RealClearPolicy | May 21, 2015
Congress faces yet another deadline, and yet again is set to stall. This time, there literally could be a bumpy road ahead.
The current legislation authorizing highway and mass-transit spending is scheduled to expire at the end of the month. Not long after that, the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) will run out of reserves, which will cause road-improvement projects across the country to grind to a halt. Legislative action is required to avoid delaying critical infrastructure projects and the jobs they produce.
A two-month extension of highway funding has already been passed by the House and is likely to be enacted soon. Lawmakers should use the extra time to end the cycle of temporary fixes and produce a long-term solution that is free of gimmicks and is fiscally responsible.
Another short-term extension is in keeping with Washington's recent track record in dealing with similar circumstances. Time after time, deadlines have been nearly missed or even outright disregarded when it comes to important budget and fiscal matters. Lawmakers have often kicked the can down the road with short-term patches, only to be forced to address the same issue again and again. Steering haphazardly over these "fiscal speed bumps" has imperiled the nation's finances and caused voters to question the ability of Congress to function.
In the relatively few instances when an issue was actually resolved, it was done in a way that worsened the already unsustainable long-term national debt outlook. This was the case with the recent "doc fix" that permanently replaced the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula for Medicare payments to physicians. By our calculations, the "fix" will add over $500 billion to the long-term debt.
Now, Congress faces a highway-funding shortfall of about $175 billion over the next decade. That's the equivalent of a 14-cent-per-gallon gas-tax increase, or more than a 35 percent cut in future spending.
After multiple temporary patches, lawmakers want to kick the can yet again, this time in the hopes that tax reform can be enacted later this year and can provide revenue for the Highway Trust Fund.
With our infrastructure spending underfunded and our tax code badly in need of reform, marrying tax and highway policy offers a rare two-for. But passing tax reform is also very hard — which is why it hasn't happened in almost 30 years — and counting on its passage to fund current highway projects puts those and future projects at risk.
Legislators must come up with a plan that charts a course for stable highway funding while avoiding potholes and wrong turns without driving up the debt.
My colleagues at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and I have written a new paper, "The Road to Sustainable Highway Spending," that lays out such a plan — one that would encourage the passage of tax reform to fund highway spending, but not count on it to keep the program solvent.
The proposal has three components:
- Get the trust fund up to speed by paying off $25 billion of "legacy costs" from past highway commitments by reducing unnecessary farm subsidies and extending certain spending cuts from the Ryan-Murray budget deal.
- Bridge the financing gap by ensuring that revenue and spending remain closely in line through a default policy that schedules a 9-cent gas-tax increase one year in the future and limits annual highway spending to revenue collection and interest income.
- Create a fast lane to tax and transportation reform that uses a special process to give Congress the opportunity to utilize tax reform to find alternative revenue to replace some or all of the scheduled gas-tax increase, pay for higher infrastructure spending, or both.
The plan described above gives Congress both the power and the responsibility to decide how we should finance our infrastructure spending and how large the federal investment should be. But it ensures that every dollar of highway spending is fully paid for, and puts an end to the process of temporary gimmick-ridden patches that pave over the real problem.
We face a rocky road for highway funding because policymakers refuse to work together and make the decisions necessary to move forward. There are lots of options available; Congress must build on those ideas. In "The Road to Sustainable Highway Spending," we illustrate one potential route.
We can't afford any more "my way or the highway" attitude from lawmakers. We need collaboration and leadership. It's time to get to work.
Marc Goldwein is the Senior Vice President and Senior Policy Director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
Pioneer Press | July 8, 2013
July may be the most important month for tax reform since 1986 -- the last time the tax code was considerably altered.
A week ago, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Montana) and ranking member Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) sent individualized Dear Colleague letters to all 98 senators requesting input on comprehensive tax reform legislation. The senators advocated for scrapping the entire tax code and rebuilding it one page at a time, defending inclusions on an individual basis.
