The biggest piece of deficit reduction that lawmakers have accomplished so far is the series of caps on annually appropriated discretionary spending through 2021. The Budget Control Act specified spending caps that would reduce spending by more than $750 billion over ten years. It also put in place a sequester which would further reduce those caps by roughly $90 billion per year if the Super Committee did not agree on $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction. The Super Committee did indeed fail, and the sequester went into effect in March 2013. After partial sequester relief in 2014 and 2015, the discretionary cuts will return in full force in fiscal year (FY) 2016. As a result, discretionary spending will fall to a record low share of GDP in ten years.
With the sequester hanging over the appropriations process, the Brookings Institution held an event last week discussing the sustainability of these caps. The event brought together a panel of four experts with different perspectives on the caps, including:
- Robert Hale, Former Under Secretary for Defense (Comptroller) and Senior Fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton
- Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow of Economic Studies at Brookings
- Michael O' Hanlon, Foreign Policy Director of Research at Brookings
- Alice Rivlin, former Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director and Senior Fellow of Economic Studies at Brookings
This year was an eventful one for the federal budget. To explain the year's events, CRFB wrote 427 blogs, 17 papers, and created more than a hundred charts. Below are some of our favorite charts that represent the budget events of 2014.
1. Debt scheduled to reach record levels only seen around WWII within 25 years
Our long-term debt problem remains unsolved, despite some commentators' claims that the debt is not worth worrying about. For instance, economist Paul Krugman said not to worry because the debt in 25 years will only reach the levels we had in World War II. In Actually, Paul, the Debt is Still a Problem, we showed how returning to World War II levels of debt is actually quite alarming. Not only will debt levels be too high, but they are projected to keep rising upwards, without a sharp decline like the 1950s.
2. 2014 deficit decreased by 66%, but only after an 800% rise
September marked the end of the 2014 fiscal year, and saw year-end deficits fall to their lowest level since the Great Recession. Some claimed victory over the debt and urged moving onto other issues. In our report, Deficit Falls to $483 Billion, but Debt Continues to Rise, we showed that these low deficits are nothing to celebrate. In dollar terms, the deficit may have decreased by 66 percent, but that was after it had risen by almost 800 percent during the Great Recession. Moreover, debt remains at a post-WWII record high, and trillion-dollar deficits are likely to return within a decade.
3. Debt is worse if Congress does not pay for changes
These debt projections assume that Congress will be fiscally responsible and pay for all new legislation. However, if they stick to the all-too-common practice of continuing various policies or enacting new ones without offsetting the cost, the debt situation could be almost 10 percent of GDP worse, as this animated chart from Everything You Need to Know About Budget Gimmicks shows.
With the 2014 midterm elections mostly in the books, the current Congress will return from weeks of campaigning to finish some remaining items before the end of the year and the swearing in of the new Congress. This year's lame duck session will likely to be less busy than some years, but there are still a few key things to get done before the 114th Congress begins.
The current continuing resolution funding the government will expire on December 11, so policymakers will have to either extend it, enact appropriations bills, or cause a shutdown. This is the most important to-do list item for the lame duck Congress. Prior to the recess, appropriators indicated they wanted to get an omnibus appropriations bill done instead of a CR extending funding into the next Congress, and the chances of that look good -- thanks to the Murray-Ryan agreement setting defense and non-defense spending levels, House and Senate funding allocations are relatively close. Key questions that remain include whether lawmakers will provide supplemental funding for Ebola or ISIS and also what level of war spending they will provide (hopefully below the current level -- see "to-don't" list below).
For background on the appropriations process, see our Appropriations 101 document.
Pass Defense Authorization
Somewhat related to appropriations, lawmakers will also have to pass a defense authorization bill. For the budget world, this may be important to see if Congress will consider codifying a strict definition of war spending -- as the House budget resolution and an amendment to the House defense appropriations bill did -- or consider personnel savings policies that the Pentagon has long called for. Doing either of those things may help policymakers stay within the defense spending caps in the future and better ensure the integrity of those caps.
Year after year, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) refuses to simply give lip service to "wasteful government spending" and has instead called out controversial government spending by name. Today, his office published the fifth annual edition of his Wastebook, detailing 100 examples of what he describes as "stupid spending," totaling almost $25 billion. The Wastebook looks at little-used government programs, unusual research projects funded by government grants, and tax breaks given to companies to compile these examples.
As Senator Coburn explained,
This report, the fifth annual Wastebook, gives a snapshot of just a fraction of the countless frivolous projects the government funded in the past twelve months with borrowed money and your tax dollars. Every year taxpayers, regardless of their personal political leanings, raise their eyebrows and shake their heads in disbelief at how billions of dollars that could be been better spent—or not spent at all—were squandered. Then they ask, “but what are you doing about it?”
