits.

In an op-ed posted today in the Washington Post, Glenn Hubbard, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Bush, seems to agree that income inequality is "the defining challenge of our time," but instead argues that reforming the tax code is the best way to lessen income inequality.  

However, he says it is not enough to change the tax code solely in the name of reform. Instead, it must be purposefully restructured to better benefit low-wage workers.

A policy shift in favor of mass prosperity — dynamism and inclusion — is best conducted via fundamental tax reform. The discussion and policies to be considered, however, should look different from those in the present debate. The Obama administration has supported raising taxes on high-income earners and corporations to pay for expanded benefits to low-income Americans. Such an approach is unlikely to raise labor demand or labor-market earnings for those or other workers.

The opposing view, by contrast, centers on classic tax reform of “broaden the base, lower the rates.” Unlike the Obama administration proposals, this tax reform will increase capital accumulation, economic growth and employment. But it is insufficient for increasing the inclusion of low-wage workers, whose incomes may not benefit fully from economic growth.

In particular, Hubbard points out two changes that could make the tax code work better for low-income Americans.

For employees, the tax code does little to encourage human capital formation, education or skills development. For many Americans, a simplification and expansion of education-related deductions would be a positive step. With an eye toward raising inclusion in the labor force, one could consider a voucher for low-income individuals for education, training, tuition or their children’s education.

A second employee-based approach builds on the earned-income tax credit, which promotes work as it reduces poverty. While successful, the credit could be improved if inclusion were the goal. As currently constructed, the credit mixes support for families with a tax credit on earnings. Increasing the credit for childless workers to an amount closer to that for families with children would augment the direct work incentive and help counter poverty among the working poor.

We've long noted the need for reforming the nation's tax code. Many tax preferences are expensive, regressive, economically distorting, and do not pass the cost-benefit analysis. Getting rid of some of these preferences offers the opportunity to make the tax code simpler, fairer, and more pro-growth. Reforming the lower-income credits as Hubbard mentioned has been a part of many tax reform plans which also went after tax expenditures, including the 2005 Tax Reform Panel and Domenici-Rivlin plans.

In addition, our ongoing Tax Breakdown series analyzes many of the biggest tax expenditures, showing how some of them could be made more progressive or increase the "bang-for-the-buck," having a greater impact for less money. Tax reform done right offers an opportunity to simultaneously raise revenue, reduce tax rates, and increase progressivity. Glenn Hubbard offers two ideas to reform the tax code that could be considered.

January 13, 2014

As the Senate looks for offsets for an unemployment insurance extension, there is one provision that has gotten some attention: ending "double-dipping" for those receiving both UI and federal disability benefits. Although options to address this issue, even in their most aggressive form, would not fully offset a year-long (or through mid-November) extension, it could offset most of the costs of a three month extension and could be used in combination with other policies to make a longer extension deficit-neutral.

The policy at stake involves disallowing beneficiaries in unemployment insurance (and in some cases trade adjustment assistance) from also receiving disability insurance benefits. The justification is simple: UI (and TAA) recipients are supposed to be actively seeking work, while disability insurance is generally supposed to go to people who are unable to work for an extended period of time (DI beneficiaries are allowed to earn up to $1,070 per month). This problem has to be addressed with legislation since, according to the Government Accountability Office, "While SSA must reduce DI benefits for individuals receiving certain other government disability benefits, such as worker’s compensation, no federal law authorizes an automatic reduction or elimination of overlapping DI and UI benefits." The GAO noted that such payments could be an indication of "improper payments" and suggested that the Department of Labor and the Social Security Administration look into the circumstances of people receiving both benefits and taking action (or urging Congressional action) where appropriate.

There are a few ways to go about ending double-dipping. Both the President's budget and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-NV) amendment to the three-month UI extension would reduce DI benefits dollar-for-dollar by the amount of UI benefits the person is receiving. This less aggressive version of the policy would save $1.2 billion through 2023 and $1.3 billion through 2024.

A more aggressive version, proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), would suspend DI benefits in any month a person is also receiving unemployment benefits. This would save about $5 billion over ten years. The most aggressive version from Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) would remove those who receive UI or TAA benefits entirely from the DI rolls. Those beneficiaries could re-apply for DI when they are no longer receiving those benefits after going through the requisite waiting period. This policy would up the savings to $5.4 billion.

Different Policies for Eliminating/Reducing UI and DI Overlap
  President's Budget/Reid Amendment Coburn Bill Portman/Johnson Bills
Treatment of Overlap  
DI benefits reduced dollar-for-dollar by amount of UI benefits
DI benefits eliminated during month UI is received Removed from DI rolls if UI or TAA is received
Treatment in Waiting Period N/A Immediately eligible for DI when receipt of UI stops Must wait 5 months to re-apply
Savings $1.2 billion $5 billion $5.4 billion

Source: CBO, Sen. Coburn's office

In short, there are different ways of going about eliminating "double-dipping" of unemployment and disability benefits. The Senate has several approaches that would help offset the cost of reinstating extended unemployment benefits, but we will see how lawmakers ultimately choose to do it, if at all.

January 13, 2014

We spend a great time on The Bottom Line discussing the economic and policy consequenses of the nation's unsustainable debt. But what about the moral and ethical dimensions of the current fiscal situation?

On Thursday, CRFB will host a panel discussion from 12:00-1:30 PM at 1899 L Street, Suite 400. Lunch will be served at the event.

During the discussion, topics like generational equity and the possible consequences debt could have on its most vulnerable citizens will be discussed. The discussion will be moderated by Rev. Dr. David Gray, a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and include the following panelists:

  • Marc Goldwein, Committee for a Responsible Budget  
  • Josh Good, Values and Capitalism Project, American Enterprise Institute
  • Rev. John Allen Newman, Senior Pastor, The Sanctuary at Mt. Calvary Church
  • Dr. Jay Richards, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Faith, Work and Economics
  • Mark Tooley, President, Institute for Religion and Democracy

The event should be an excellent opportunity to discuss the issue from a different perspective, a moral and ethical one. We hope to see you attend.