This letter came a week after the Senate Finance Committee held a series of private meetings on tax reform, including a joint-chamber meeting led by U.S. Rep. and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Michigan) to kick off their summer dialogue tour. The two chairmen will soon begin to traverse the country -- starting in St. Paul on July 8 -- to engage voters directly on tax reform.
"We're going to talk to people, families, consumers, business groups ... to get a better idea of what people are thinking," Baucus said at a June 17 breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.
All told, the actions of these leaders signify that a comprehensive rewrite of the tax code is a real possibility and the top priority of some of our nation's most powerful legislators (Sen. Baucus and Rep. Camp will leave their leadership posts in 2015). Obviously, real challenges exist -- namely clear partisan differences and overwhelming hesitation among politicians to discuss eliminating or restricting popular tax breaks -- but the efforts by Rep. Camp and Sens. Baucus and Hatch are a clear step forward and may be the last chance for reforming our inefficient and outdated tax code.
As members of the aforementioned Simpson-Bowles led Campaign to Fix the Debt, we commend Chairman Baucus and Ranking Member Hatch for taking such a bold approach in putting forth the "Zero Plan" and providing valuable leadership in forcing a real discussion on tradeoffs that will advance the cause of serious tax reform and possibly broader fiscal reform. We believe that our nation's unsustainable debt is a very real problem and see tax reform -- along with replacing sequestration with larger, more gradual and sensible spending reductions -- as a necessary first step to tackling the debt.
We are equally excited that Americans can hear details first hand from Rep. Camp and Sen. Baucus.
Eliminating all tax preferences in the past allowed us to reduce the top two rates to 23 percent while setting aside a small portion of the savings for deficit reduction. Starting with a clean slate, and requiring those who wish to add back tax preferences to pay for them with rate increases, would lead politicians to subject tax expenditures to much greater scrutiny and, if desired, then to restore worthwhile tax expenditures in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.
The decision by Sens. Baucus and Hatch to use this approach makes us hopeful that Washington can enact tax reform to attain lower rates, level the playing field, improve simplicity, promote robust economic growth, and reduce the deficit.
We see this as an notable case of bipartisanship and hope that other leaders in the House and Senate will rise to the challenge and act responsibly in using the savings from eliminating the $1.3 trillion in annual "tax expenditures" to lower rates in a progressive manner, reduce the deficit, and restore those tax provisions they consider worthwhile in a more efficient, cost-effective manner.
Now is the time for D.C. to get their act together and make this type of action the new norm. Our nation's future and the lives of our children depend on it.
Former Congressman Tim Penny represented Minnesota's 1st Congressional District from 1983-1995. Former Congressman Mark Kennedy, currently the director of the George Washington University School of Political Management, represented Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District from 2001-2003 and Minnesota's 6th Congressional District from 2003-2007. Both are working with the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a bipartisan group urging enactment of a thoughtful and comprehensive plan that puts U.S. debt on a downward trajectory over the long term while protecting the most vulnerable and meeting the federal government's vital commitments.
The Hill | January 14, 2014
By all accounts, 2014 is unlikely to be the year of the grand bargain…or anything close. Neither the President nor any of the political leadership is actively trying to fix the nation’s fiscal problem; there is no immediate crisis; and the issues of major entitlement reforms and revenues are hard enough that most politicians are quite happy to just look the other way.
That said, Congress has returned to DC to find many outstanding issues including the expiration of extended unemployment benefits, an impending 25 percent cut in Medicare payments to physicians, and the expiration of various targeted tax cuts known as “tax extenders”, all of which will create a number of important fiscal litmus tests.
These policies all come with a cost, and the question is; will congress find ways to pay for them or will they resort to their old habit of charging them to the national credit card?
One of the important achievements of the Ryan-Murray budget deal passed at the end of last year was that while it lessened the constricting caps of the sequester, it not only fully paid for the changes, it banked a little extra savings.
Congress should, at the very least, hold itself to the same standard for all of the mini-fiscal moments of 2014. One way to do this would be to pursue three bite-sized $150 billion packages focused on each of these policies.
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.