Some of the spending examples highlighted in his report are:
- Paid vacations for bureaucrats gone wild—$19 million: Many situations that would cause private-sector employers to fire their employees instead results in federal employees going on “administrative leave.” Most of these situations can be described as personnel matters such as criminal investigations, misconduct and security concerns. GAO estimates that the paid leave costs the government about $19 million.
- Pentagon to spend $1 billion to destroy $16 billion in unneeded ammunition—$1 billion: The Pentagon is spending a billion dollars to destroy $16 billion in excessive purchases of military-grade ammunition. The amount of surplus ammunition is now so large that the cost of destroying it will equal the full years’ salary for over 54,000 Army privates. How the military came to purchase so much ammunition it didn’t need was uncovered in a 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation.
- FAA upgrades low traffic airport serving high-end ski resort—$18 million: The Federal Aviation Administration awarded $18 million dollars for a construction project at an airport that serves a ski and golf resort in Idaho. There are on average four daily commercial flights leaving the airport. Construction was to include “comfortable chairs and a fireplace.”
- DOD sends 16 planes to the scrap heap for $32,000—$468 million: After spending over $468 million on a fleet of 20 planes that were supposed to be the backbone of the Afghan Air Force’s air transport mission, the Defense Department scrapped 16 of those planes as opposed to selling or dispatching them for their purpose.
- Watching grass grow—$10,000: The Interior Department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is spending $10,000 to watch how fast grass grows in Florida after its been pulled out plug by plug and “painstakingly document how fast it returns."
- Spouses stab voodoo dolls more often when “hangry”—$331,000: A National Science Foundation grant provided money to research the phenomenon of being “hangry,” in which a subject is angered because of a lack of food. Spouses with lower levels of blood sugar were more likely to harm the voodoo doll representing their significant other.
One of the bills to replace Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and overhaul the housing finance system just got a verdict from CBO: it will save $58 billion under the current budget rules for scoring credit programs. The bill, the Housing Finance Reform and Taxpayer Protection Act of 2014 (S. 1217), passed the Senate Banking Committee in May by a 13-9 vote, with both bipartisan support and opposition.
Fannie and Freddie have drawn the ire of some policymakers after the federal government placed them into conservatorship and infused hundreds of billions of dollars to rescue them during the heart of the financial crisis. However, after a change in the terms of the agreement that required the two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) to pay their net worth back to the federal government each quarter, the situation has reversed: Fannie and Freddie have brought in an estimated $200 billion for the Treasury in the past two years alone. Still, lawmakers are concerned about the inherent instability of the current arrangement and the potential risk to taxpayers if the housing market turns down again.
S. 1217 would replace Fannie and Freddie by 2020 with a new Federal Mortgage Insurance Corporation (FMIC), which would provide mortgage guarantees funded by fees.
The Postal Service has been losing money in recent years and has needed to cut back on services and raise stamp prices. However, these latest reductions are setting off a squabble among lawmakers. After USPS announced plans to consolidate 82 mail processing centers in 2015 and shed 15,000 jobs, 50 mostly Democratic senators sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee and Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee chairs and ranking members asking them to postpone the reductions for one year and return mail delivery standards back to where they were in July 2012 to buy time for postal reform. Senate Homeland Security and Government Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) responded with a statement arguing that the best way to address these concerns would be for Congress to enact reforms to fix the financial challenges facing the Postal Service. But are lawmakers close to an agreement?
The answer is unclear. Both the House and Senate have produced bills with similar elements, but they have different emphases when it comes to stemming USPS's flow of red ink.
The American Enterprise Institute held an event Thursdsay commemorating the 50th anniversary of the start of the War on Poverty. The event, “Expanding Opportunity in America,” featured House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) as well as a panel of experts.
In the coming days, the Senate will vote on the House-passed measure to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. The bill is a last-ditch effort to prevent the fund from going bankrupt, which would stall construction projects across the country.
Congress returns from its July 4th recess this week, and it will have plenty of work to do. Most pressing is the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). In less than a month, federal disbursements for highway projects will be disrupted if nothing is done. In addition, the House will take up a bill to permanently extend bonus depreciation, a business tax break enacted as stimulus in 2008. Also, the conference committee on a bill to reform veterans' health benefits in response to the unfolding scandal at the VA is expected to resume, and the President has called for a $3.7 billion supplemental request for funds to secure the southern border in response to an influx of child migrants.