Click here for more details and information.

Click here to RVSP to the event

January 10, 2014

Yesterday, the IRS Taxpayer Advocate released its 2013 annual report, detailing what it sees as the largest problems facing taxpayers. The Taxpayer Advocate Service is an independent organization within the IRS that helps taxpayers resolve problems with the IRS and recommend changes that will prevent those problems.

Each year, the report focuses on a different theme. This year, it focused on IRS budget cuts as "one of the most serious problems facing taxpayers." The report argues that these cuts have forced the IRS to work with fewer resources despite heavier workloads, ultimately hurting customer service. For instance, the report finds that the agency received 109 million calls, but could only answer 61 percent of the calls from those seeking to speak with a customer service representative, down from 87 percent a decade earlier. People who reached the agency spent an average of nearly 18 minutes waiting on the phone. Many of these taxpayers would voluntarily pay the taxes they owe if they could only get an answer from the IRS.

Further, the report describes how the IRS does not even fully answer questions on the calls:

During the filing season (January through April), it will answer only “basic” tax law questions; it will not answer “more detailed” questions. After April, it will not answer any tax law questions (even basic ones), including from the millions of taxpayers who obtain filing extensions and prepare their returns later in the year. At the risk of vast understatement, it is a sad state of affairs when the government writes tax laws as complex as ours — and then is unable to answer any questions beyond “basic” ones from baffled citizens who are doing their best to comply.

The report identified several other major problems, noting that the IRS needs a taxpayer bill of rights to bolster taxpayer confidence in the agency, further employee training, and education on taxpayer rights. The report also called to allow the IRS to regulate tax preparers after a recent court case prevented the IRS from ensuring preparers meet basic competency requirements. 

Among the report's legislative recommendations:

  • Permanently repeal the AMT: The Alternative Minimum Tax's original goal was to ensure that wealthy taxpayers who used lots of tax provisions to reduce their tax bill still paid a minimum level of tax. However, the report notes that the AMT falls short of this goal: about 1,000 millionaires will pay no federal income tax in 2013. Nonetheless, many taxpayers are required to calculate their taxes twice, even if they do not end up paying the AMT. The AMT only serves as an extra burden on taxpayers with children and those who live in high-tax states.
  • Remove the IRS from spending caps: "Because the IRS is the federal government’s accounts receivable department and generates a substantially positive return on investment, it is self-defeating to treat the agency like a pure spending program. With most spending programs, a dollar spent is simply a dollar spent from a budget perspective. With the IRS, a dollar spent generates many dollars in additional revenue."
  • Fix the regulations around the Affordable Care Act tax credits: Under the Affordable Care Act, tax credits paid to the insurance company are supposed to prevent any person from paying more than 9.5 percent of their income toward health insurance. However, current IRS regulations may prevent the tax credits from being used to support a family insurance plan since the regulations only reference the cost of insuring one person, even if the whole family needs coverage. Thus, families may face significantly higher costs than if the regulation interpreted the law differently.
  • Allow more taxpayers to claim the EITC: The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides refunds to low-income taxpayers, but is also a common target for fraud by taxpayers or their preparers. In these cases, the IRS has the authority to ban a family from claiming the credit for three years. However, this report suggests that the IRS has been banning families without knowing if it was fraud, inappropriately penalizing people for math errors and honest mistakes. The IRS should improve its procedures for handling these cases.
  • Allow colleges to verify their student's social security numbers: Currently, colleges must report the amount of tuition paid or billed to the IRS, using the Social Security numbers reported by students. Unlike other reported information, however, colleges are not allowed to verify whether the numbers are correct. If the numbers are incorrect, either due to a typo or name change, the college can be liable for penalties for each error, which can add up to millions of dollars for large universities.

We have pointed out before that the complexity of the tax code increases the burden on both taxpayers and IRS enforcement efforts. Given that lawmakers have apparently chosen to live with sequester spending levels in the near future, it would behoove them to simplify that burden. The Taxpayer Advocate highlights potential problems from expecting an agency to do more work with a smaller budget. The report offers a number of helpful recommendations to improve the tax code and citizens' interactions with the IRS.

Read the full report here.

January 10, 2014

Today, the Congressional Budget Office released their score of the proposal from Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to renew extended unemployment benefits in concert with other reductions in spending. We are quite pleased that, as we called for, the conversation has turned from whether to pay for unemployment benefits to how; and we appreciate that Senator Reid has a specific proposal to pay for the new costs. The statutory pay-as-you-go law requires new spending to be fully offset through 2024. Unfortunately, the CBO score shows that the proposed offsets still fall short of what is necessary to comply with this standard.

Specifically, Senator Reid’s proposal would:

  • Renew extended unemployment benefits through November 15th, reducing the maximum weeks from 73 to 57
  • Reduce disability insurance benefits for people who also receive unemployment benefits
  • Extend the mandatory sequester cuts which end in 2023 into 2024

Eventually, the savings from the UI/DI provisions and mandatory sequester would exceed the cost of extending unemployment benefits (excluding interest), however this would not be true until 2025. By our estimates, the legislation would increase the deficit by about $5 billion through the ten year budget window ended in 2024, and by $17 billion through 2023. With interest (which is not counted under PAYGO rules), the legislation would increase the deficit by about $11 billion through 2024.

Budgetary Effect of UI Extension Bill (in billions of dollars)

 

Source: CRFB calculations from Congressional Budget Office data
Note: The PAYGO window is 2014-2024. Figures for 2024 and 2025 are rough CRFB estimates.

Although the decision to include offsets in the legislation is a huge step forward, policymakers should amend this legislation so it is at least deficit neutral over the next five or ten years and not rely on one-time savings outside of the budget window.