These packages won’t be nearly enough to solve our debt problem – much more would need to be done. Still, enacting this series of incremental $150 billion packages would be consistent with the simple principle our lawmakers need to re-learn—if something is worth doing, it’s worth paying for.
Each of these three packages would save more money than they cost, particularly over the long-term. But none would be about simply making numbers add up, they’d be about improving the way we tax and spend to better promote growth, offer certainty, improve the health system, and moving us toward more responsible budgeting.
Huffington Post | January 9, 2014
The recent column by Jane White on Social Security reform mischaracterized the position of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) and ignored fiscal realities facing Social Security. CRFB is not calling for a 16.5 percent across-the-board cut in Social Security benefits as White suggests. We are, however, calling on policymakers to act sooner rather than later to address the very real financial challenges facing Social Security that White ignores.
The paper that White references compares the cost of fixing Social Security now as opposed to if we wait. It shows how much benefits would need to be reduced now, or revenues would need to be increased, to restore Social Security solvency, compared to the changes that would be required in ten or twenty years from now. The paper in no way advocates an across-the-board cut in benefits (or an across-the-board increase in the payroll tax) as the way to restore solvency, but simply provides estimates to illustrate how the magnitude of changes required will increase if we delay acting.
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.
Despite acknowledging that she is not knowledgeable on Social Security's finances and needs to research options for fixing Social Security, she pre-emptively rules out any reductions in promised benefits and speaks favorably about proposals to increase benefits. Taking any reduction in promised benefits off the table will jeopardize the ability of policymakers to take action to ensure Social Security is financially sound for future generations and the government is able to meet other priorities. If White were to begin her research into options for fixing Social Security with an open mind, she would learn several facts which might cause her to reconsider her knee-jerk reaction to any reductions in scheduled Social Security benefits:
1. Benefits will be cut by over 23% within the next twenty years if no changes are made. The Social Security system is already running cash shortfalls, which are projected to exhaust the trust fund by 2031 (according to the Congressional Budget Office) or 2033 (according to the Social Security Trustees). At that point, the benefits Social Security would be legally able to pay would be limited to the revenues coming into the program, which would only be sufficient to pay approximately 77 percent of promised benefits. The 23% cut in benefits would apply to all beneficiaries, including those already receiving benefits and low income seniors with benefits at or below the poverty level.
2. Social Security benefits will increase in real terms for future retirees even with changes in benefits to restore solvency Social Security benefits are indexed to wage growth, which increases faster than inflation. As a result, initial Social Security benefits for future retirees will be higher than they are for current beneficiaries even after adjusting for inflation. In addition, increasing life expectancy means future retirees will receive benefits for more years, resulting in much greater lifetime benefits. Under current law, the average lifetime benefit would double in real terms over the next 75 years. Social Security reform plans which include "cuts" in Social Security benefits to restore solvency simply scale back part of this increase and still result in future retirees receiving higher initial benefits and total lifetime benefits than current retirees.
3. The Social Security shortfall cannot be closed solely through increased taxes on upper income taxpayers. Contrary to the assertion being made by some progressives that the problems facing Social Security can be solved simply by eliminating the cap on taxable wages, the Social Security actuaries estimate that eliminating the cap would close about 70 percent of the program's 75-year shortfall and only about 33 percent of the gap in the 75th year. A proposal from Senator Tom Harkin that would also increase benefits across-the-board would solve even less: closing only half of the 75-year shortfall and 20 percent of the gap in the 75th year.
Under the current structure of the system, a portion of the increased revenues raised from wealthier taxpayers by eliminating the wage cap would go to finance higher benefits for these same wealthy individuals when they retire. The amount of the shortfall that would be closed would be somewhat greater - roughly 86% -- if the wages above the current cap were not credited toward benefits. However, breaking any link between higher contributions and higher benefits would represent a fundamental change in the social insurance nature of the program that causes concern among many supporters of social insurance who believe that the link between contributions and benefits is a key feature of the program.