The first three issues, in particular, all have the potential to significantly impact the federal budget. First, the Highway Trust Fund faces a nearly $170 billion shortfall over the next ten years, an issue that has been addressed in recent years by mostly unpaid for general revenue transfers. Because of budget conventions, these transfers don't count as increasing the deficit, even though the transfers allow greater levels of spending than would otherwise be the case. The Senate Finance Committee is looking to transfer $8 billion to the HTF to extend it through the end of the year, offsetting the cost with other revenue provisions. Closing the ten-year shortfall within the HTF through various options available to lawmakers or fully offsetting a general revenue transfer would reduce debt by about 1 percentage point of GDP by 2024; put another way, it would avoid the 1 percentage point of GDP being added to the debt that would occur if lawmakers transferred general revenue without offsets.
Second, the House is expected to vote this week on bonus depreciation, a business tax break enacted as stimulus in 2008. The House bill not only permanently extends the current provision to allow 50 percent of many new business investments to be written off in year one but also expands the tax break by making eligible new categories of investments. In total, the bill would cost $360 billion through 2024 including interest, increasing debt as a percent of GDP in 2024 by 1.5 percentage points of GDP. We've written before on how bonus depreciation has already cost $220 billion since 2008, and should not be treated as a normal tax extender because it interacts with other parts of the tax code.
Our recent paper Trust or Bust: Fixing the Highway Trust Fund called on lawmakers to identify a long-term fix to the funding gap in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that there is sufficient time to enact a fix before funds fall too low and disrupt construction this summer. A short-term patch can be enacted by transferring funds from general government revenue. To be fiscally responsible, however, this transfer should be fully offset elsewhere in the budget.
Previously, we discussed long-term options to restore highway solvency by cutting spending, raising more from current highway taxes, and raising new taxes. Below are tax, spending, and other options that could pay for upfront general revenue transfers to shore up the HTF in the short-term, although they leave the HTF's chronic imbalance in place. These options can buy time, but they do not replace the need to identify a long-term solution to bring dedicated revenue and spending in line.
|Options To Offset a Transfer of General Revenue|
|Policy||Ten-Year Savings||Trust Fund Extension|
|Dedicate one-time "deemed repatriation" tax to the HTF||$125 billion||8 years|
|Dedicate temporary transition revenue from repealing LIFO to the HTF||$90 billion||6 years|
|Repeal certain oil and gas tax preferences^||$35 billion||30 months|
|Eliminate tax exclusion for new private activity bonds||$30 billion||24 months|
|Require filers to have a SSN to file for a refundable child tax credit||$20 billion||16 months|
|Eliminate Amtrak subsidies*||$15 billion||12 months|
|Eliminate "Capital Investment Grants" for the rail system*||$15 billion||12 months|
|Reduce farm subsidies||$15 billion||12 months|
|Close Section 179 "luxury SUV loophole"||$10 billion||8 months|
|Reduce Strategic Petroleum Reserve by 15 percent||$10 billion||8 months|
|Increase sequestration by $1 billion/year||$10 billion||8 months|
|Repeal tax deduction for moving expenses||$10 billion||8 months|
|Clarify worker classification||$5 billion||4 months|
|Prevent "double dipping" between unemployment & Social Security Disability||$5 billion||4 months|
|Allow drilling in ANWR and the Outer Continental Shelf||$5 billion||4 months|
|Reduce federal research funding for fossil fuels and nuclear energy*||$5 billion||4 months|
|Repeal or phase-out tax credit for plug-in electric vehicles||$1.5 - $5 billion||1 - 4 months|
|Require inherited IRAs to be paid out within 5 years||$4 - $5 billion||3 - 4 months|
|Extend current Fannie/Freddie fees through 2021||$4 billion/year||3 months|
|Extend customs fees through 2024||$4 billion||3 months|
|Deny biofuels credit for black liquor (retroactively)||$3 billion||3 months|
|Increased mortgage reporting||$2 billion||~2 months|
|Require the IRS to hire private debt collectors||$2 billion||~2 months|
|Enact federal oil and gas management reforms in the President's Budget||$2 billion||~2 months|
|Devote mandatory aviation security fee to deficit reduction through 2024||$1.5 billion||~1 month|
|Make coal excise tax permanent||$1.5 billion||~1 month|
|Make Travel Promotion Surcharge permanent||$1.5 billion||~1 month|
|Clarification of statute of limitations on overstatement of basis||$1.5 billion||~1 month|
|Close the "gas guzzler" loophole||$1 billion||~1 month|
|Revoke passports for seriously delinquent taxpayers||< $0.5 billion||<1 month|
Sources: CBO, OMB, JCT, and CRFB calculations
All numbers are rounded and calculated by CRFB based on a variety of sources.
*These discretionary changes would need to be accompanied by reductions in the discretionary spending caps.
^Includes expensing for exploration and development as well as the “percentage depletion allowance”