Previously, we’ve offered a number of options that could either be added to the offsets Senator Reid has proposed or otherwise used to replace them.

If something is worth having, it is worth paying for. And it is important that Members stick to fiscal rules and principles along the way. Providing offsets as opposed to deficit-financing the entire legislation is a good start. But improvements are necessary to ensure this bill is not adding to the deficit (and preferably is subtracting from it) over the next decade and beyond.

January 9, 2014

On Monday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released their annual update on health care spending growth, showing that 2012 was another year of slow cost growth and lending further insight into the burning question of what’s causing the recent slowdown.

National health care spending grew by 3.7% in 2012 to $2.8 trillion, or 17.3 percent of the economy (GDP), continuing the recent trend of relatively stable slow growth since 2009. National health expenditures (NHE) actually declined as a share of GDP this year (from 17.1 percent in 2011). Moreover, this stability follows a steady slowdown in growth since 2003. The paper explains that “faster growth in hospital services and in physician and clinical services was mitigated by slower growth in prices for prescription drugs and nursing home services.”
 
 
Despite a growing debate over what is causing the slowdown, the CMS National Health Expenditure Accounts Team (who published the data) maintain that “the relative stability since 2009 primarily reflects the lagged impacts of the recent severe economic recession.” Further, they argue that “this pattern is consistent with historical experience when health spending as a share of GDP often stabilizes approximately two to three years after the end of a recession and then increases when the economy significantly improves.”
 
They make clear, however, that more evidence is needed to make any firm conclusions. In particular, the authors show that part of 2012’s slow growth was attributable to the increase in the use of high-deductible health plans and a number of high-volume, high-cost drugs going off patent in 2012 (most notably Lipitor, Plavix, and Singulair).
 
Although Medicare had the biggest increase in enrollment since its inception as the baby boomers started to reach retirement, Medicare spending per enrollee slowed to only 0.7 percent in 2012, down from an already low 2.5 percent growth in 2011. The authors explain that the added slowdown is largely result of a payment cut for nursing home services, enacted in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Other provisions enacted in the ACA also contributed to this decline. Some were one-time cuts like lower reimbursements for Medicare Advantage plans, while others (like the annual productivity adjustments to payment updates for hospitals and other providers) should have a more a permanent effect. 2012 also saw slower growth in Medicare inpatient admissions, which might be in response to the ACA’s readmission penalties.
 
Key Takeaways
  • Health care cost growth, across-the-board, continues to remain subdued.
  • The Baby Boom generation is hitting retirement. “Enrollment in Medicare for all beneficiaries (fee-for-service and Medicare Advantage) jumped 4.1 percent in 2012—the largest one-year increase in enrollment in thirty-nine years.”
  • Medicare Advantage plans are getting really popular. The private insurance plans offered as an alternative to traditional Medicare, primarily in the form of closed network health maintenance organizations (HMOs), were chosen by “more than half” of new Medicare enrollees in 2012.
  • High-deductible plans continue to grow in popularity. “Net enrollment gains in high-deductible plans contributed to the slow growth in premiums. Enrollment in high-deductible health plans, which generally have lower premiums and higher cost sharing than other more popular plans, accounted for 19 percent of all covered workers and 31 percent of the under-sixty-five insured population in 2012.” The growing use of high-deductible plans and more limited networks among the under 65 population might help explain the increasing popularity of Medicare Advantage plans when those people turn 65.
  • The “Patent Cliff” is lowering health care spending. Part of the explanation for the recent health care slowdown is generally attributed to a slowdown in prescription drug expenditures, and the authors show that a few blockbuster medications going off-patent in 2012 reinforced this trend. It is unclear, however, what the recent deceleration in the development of high-volume, life-changing drugs portends for future innovation.
If the current slower trend in national health expenditures continues, families, businesses, and governments will all greatly benefit. The most optimistic take comes from David Cutler and Nikhil Sahni of Harvard, who find that only 37 percent of the slowdown experienced from 2003 through 2012 was the result of the recession. The study argues that the decelerating development of new expensive technologies and the rise of high-deductible health plans played a significant role.
 
If the increase of high-deductible and managed care plans has helped depress health care spending growth, parts of the Affordable Care Act could bolster this trend. By relying on premium cost competition, the ACA marketplaces promote the use of these plans, and the pressure on employer-provided insurance premiums from the Cadillac Tax will likely have a similar impact on the employer market. The increasing popularity of managed care plans in Medicare may also be a sign of Americans’ growing comfort with limited networks and higher deductibles.
 
Both this study and various other analyses, however, should inspire caution against declaring victory prematurely. A study from the Altarum Institute and Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that 77 percent of the recent slowdown can be explained by the economic doldrums and another study from Chandra, Holmes, and Skinner of Harvard suggests that excess health care spending growth will eventually return to 1.2 percent faster than economic growth. These studies and the CMS National Health Expenditure Accounts Team note that the current slowdown is still consistent with historically lagged effects of recessions. The blowback to the rise of managed care in the late 1990s and resulting higher spending growth, in particular, should serve as a harrowing memory.
 
Moreover, many of the perverse incentives that have plagued the health system for years still remain in place. Only 11 percent of payments to doctors and hospitals are based on quality and value, according to Catalyst for Payment Reform. Most beneficiaries in Medicare are still insulated from cost-sharing by prevalent supplemental coverage that distorts incentives. This insulation also makes it more difficult for Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) to succeed in Medicare since enrollees will have no financial incentive to see providers within the ACO rather than potentially more expensive alternative ones.
 
Only time will tell whether the slowdown will persist. In the meantime, lawmakers should work to figure out what factors are having salutary effects and reinforce them. The effort to replace the sustainable growth rate with structural reforms to the Medicare payment system is a good place to start.
January 9, 2014

The unemployment insurance saga continues. Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) proposed an alternative unemployment benefit extension which would run through mid-November, in place of the three-month extension previously considered.