Eliminating the taxable maximum entirely would also make it harder economically and politically to enact further tax increases on upper income taxpayers to meet other needs. Relying on elimination of the taxable maximum to restore Social Security solvency represents a judgment that preserving 100% of promised benefits under Social Security for everyone, including wealthy retirees, is a greater priority than other possible uses of the additional revenues from upper income taxpayers that would be generated by eliminating the taxable maximum.
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. A shortfall which could be solved with a 16.5 percent across-the-board benefit cut or 2.7 percentage point increase in the payroll tax today would require a 19 percent cut in benefits or 3.3 percentage point increase in payroll tax if we wait a decade to act. 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. Ironically, the actions of those who resist efforts to reform Social Security by downplaying the magnitude of the problem and the need for action to address the shortfalls now will actually lead to deeper cuts in benefits for all beneficiaries and/or greater increases in payroll taxes for workers than would otherwise be the case.
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. The Social Security reform proposals in the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin plans include an increase in the minimum benefit that would enhance benefits for low-income workers and a progressive benefit bump up in benefits for the very old and long-term disabled most at risk of outliving their retirement savings. These provisions would provide greater poverty protections than current law.
Earlier plans to restore Social Security solvency such as the plan proposed by CRFB President Maya MacGuineas along with Jeff Liebman and Andrew Samwick and the legislation introduced by CRFB board members Charlie Stenholm and Jim Kolbe had similar benefit enhancements for low-income populations. Providing benefit enhancements targeted at those most at risk of poverty is a much better use of limited resources than an across-the-board increase in benefits for all retirees, including wealthy seniors, as the legislation introduced by Senator Tom Harkin would do.
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.
Forbes | December 18, 2013
The Congressional Budget Conference Agreement is a paradox. On its face it is underwhelming. It ignores the pressing long-term problems. It “kicks the budget can” for another 2 years. Its savings are not all clean-cut. There is no way to guarantee the out-year savings. Measured against the need, it fell far short.
On the other hand, compared to the fiscal squabbling of the past several years, it was a major reversal, a surprising bipartisan compromise from a Congress which had made that phrase oxymoronic. There has been no budget resolution for years. There has been precious little agreement on anything. Suddenly, it appears that the warring parties have decided that government closings and potential defaults may not be the best policies.
The budget agreement actually did some good things. It cancelled some of the most objectionable parts of the sequester which were threatening immediate harm, especially in defense spending. It replaced those lost savings with small reductions in mandatory spending and small increases in fees.
Even better, it was a two-year agreement. To move from no budget to a 2-year budget is nearly miraculous. The debt ceiling problem aside, government closures seem to be out of the picture for 2 years. It probably does not signal a sea change in Congressional comity, but it does give the Appropriations Committees a chance perform as they are intended, both in FY ’14 and is FY ’15.
Sen. Murray and Rep. Ryan took the Congress as far as it could possibly go. They gave no important help to the debt and deficit problems, but they did make important changes in the way that the parties and the houses have been dealing with one another. There is no assurance that the Congress has done an about face on its fiscal fisticuffs, but the budget agreement is a welcome change from the unrelenting warfare of the past 5 years.
The debt ceiling hurdle still looms ahead, probably in March. Other policy issues, including trade, immigration, and energy remain untouched. There is hope that Ryan-Murray will be infectious, but 2014 is an election year. Good things seldom happen in election years. But, perhaps, 2014 may be a bit more peaceful than 2013.
What now seems certain is that hope for Grand Budget Bargain is gone, probably until after the next presidential election in 2016. Until then, budget improvements will be incremental at best. At worst, there may be back-sliding. Both parties will cling to their standards. Democrats will defend the big entitlements to the death. Ditto for Republicans in defense against all tax increases.
So, one on hand, the paradoxical Budget Agreement gives reason to celebrate, and, on the other, reason to mourn. Optimists can cheer the first bipartisan budget compromise in years, and the strong House vote. Pessimists can bemoan the unsolved deficit/debt problems, and the expected weak Senate vote.
