Last week, the Heritage Foundation released the Budget Book, a catalog of 106 ways to cut the budget or reduce the size of government totaling roughly $3.9 trillion in ten-year savings. (However, Heritage notes that the total does not include interactions from enacting multiple proposals.) Here are a few highlights:
- 65 percent of the cuts proposed are from a single item – capping spending on means-tested programs at 110 percent of pre-recession levels and growing that amount with inflation. Heritage estimates that this could save $2.7 trillion over the next decade. Heritage does not provide any details about which programs to cut, leaving it up to "policymakers to direct welfare spending to the areas of greatest priority."
- Limiting Highway Trust Fund spending to existing revenue would result in about $180 billion in savings. Since transportation spending would be reduced, "states or private sector [could] take over the other activities if they value them."
- Repealing the Davis-Bacon Act would reduce spending by $86 billion over the next ten years, by Heritage's estimate. The Act requires federally funded construction projects to pay "prevailing wages" based on the project's location. However, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that this would save less than $12 billion. We mentioned this as an option to reduce highway spending in our paper last year, Trust or Bust: Fixing the Highway Trust Fund.
- Ending Supplementary Security Income (SSI) benefits for children would save $125 billion. Heritage would instead direct SSI toward disabled adults and seniors, and only keep the children's payments for medical expenses that Medicaid does not cover.
- Other proposals would end Head Start, higher education programs, and job training programs, resulting in $170 billion in education and training services cuts.
In a commentary published on Monday, the Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip wrote about President Obama’s budget and the declaration that it is moving away from “mindless austerity.” He approached the question of when, if ever, is a good time to implement austerity measures when deficits get too large.
Ip explains that there are two aspects of deficit spending – “structural” and “cyclical” – with the former referring to long-term differences between revenues and outlays and the latter to weak economic conditions that push up spending and lower revenue automatically.
The President's budget predicts the economy to be back at full capacity by 2017, meaning the cyclical portion of the deficit should be at or near zero. Ip points out this would be the best time to address the structural portion and put debt on a declining path. Although the President’s FY 2016 budget stabilizes debt as a share of GDP, the debt is barely declining under its projections.
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.