Thankfully, and unlike the prior version, this extension would be fully offset [Update: After this blog was written, CBO released a score of the Reid proposal which shows that it would not be fully offset unless the budget window were extended through 2025. The bill will add $17 billion to the deficit through 2023 and about $5 billion through 2024. It would reduce the deficit by about $1 billion through 2025 excluding interest.] -- it appears through a combination of extending the mandatory sequester through 2024 and a modest version of the proposal we previously discussed preventing UI beneficiaries from also receiving Social Security Disability Insurance. We will withhold judgment of this proposal until we have time to see and fully analyze the specifics, but we are glad to see the conversation is turning to offsets, which we have called for several times.

If the offsets put forward by Reid are not adopted, policymakers have many other options. The total cost of the Reid extension, which would also lower the maximum number of weeks one can receive benefits, is reported at about $17 or $18 billion; a full extension of current benefits through the end of 2014 would cost about $25 billion.

These costs could be covered by adopting a combination of policies we previously presented to offset a three-month extension or other small policies to get to the $25 billion cost. There are also a number of bigger options which would mostly, fully, or more than offset the cost in one fell swoop. The table below presents some of these options, in addition to two we highlighted in the previous blog post: extending the 0.2 percent UI surtax and prohibiting UI beneficiaries from also receiving disability insurance. All estimates are through 2024 to reflect the new budget window.

Options for Offsetting UI Extension
Policy Ten-Year Savings
Extend UI surtax permanently $16 billion
Prohibit "double-dipping" with UI and DI $5 billion
Increase UI wage base to $14K, index to wage growth, and lower rate to 0.33% $18 billion
Eliminate direct commodity payments $25 billion
Restrict categorical eligibility for food stamps to cash assistance programs $14 billion
Require DI beneficiaries be moved to Social Security at age 62 $14 billion
Close carried interest loophole $19 billion
Encourage use of generic drugs by low-income beneficiaries in Part D $33 billion
Require derivatives be marked to market and tax them as ordinary income $17 billion
Reduce crop insurance premium subsidy $25 billion
Allow USPS to end Saturday delivery $24 billion
Restrict cost-sharing for TRICARE for Life $35 billion
Reduce Medicare payments for bad debts $27 billion
Freeze Medicare means-tested premium thresholds through 2023 $28 billion
Require Social Security number to claim refundable portion of child tax credit $30 billion

Source: CBO

Policymakers could also look beyond a ten month or one-year extension to come up with more long-term extensions and reforms to unemployment insurance and other jobs measures. A jobs package could include new infrastructure spending, job training or community college initiatives, targeted tax breaks aimed at promoting job growth or investment, and possibly some additional sequester relief. The President's proposal for correcting the way we measure inflation would generate about $210 billion from the on-budget, non-Social Security portion. If this was used to pay for such a package it would likely promote short-term economic growth, encourage long-term economic growth, slow the growth of the debt, and improve Social Security solvency.

Just like with other extensions, unemployment benefits should be offset. There are a lot of ways lawmakers could do that, so they should have little trouble finding a way that they can agree on.

January 9, 2014

Over the past few months, the subject of Social Security has been hotly debated, centering  Recently, Jane White authored an article in the Huffington Post supporting Senator Warren, and mischaracterized CRFB's position toward Social Security. On Thursday, Ed Lorenzen weighed in on the facts about Social Security in a Huffington Post article.

In the article, Lorenzen sets the record straight on CRFB's position on Social Security:

While CRFB has not endorsed a specific Social Security reform plan, we have commented favorably on a variety of plans which rely on a mix of reductions in promised benefits, increased revenues and targeted benefit enhancements. We have also developed an online tool, the Social Security Reformer, which allows individuals to view the options for changes in benefits and revenues and design their own plan to restore solvency.

Additionally, Lorenzen lists five facts to know about Social Security.

  1. Benefits will be cut by over 23 percent in twenty years if no changes are made.
  2. Social Security benefits will increase in real terms for future retirees even with changes in benefits to restore solvency.
  3. The Social Security Shortfall cannot be closed solely through increased taxes on upper income taxpayers.
  4. Delaying action will make the options for restoring solvency more painful. Not only does waiting to act mean any tax increases or benefit cuts will be steeper, it literally means they will need to be bigger.
  5. The major Social Security plans that rely on a combination of benefit changes and increased revenues to restore solvency include targeted benefit enhancements for vulnerable populations at greatest risk of poverty.

Lorenzen ends the article acknowledging the need for real discussion about Social Security, before our options are limited.

The future of the Social Security program is a serious issue that deserves a serious debate that honestly acknowledges the challenges facing the program and trade-offs involved in addressing the problem. Absolutist positions ruling out options before even considering them does a disservice to the debate.

Click here to read the full op-ed.

"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.

January 8, 2014

Note: This piece was originally posted on the Angry Bear blog.

The late Senator Moynihan once said that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions but not to his own facts.” In response to our piece, “Setting the Record Straight on Social Security,” Dale Coberly calls both our facts and our opinions “lies.” In his treatise, Coberly adds several important ideas to the discussion, but much of his piece misrepresents CRFB’s views, misattributes our motives, and asserts claims which are simply not based in fact.

We pride ourselves on our fact-based, non-partisan analysis, which Coberly calls into question in his piece. Below, we review and debunk many of his claims:

Claim #1:  CRFB advocates a cuts-only solution to Social Security.

FALSE. Coberly claims that “CRFB would like you to believe the only solution is to cut benefits,” that we only “pretend to be open to revenue enhancements,” and that our Social Security Reformer “is rigged so you can’t give the correct answer [of gradually raising the payroll tax rate].”