Los Angeles Times | December 16, 2013
The budget agreement reached by the House and Senate this week is a small step forward in restoring some sanity and order to the process. By putting in place a bipartisan plan for the next two years, the agreement represents a much-needed improvement over the uncertainty of governing by crisis that has dominated fiscal policy the last several years.
But the fundamental fiscal challenges we identified in the 2010 report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and the need for reforms of entitlement programs and the tax code, go unaddressed.
The agreement will put in place a slightly more rational fiscal policy — by replacing a portion of the abrupt, mindless across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending resulting from sequestration with smarter and somewhat more permanent cuts, and with reforms to mandatory programs.
The deal also takes some modest steps in addressing long-term fiscal liabilities by adopting scaled-back versions of policies we recommended, such as reforming civilian and military retirement benefits and reducing the unfunded liability facing the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.
Perhaps most important, this agreement demonstrates that leaders in Washington can actually work together to reach some agreement on fiscal policy. The sad lack of trust between the two parties has been perhaps a greater obstacle to a "grand bargain" than the policy details themselves. We hope that this agreement can serve as a confidence-building measure that will lead to compromise on significant deficit reduction, as other lawmakers follow the good example set by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
But the agreement also represents another missed opportunity to address our long-term fiscal problems. Doug Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, recently warned that despite some improvement in the budget outlook, "the fundamental federal budgetary challenge has hardly been addressed." There is nothing in this agreement that would change that assessment.
The small reforms in this agreement do not address the real long-term drivers of our debt, including the growth of healthcare entitlement programs and Social Security's funding shortfall. We still desperately need to reform the tax code, which is riddled with trillions of dollars in economy-distorting loopholes. The agreement also leaves in place sequester cuts that could have adverse effects on economic productivity and military readiness.
With this agreement, Congress has exhausted nearly all of the easy choices available. That leaves only tough choices for future deficit reduction or sequester replacement, which are critically necessary to keep entitlement programs affordable and the economy vibrant.
Reforms to entitlements and the tax code need not wait for the next election.
Policymakers should take advantage of the need for legislation to fix the flawed Medicare payment formula — which is scheduled to cut physician payments by almost one-quarter — by enacting changes that make Medicare more cost-effective. In avoiding this cut, we must start paying doctors based on quality rather than quantity of care, and we must fully offset the costs of this "doc fix" with structural reforms that slow the rate of growth in federal healthcare spending.
At the same time, Congress should follow the lead of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) to enact comprehensive tax reform that promotes growth and makes the U.S. more globally competitive globally. With $1.3 trillion of annual "tax preferences" in the tax code, there is plenty of money that can be raised from eliminating or scaling them back to reduce rates and deficits.
Policymakers should also go further in paring back the sequestration cuts. They should pay for that additional relief by eliminating unwarranted subsidies and low-priority spending, further reducing Medicare costs and improving the way we measure inflation in the federal budget and tax code.
Finally, we must reform Social Security to make the program financially sound for future generations.
We are pleased the two sides have proved they can find common ground on a small agreement. Now they have to "get crackin'" and come to grips with difficult challenges to solve our nation's grave long-term fiscal problems and put the budget on a fiscally sustainable course.
zpolitics | December 9, 2013
As the Congressional budget conference committee nears its December 13 deadline for producing a budget agreement, it is very unlikely that the conferees will come up with the “grand bargain” needed to slow the unsustainable upward trajectory of our national debt.
It is likely they will put forward a small deal that replaces some of the damaging sequester cuts with smarter, long-term deficit reduction. As frustrating as this may be, in today’s divided Washington, even a small deal would reflect progress.
Beyond paving the way for larger compromises, the conference resolution should also satisfy some important criteria for credibly reducing the deficit. In a recent paper, we outlined several of these goals. Any budget deal should begin to account for the long-term fiscal outlook and set responsible spending limits even if it doesn’t fill in all the specifics. It should also put in place a process for the next step, to deal with the major budget challenges of health care, retirement and tax reform. It should also include a separate track to strengthen and reform Social Security. And the immediate deal should refrain from using any budget gimmicks.
What is a budget gimmick? Simply put, it’s an accounting trick that allows lawmakers to artificially create or inflate budgetary savings. Imagine if you make some tough choices one month and are able to put away $100. When planning your budget for the next month, you decide to use those savings to pay your $100 heating bill and buy a $100 cell phone. It doesn’t take an economist to realize that budget isn’t going to work.
Congress has considered doing the same thing, but on a much larger scale. Lawmakers have proposed using every trick in the book in order to justify more spending or congratulate themselves on phantom deficit reduction.
For instance, the Congressional Budget Office only scores legislation based on its budget impact over 10 years, so Congress will often make sure that provisions that will increase the deficit don’t take effect until the second decade after a bill is passed. Projected war and emergency spending, including Superstorm Sandy relief, grows with inflation. If lawmakers rein that spending in by applying budgetary caps, they can claim bogus savings for unspent money. Lawmakers have also considered willfully disregarding the inevitable, like counting savings from expiring provisions — the Child Tax Credit or Pell Grants — that will almost certainly be renewed. Talk about counting your chickens before they hatch.
The scary thing is that Congress could get away with these tricks because so few people will call them on it. So encourage your Members of Congress to oppose any resolution that includes budget gimmicks. Tell them that you expect them to work with their colleagues on a budget compromise to put the debt on a downward trajectory as a share of the economy over the long term.
Our elected officials are smart enough to know that this issue is too important for tricks. The conference committee has an opportunity to stop the games and get serious about the debt before it is too late. We are counting on them to do just that.
The Hill | December 5, 2013
Friday the 13th has additional significance this year. In addition to being an annual day of caution for superstitious people, it is a deadline date and day of opportunity for the recently appointed joint Senate and House Budget Conference Committee to report its recommendations for the fiscal 2014 budget. Hopefully this committee will not be a super failure like the joint "Super Committee" that was formed after the debt ceiling deal in August of 2011.
While the American people and many fiscal advocates would like to see the Committee address the 2014 budget and our greater structural budget challenges, such is not likely given the current state of dysfunction and disconnection in Washington, DC. The partisanship is too great, the ideological divide is too wide, and real presidential leadership is lacking.
It's clear that the Committee has been working to tap down expectations of what it is likely to achieve. The Committee is focusing its efforts on trying to achieve a deal to replace all or part of the sequester for a two-year period with alternative direct or indirect spending reductions. To do so they should focus on mandatory spending proposals in President Obama's budget submission and unallocated funds from prior budgets. While achieving agreement on discretionary spending levels for two years would be good, it's not enough and the Committee should aim higher.
While achieving agreement on a fiscal "grand bargain" is beyond reach, it would be desirable for the Committee to agree on a fiscal goal that the Congress and president would seek to achieve over time. One possible goal would be to set a target of getting public debt/GDP down to 60 percent of GDP by 2030 with a fiscal trajectory that will keep debt/GDP no higher than that level over time. This would be a meaningful accomplishment and would ultimately force the Congress and the president address the four key actions needed to effectively address our longer-term structural deficits. Namely, the need for social insurance reform, additional health care reform, comprehensive tax reform, and a more intelligent way to address discretionary spending allocations.
In addition to the above, the Committee could embrace some of all of the No Labels Problem Solvers’ legislative proposals from their Make Government Work! agenda. This agenda involves nine pieces of "good government" oriented legislation to help improve the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of government, and all of them have achieved bipartisan support. The list can be found at www.nolabels.org.
The American people are tired of the hyper-partisanship and ideological gridlock in Washington. They want their elected officials to start solving problems and generating some results. Hopefully this Friday the 13th won't involve another fiscal failure and lost opportunity. America and Americans deserve more from their elected officials.
Project Syndicate | December 2, 2013
Corporate tax reform is one of the few issues that garner bipartisan support in a deeply divided US Congress. The current system, all agree, is deeply flawed: the corporate tax rate is too high by global standards, and the corporate tax base is too narrow, owing to numerous credits, deductions, and special provisions that distort economic decisions.