This claim is nonsense. The blog clearly states that a reform “could increase revenue coming into the system, slow the growth of benefits being paid out, and even offer some targeted benefit enhancements to those who truly need them” – and we have said this consistently over the years. In fact, our do-it-your-self Reformer offers users a number of different revenue options to choose from and lets users increase the payroll tax rate by whatever amount they wish (it’s true we don’t have the functionality to adjust the phase-in rate of tax or benefit changes, which we hope to include in a future version). In addition, the two plans we repeatedly cite in our blog – Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin – both propose a mix of revenue and benefit changes, and a separate plan developed by CRFB President Maya MacGuineas along with Jeff Liebman and Andrew Samwick relied heavily on revenues as part of a solution, which also included targeted benefit enhancements.

Claim #2:  CRFB wants to turn Social Security into a welfare program.

FALSE. Colberly claims that our goal is to “turn Social Security into a welfare program by means testing” and that “CRFB would tax you to pay for benefits that only ‘the deserving poor’ would receive after careful examination to be sure they were poor enough to ‘deserve’ welfare.”

This claim also has no basis in fact. CRFB takes no position on whether benefits should be means-tested and nowhere in our entire blog do we propose means-testing benefits in any form. The plans we reference – Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin – do make the benefit formula more progressive, but they still maintain a link between contributions and benefits received.

In fact, our only mention of the concept is to warn that those who support eliminating the cap on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes must make a choice between offering huge benefit increases to the rich and means-testing benefits for that group; this may be an unattractive choice for progressive supporters of social insurance.

Claim #3: Social Security’s Finances Could be Solved by Raising the Payroll Tax 0.1 Percentage Points Per Year Until It’s Increased by 2.7 Percent

HALF TRUE. Coberly argues that we need not worry about Social Security’s finances because raising the payroll tax rate by only 0.1 percent per year would make the program solvent, until it’s increased by 2.7 percent. It’s true that solvency can be maintained by increasing the payroll tax by 0.1 percentage points a year, but the ultimate increase would have to be far in excess of 2.7 points percentage points.

Indeed, to make Social Security solvent for 75 years, the payroll tax would have to be raised by 0.1 percentage points per year for the next 40+ years – by over 4 percentage points in total. In other words, the payroll tax rate would ultimately have to be increased by one-third. And achieving sustainable solvency would require an additional decade of increasing the payroll tax rate, ultimately raising the payroll tax rate by 5 percentage points – from 12.4 to 17.4 percent. (As we explain in claim #4, the reason this increase is so much higher than Coberly claims is related to the real cost of waiting to implement savings.)This increase, importantly, would apply to all workers, including the very poor. Increasing the payroll tax is a legitimate policy option that should be part of the debate, but many progressives would be concerned with large tax increases on low-income workers in order to finance the rapid continued growth of retirement benefits, a good share of which goes to the wealthiest seniors.

Claim #4: There is No Cost to Waiting to Reform Social Security

FALSE. Coberly calls our claim that delaying action on Social Security has costs “a lie,” positing that “waiting will not lead to increased costs or deeper cuts. It would [only] lead to a steeper rate of increase.”

Coberly is mistaken. As Doug Elmendorf, director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office recently stated in testimony before Congress “there is certainly a cost to waiting….the longer one waits to make changes, the larger the changes need to be and the more abruptly they would need to take effect.”

Not only does it mean any tax increases or benefit cuts will be steeper, but it literally means they will need to be bigger in magnitude. This is true for at least two reasons. First, waiting will mean that there are fewer total people to share in the tax increases or spending cuts – that means more increases/cuts per person. Secondly, the longer we wait, the less money is in the trust fund and the less interest it will generate.

Although Coberly suggests that the actuarial deficit of 2.7% of payroll over the next seventy five years could be closed by gradually implementing a 2.7% increase in the payroll tax over twenty plus years, the 2013 Social Security Trustees report clearly states that in order to make Social Security solvent for 75 years, “revenues would have to increase by an amount equivalent to an immediate and permanent payroll tax increase of 2.66 percentage points.” (emphasis added) In a paper on this topic, we showed that what could be solved with a 16.5 percent across-the-board benefit cut today would require a 19 percent cut if we wait a decade and a 23 percent cut if we wait two decades. Similarly, the 2.7 percentage point increase in the payroll tax needed to close the 75-year gap today would be 3.3 points if we waited until 2023 and 4.2 if we waited until 2033.

Claim #5: Social Security Does Not Really Run a Deficit

MOSTLY FALSE. Coberly calls our claim that benefits exceed payroll tax revenue “a clever lie” because we do not (but should) count assets from the trust fund as revenue. Specifically, he argues that “the revenue from previous payroll taxes … were saved exactly in anticipation of the higher costs that Social Security is facing today.  It’s as if you saved up money in advance to pay for your Christmas shopping, and then, when December comes, the CRFB runs around telling your neighbors you are bankrupt because you are ‘spending more than you are taking in.”

Here, Coberly confuses the flow of funds with the stock of funds. If an individual, business, or government spends more than they take in, they are running a deficit. If an individual, business, or government spends more than they have, they are in debt. We never claimed Social Security was in debt, but it is running a large cash deficit – totaling about $75 billion in 2013 alone. Notably, Social Security is still running a small surplus when interest is included, but even that surplus is expected to disappear in a few years; and most analysts prefer to focus on cash flow.

Don’t believe us? Ask Social Security’s own Trustees who say that “for both the OASDI and HI [Medicare] programs, the Trustees project annual deficits for almost every year of the projection period” or the Congressional Budget Office who explains that “in 2012, outlays exceeded noninterest income by about 7 percent, and CBO projects that the gap will average about 12 percent of tax revenues over the next decade.”

As for the suggestion that we’ve saved money for the current deficits, Coberly’s metaphor simply doesn’t match since (unlike Christmas) these deficits are not a temporary event. The more comparable situation would be if an individual saved money every year of his 20s and then decided to spend more than he earned for the remainder of his life. In his 30s, he might be able to rely on past savings to make up the difference, but that money will dry up soon. In the case of Social Security, that will likely happen in the early 2030s; and when the trust fund runs out, our revenue will only cover about three-quarters of our spending.