But there is significant debate about how to fix the system. One major area of disagreement is how to tax the foreign earnings of US multinational companies (MNCs), a disagreement highlighted by the recent proposals issued by Senator Max Baucus, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
The current US system is based on a worldwide principle: the foreign earnings of US companies are subject to US corporate tax, with the amount owed offset by a tax credit for taxes paid in foreign jurisdictions. Most other developed countries, by contrast, have adopted “territorial” systems that largely exempt their MNCs’ foreign earnings from home-country taxation.
MNCs headquartered in countries that employ a worldwide tax system are at a disadvantage when they compete in third-country markets with MNCs headquartered in territorial systems. Whereas US MNCs must pay the high US corporate tax rate on profits earned by their affiliates in low-tax foreign locations, MNCs headquartered in territorial systems pay only the local tax rate on such profits.
For example, when a US firm and a firm headquartered in a territorial system compete in a country where the local tax rate is 17%, the foreign firm owes 17% of its profits in taxes to the local country, while the US firm owes 35% of its profits in taxes – 17% to the local country plus 18% to the US. That difference translates into a sizeable cost advantage that allows the foreign firm to charge lower prices and capture market share from its US counterpart.
Current US law attempts to offset this competitive disadvantage through deferral: US MNCs are allowed to defer – potentially indefinitely – payment of US corporate tax on their foreign earnings until the earnings are repatriated to their US parent firms. Not surprisingly, most US MNCs take advantage of the deferral option for at least some of their foreign earnings.
As a means of bringing back this estimated $1.7 trillion in foreign earnings, the Senate Finance Committee’s draft proposals suggest the elimination of deferral. However, faced with the threat to their competitiveness that this would pose, many US MNCs would shift their headquarters to countries with lower corporate tax rates and territorial systems.
The global competitiveness of US MNCs and where they are based matter to the health of the US economy. Despite the rapid growth of foreign markets, US MNCs still locate significant shares of their real economic activities – about 65% of their sales, 68% of their employment, 70% of their capital investment, and 84% of their R&D – at home. Much of their domestic activity – particularly R&D, which has significant local spillover benefits – is related to their headquarter functions. And foreign direct investment by US MNCs is not zero-sum: it encourages rather than reduces employment, investment, and R&D in the US.
Deferral is essential to maintaining US MNCs’ competitiveness as long as the US relies on a worldwide corporate-taxation system. But deferral is not without significant costs for US MNCs and the US economy alike. Deferred earnings held abroad are “locked out” of the US economy, in the sense that they are not directly available for domestic use by US MNCs and their shareholders.
Moreover, deferral distorts corporate balance sheets and capital-allocation decisions. For example, firms may use earnings held abroad as collateral to take on more debt and incur higher borrowing costs at home. Or they may use these earnings to make investments abroad that yield a lower return than investments at home. Overall, such efficiency costs are estimated to be 1-5% of deferred earnings, rising as deferrals accumulate.
As the Senate Finance Committee’s draft proposals suggest, the US should jettison its worldwide approach to corporate taxation and adopt a territorial system for taxing US MNCs’ foreign earnings. Such a system would provide a level playing field that supports US MNCs’ global competitiveness. It would also eliminate the efficiency costs of deferral and boost US MNCs’ repatriation of foreign earnings, with significant benefits for output and employment.
Based on recent research that incorporates conservative assumptions, we estimate that under a territorial system US MNCs would repatriate an additional $100 billion a year from future foreign earnings, adding about 150,000 US jobs a year on a sustained basis. We also estimate that under a transition plan for taxing the existing stock of foreign earnings held abroad, similar to one proposed by US Representative Dave Camp, US MNCs would repatriate about $1 trillion of these earnings, adding more than $200 billion to US GDP and about 1.5 million US jobs over the next few years. These are significant gains for an economy that is still operating far below potential, remaining about 1.5 million jobs short of its pre-recession employment level.