Claim #6: Social Security’s Deficit is Due to the Payroll Tax Holiday CRFB Advocated

FALSE. Coberly states that, “Another reason CRFB can say the cost of benefits are ‘well in excess of revenue from payroll taxes’ is that recently the friends of CRFB persuaded the politicians to ‘cut payroll taxes’ to provide a stimulus to the economy.”  

In fact, the payroll tax holiday has nothing to do with Social Security’s trust fund or deficit. The revenue loss was made up for with a general revenue transfer that is not included in the $75 billion cash deficit we cite. The Office of Management and Budget noted that “general fund transfers…substitute[d] for the payroll tax revenue lost by the payroll tax reduction, so that the balances of the Social Security trust funds are the same as they would have been in the absence of the legislation. As a result, the payroll tax reduction did not impact the long-term solvency of the trust funds.”

Moreover, CRFB did not advocate for or against a payroll tax holiday. It’s true we do have many friends that supported the payroll tax holiday (along with some progressive organizations who disagree with us on Social Security), but we also have many friends that opposed the payroll tax holiday. The assertion that CRFB advocated for a payroll tax holiday as part of a plot to undermine Social Security has no basis in fact.

Claim #7: Social Security Does Not Add to the Budget Deficit

MOSTLY FALSE. Coberly claims that CRFB is trying to confuse readers by suggesting that Social Security is currently adding to the federal budget deficit. Yet if we are trying to confuse the reader, so too is the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and the President’s own Office of Management and Budget.

As we’ve explained before, there are two ways to look at Social Security – as its own isolated program and part of the broader budget. There are also at least two ways to measure the federal budget deficit – by looking at the “on-budget deficit” and by looking at the “unified budget deficit.” Social Security does not add to the on-budget deficit. But most economists, analysts, reporters, and politicians prefer to look at the unified deficit. And here, Social Security is – net of its payroll taxes – contributing to the deficit.

Note that this unified view has been used to describe the deficit reduction generated in both the Affordable Care Act and the Senate-passed immigration bill.

Claim #8: Social Security is a way for workers to save their own money.

MOSTLY FALSE. In attacking the idea of means-testing, Coberly asserts that Social Security “is a way for workers to save their own money, protected from inflation and market losses, and insured against personal misfortune.  That is, it is protected by the government, but not paid for by the government.”

This assertion shows a misunderstanding of how the Social Security program works. Social Security is a government program in which the government collects payroll taxes and then pays benefits to seniors, disabled workers, and their dependents. Some view Social Security as just another government program, others view it as a publicly-administered (and mandated) social insurance policy, but no serious analysts view Social Security as a true savings program.

For one, payroll tax contributions are not set aside in a savings account or even a pooled fund of savings; they are used to pay current benefits. Additionally, benefits are not determined based on payroll tax contributions – they are determined by applying a progressive formula to wage history that assures higher lifetime earners receive more in nominal benefits than lower earners, but less as a share of their salary. It’s true that Social Security does have a few things in common with a system of forced savings – it reduces the amount a worker can spend now and provides more resources later – but the program is not a “way for workers to save their own money.”

Claim #9: The question of whether past surpluses have been saved in an economic sense is an irrelevant issue invented by CRFB to justify benefit cuts.

FALSE. Coberly suggests that “CRFB would have you believe the United States of America cannot pay back the money it borrowed because it ‘did not save’ that money ‘in an economic sense.’”

Actually, we specifically explain that the budgetary impact of Social Security’s shortfalls exist “regardless of whether past surpluses were saved in an economic sense or not,” and none of our critique focuses on that question. Nor do we suggest that the Treasury cannot pay back the money it borrowed from the Social Security system.  We simply pointed out that the government will need to borrow money from the private sector to cover Social Security’s cash shortfalls.

Although barely mentioned in our blog, it is widely accepted that the existence of trust fund balances has no bearing on the ability of the government to pay benefits unless the past surpluses were saved in an economic sense. The Analytical Perspectives volume of President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget stated, “The existence of large trust fund balances, while representing a legal claim on the Treasury, does not, by itself, determine the Government’s ability to pay benefits. From an economic standpoint, the Government is able to prefund benefits only by increasing savings and investments in the economy as a whole.”

The question of whether Social Security’s surpluses have led to an increase in savings in the rest of government is a hotly debated one in the economic community. If it has, it could be argued that the government is better-equipped than it would otherwise have been to pay back Social Security benefits. If it hasn’t, it means that the Social Security program is ultimately leading to higher net borrowing than would otherwise be the case. But either way, in the here and now, the federal government has to borrow more on the open-market to finance Social Security deficits than if the program were in balance.

Claim #10: CRFB Advocates Cuts to Means-Tested Programs and Doesn’t Care About Investing in Future Generations

FALSE. Coberly calls our claim that raising revenue for Social Security might leave less money for investments and younger generations disingenuous, suggesting that “these are the people cutting food stamps (for children) in order to fund investments … in the next dot.com bubble or housing finance fraud.”

This is false. The deficit reduction plans we cite in our piece – Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin – specifically take most low-income support programs off the table. Neither includes reductions to food stamps, welfare, SSI, or related programs.

It is irresponsible to look at Social Security in isolation without considering the impact that meeting its financial obligations will have on our ability to meet other needs. The Congressional Budget Office and other non-partisan analysts have made warnings similar to ours that the rapid growth in spending on entitlement programs and interest on our debt will squeeze out other government spending. Much of our concern about the growth of entitlement programs and deficits is motivated by our view that unchecked growth of entitlement spending will harm the economy and the living standards of future generations by squeezing out spending on programs that invest in the future.

And the claim that Social Security competes with other programs is not just theoretical. The recent budgetary discussions show just how concrete the competition is. Both sides entertained adopting the so-called Chained CPI, which would have slowed Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) and other inflation updates in the budget and tax code to the actual rate of inflation, in order to replace part of sequestration. Because this and other changes were not adopted, most of sequestration is being allowed to take place, leading to large reductions in programs like Head Start, health and scientific research, low-income housing assistance, primary education, and job training.

Despite Coberly’s efforts to dismiss our warnings, the reality is that numerous non-partisan analyses confirm that Social Security is facing serious financial problems that adversely affect both the ability of the program to meet future obligations and the federal budget as a whole. We can and should have a vigorous debate about the best mix of policies to address this problem. But that debate should be based on an honest recognition of the facts regarding Social Security’s financial condition.

January 7, 2014
Weekly Update on Budget and Fiscal Policy Developments and a Look Ahead

Out with the Old, In with the ? – 2013 is history and 2014 is just underway. While the New Year is usually a time for optimism, this year begins with many questions and concerns. Although there is hope for stronger economic growth in 2014, there is still much anxiety. Moreover, a new poll indicates that few voters think our political system is functioning properly, with little optimism that Washington will be able to address the major problems facing the country, including the national debt. The past year was the least productive for Congress since 1947 when measuring the total number of bills passed and another poll shows many Americans see it as the least productive in their lifetime. Record-low congressional approval ratings underscore the damage such ineffectiveness has caused. If Washington is to improve its performance and regain the trust of Americans, it must start with carrying out the most basic function of government, agreeing on a federal budget. The budget deal approved by Congress and signed by the president last month is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. As Congress gavels in its 2014 session this week, more tests are around the corner with government funding expiring January 15 and the debt ceiling rearing its ugly head again next month. While there is lots of work to be done, with 2014 an election year with control of Congress at stake, there is little hope of much cooperation across the aisle. President Obama will have an opportunity to present his vision on January 28 in his State of the Union address. Will Washington exceed expectations in 2014?   

May Old Appropriations Be Forgot – Years of going from one stopgap measure to another to fund the government may be coming to an end. Appropriators were busy over the holidays negotiating federal spending bills based on the overall spending level agreed to in to the Bipartisan Budget Act. Congressional appropriators say they are very close to finalizing an omnibus bill tying together the 12 annual spending bills and may complete work by the end of the week. Lawmakers face a January 15 deadline to agree on funding the government in order to avoid another shutdown. The biggest obstacle could be politically-motivated policy riders that some legislators want to include. This week will be a pivotal one in determining if agreement can be reached as time runs short. Lawmakers may end up passing another continuing resolution for just a couple of days in order to buy some time to pass the omnibus.   

Some Have 2013 Regrets – Some lawmakers enter the New Year regretting some things that were done in 2013. Namely, extended unemployment benefits expired on December 28 and the Bipartisan Budget Act reduced Cost-of-Living-Adjustments (COLAs) for military pensions for those under 62. Legislation reversing both these actions is being considered. On Tuesday the Senate voted to lift a filibuster on a three-month extension of expanded unemployment insurance as President Obama promoted an extension at a White House event. A vote on final passage could come at the end of the week. The three-month extension is intended to buy time to adopt a year-long extension and the $6 billion cost is not offset. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said that the House would only consider an extension that is paid for with cuts elsewhere in the budget. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) both indicated that Democrats would be willing to consider offsets. Any extension should be paid for and we highlight several ways to offset it. Likewise, while some vow to to reverse reforms to military pensions, it is unclear how they will replace those savings. We took a look at the reforms and why they are needed. While it is tempting to adopt such policies without paying for them, abiding by pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules is critical both economically and fiscally.      

New Year Brings New Focus on Doc Fix – The budget deal was paired with a three-month delay of a 24 percent reduction in Medicare payments to physicians while lawmakers continue work on a permanent “doc fix.” Last month both the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee approved of bills to permanently fix the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR). In what is a recurring theme, finding a way to pay for the cost of about $117 billion over ten years is the main holdup at this point. 

Waiting for a Debt Ceiling Resolution – The New Year brings a new debate over the statutory debt ceiling. Congress last year agreed to “suspend” the debt limit until February 7. Last month Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned lawmakers that “extraordinary measures” could only hold off a default for about a month after the suspension is lifted. While some Republicans want to concessions in exchange for raising the limit, others are urging restraint

What Does 2014 Hold for Tax Reform? – Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-MT) and House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) had hoped to put forward legislation fundamentally reforming the tax code in 2013, but the government shutdown and other factors delayed action. Now that Baucus has been nominated to be the U.S. Ambassador to China, the future of tax reform is unclear. However, there are still signs that progress will be made. Baucus has released several tax reform discussion drafts and another on infrastructure is expected soon. We recently looked at his ideas for reforming energy tax incentives. Baucus set January 17 as the deadline for tax reform comments. In addition, the likely successor to Baucus as head of the Finance Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), is also committed to tax reform. Meanwhile, the need to address the 55 tax breaks known as the “tax extenders” that expired at the end of the year will ensure that tax reform remains a key piece of conversation on Capitol Hill. 

Social Security Debate Heats Up – While the temperatures in much of the country have been frigid, discussion of Social Security reform has warmed up. We set the record straight regarding suggestions by some that the financing problems faced by the program are not real. And we noted the warnings from one Social Security Trustee about proposals to expand the program without addressing the underlying financial shortfalls. Try your own hand at strengthening the vital program with our Social Security Reformer.  

 

Key Upcoming Dates (all times are ET)

 

January 9

  • House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight hearing on "Waste in Government: What's Being Done?" at 9:30 am.

 

January 10

  • Unemployment report for December.

 

January 13

  • Treasury budget report for December.

 

January 15

  • The continuing resolution funding the federal government expires.
  • 2014 sequester cuts take effect.
  • First set of IPAB recommendations expected.
  • Federal Reserve Beige Book release.

 

January 17

  • Tax reform comments due to Senate Finance Committee.

 

January 28

  • President Obama delivers the State of the Union address.

 

February 3

  • Statutory deadline for the President to submit the Fiscal Year 2015 budget request.

 

February 7

  • The extension of the statutory debt ceiling expires.

 

March 31

  • "Doc fix" expires.

 

January 7, 2014

Among the elements of the budget deal that passed Congress last month was a small $6 billion change to the way military pensions are calculated for military retirees younger than 62. In the face of lawmakers who would roll back this change, both the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal editorial boards defended the provision in the last two days. 

The change would reduce by 1 percent the cost-of-living increases for retirees that are younger than a normal retirement age. Depending on the exact rank and year of retirement, an average retiree's lifetime payments would be reduced by less than 3 percent, and payments to retirees over 62 would be unchanged. This policy is far more modest than the recommendation of the Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Commission, which recommended completely eliminating COLAs for retirees under age 62.

The Wall Street Journal criticized proposals to repeal the provision in an editorial this morning, stating:

The budget act signed in late December by President Obama takes a modest step to alleviate the Pentagon's crisis in pension costs, but good deeds in Washington rarely go unpunished. Some in Congress who should know better are now pledging to overturn the reforms as soon as this month.

Pensions are taking an increasing share of the Department of Defense's budget, and Defense officials such as Defense Secretary Hagel to Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno have noted the need to reform military compensation. CRFB's Moment of Truth project warned that the current military retirement system is not sustainable and does not serve in the best interest of our national security.

On Monday, the Washington Post editorial board put context around how small the change is, and how few retirees are affected:

For one thing, the cut is an exceedingly modest one on a pension plan that is already far more generous than private-sector equivalents. For someone who enlisted at age 18 and retired as an Army sergeant first class at 38, lifetime retirement pay would decline from $1.734 million to $1.626 million, according to House Budget Committee staff. And that $1.626 million would still be filled out with generous military health coverage and earnings for working in the civilian sector, which most military retirees do. 

This is not “breaking faith with the promise that was made to these folks that have waged war for this nation for the last 12 years,” as the president of the Military Officers Association of America, Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan, said on the PBS NewsHour Thursday. It is a small shift in resources toward training and equipping those who might have to defend us in the future. Rhetoric notwithstanding, many of the war-fighters who bear the biggest combat burdens get no pension at all; only one-eighth of enlisted personnel serve the 20 years necessary to qualify, according to a 2011 report by the Defense Business Board. As these numbers imply, most recruits didn’t join for the pension. “Surveys consistently report that military retirement has little value in recruitment or retention for at least the first 10 years of service,” the board found.

As we’ve said before, the Ryan-Murray budget agreement is a small step forward, but far short of the $2.2 trillion still needed to put debt on a downward path as a share of the economy. Since discretionary spending is already at historic lows, most reforms that meaningfully change the trajectory of long-term debt must come from the mandatory side of the budget. It is a discouraging sign that there are already efforts to repeal one of the few entitlement reforms that were in the agreement.

The Washington Post described the causes for disappointment:

It’s impossible to say whether either the Democratic or Republican proposals to undo the pension trim will pass; their respective “pay-fors” seem equally unacceptable to members of the opposing party, while the White House seems disinclined to revisit the issue. It’s sufficiently depressing that the debate sank to this level so quickly. Like civilian entitlements, military retirement — a $50 billion-plus item in the defense budget — is overdue for deeper reforms, such as adjustment to the all-or-nothing 20-year service requirement. And it does the men and women of our armed forces no dishonor to say so.

It is encouraging that most of the proposals thus far have respected the "pay-as-you-go" principle by suggesting alternative savings when repealing this provision, but offsets put forward thus far are unlikely to receive bipartisan support. Any remaining offsets that could receive bipartisan support should be reserved for more pressing needs such as extending emergency unemployment benefits or paying for a package of tax extenders, rather than undoing budget savings that have already been decided.

Moreover, the pension provision is designed to produce greater savings over time, so even if legislation offsets the $6 billion cost over the next ten years, it is unlikely to replace the greater savings over the long term. In addition, repealing the COLA provision would also require the Department of Defense to shift an additional $8 billion in defense spending towards retirement accounts which would require an additional $8 billion in cuts in military programs and could create additional pressure to increase or evade the limits on defense discretionary spending.

As the Wall Street journal described it, the pension shift actually frees up money for more pressing defense needs:

Few things in politics are easier than seeming to stand up for the men and women in uniform—or in this case as disingenuous. The Paul Ryan-Patty Murray compromise begins to slow the spiraling personnel costs in the Pentagon budget in order to free up resources to keep America's active military strong into the future. As Mr. Ryan has noted, the Pentagon brass endorsed the idea as a way to maintain adequate budgets for current readiness and new weapons.

To help make politically sensitive changes, Congress created the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission to provide reform recommendations by May of this year. However, the Commission has been granted an extension until 2015, putting off much needed reforms for at least another year. But Congress does not need to wait for that commission report to consider reforms of the military retirement system since it already has proposals from the Defense Business Board and the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation.

The Ryan-Murray budget agreement made a small but meaningful step forward when they included a modest reduction in entitlement spending. If policymakers want to undo the change, they should offset it with at least the same amount of other entitlement savings that grow over time. Even better, they should keep the policy change and use this as an opportunity to begin a serious discussion of the fundamental reforms of military retirement programs that are necessary. As the Journal concluded:

[...] the real threat to the military isn't the sequester or spending caps. It's the politics of entitlements. Medicare, ObamaCare and Social Security are slowly squeezing defense as a share of overall spending. And inside what's left of the Pentagon budget, pensions and health care are eroding military muscle. Members of Congress who vote to repeal the Ryan-Murray reform will be weakening American defenses.

 

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