A territorial tax system does have one potential disadvantage: it could strengthen US MNCs’ existing incentives to shift their profits to lower-tax jurisdictions. Competitive cuts in corporate tax rates, the spread of tax havens, and the rising importance of easily movable intangible capital have already made these incentives more powerful. Recent studies find growing segregation between where MNCs locate their real economic activities and where their profits are reported for tax purposes.
Income shifting and the resulting erosion of domestic tax bases pose serious challenges, and countries with territorial systems have adopted tough countermeasures to combat them. If the US moves to a territorial system, it should follow suit. A modern territorial system with adequate safeguards against income-shifting and base erosion is the right approach to taxing the foreign earnings of US MNCs.
U.S. News and World Report | November 25, 2013
Conventional wisdom about the outcome of the Budget Conference Committee – co-chaired by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican, and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, a Democrat – is that nothing much will happen. At best, they will cut a small-bore deal to avoid another government shutdown or debt crisis before the congressional elections in November. They will fail to enhance near-term growth or tackle the tax and entitlement reforms needed to stabilize future debt increases. The excuses are: the challenges are too big, time is too short and conferees don’t have the legislative tools to do anything substantial.
Time for the conferees is short, but they have the option of buying more time for the big decisions. The challenges are huge, but the consequences of failure are even worse. Most important, the conferees have a legislative tool – reconciliation – at their disposal that enables them to find a lasting solution, if they have the will to do so.
The conferees could agree on a short-term package to overturn the fiscal year 2014 sequestration caps that are punishing the recovery and making it hard to deliver the government services that both parties want. That would already be an important step in the right direction. But there is an opportunity to do more. At the same time, conferees could issue reconciliation instructions to the committees of the House and Senate to make fundamental, phased-in changes in taxes and entitlements. Such instructions could set a date in March 2014 as the day for committees to respond to the instructions with long-term, pro-growth changes in taxes and entitlements that would stabilize and begin to reduce the ratio of U.S. debt to the size of the economy.
Both sides fear reconciliation. Republicans fear it will lead to higher revenues. Democrats fear it will lead to future reductions in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits. In other words, both are afraid to even discuss the changes needed to grow the economy faster and start the nation’s debt accumulation on a downward path. Both are afraid to do more than kick the proverbial can down the road one more time.
But fear is not a strategy. All of the bipartisan budget strategy groups, including the Debt Reduction Task Force that we co-chaired at the Bipartisan Policy Center, have proposed reforming income taxes to enhance economic growth and raise more revenue without raising tax rates. They also recommended slowing the growth of health care entitlements by making care delivery more efficient and preserving Social Security for future retirees by making the program solvent. The budget conferees have an opportunity to change the dismal trajectory of:
- Defense sequesters that will make America more vulnerable in an increasingly armed world;
- Domestic sequesters that are "eating our seed corn," diminishing investments in health, education, science and infrastructure;
- A quick return to increasing debt that slows future growth and requires ever-increasing resources for debt service.
We do not underestimate the difficulty of finding common ground in our polarized political environment. It has been more than a quarter of a century since a divided Congress – one chamber Democratic and one Republican – has been able to reach a budget agreement. This fact alone shows that the challenges for bipartisan progress remain imposing. But the challenges can be met – time is sufficient, obstacles can be overcome and legislative tools exist.
However, only the active engagement on a sustained basis by the president and by congressional leadership can achieve a breakthrough. As Presidents Clinton and Reagan showed, if an executive is willing to use the bully pulpit, fiscal paths can be changed, fear notwithstanding.
In the last three years, the president and Congress have done three things: avoided a fiscal cliff of their own making; avoided a debt default danger of their own making; and continued the prospect of lurching from one budget crisis to the next without solving underlying problems. Now is the time to shift to the real issues. Negotiations should focus on existing entitlement promises that cannot be met with the current system and on a simplifying a tax code that is now anti-growth.
Are we naïve?
Maybe, although we combine about 90 years of work in the fiscal arena. Perhaps we are both nostalgic for negotiations when fear was pushed aside and leaders risked rejection. We have experienced agreements that came together even when time was short, the challenge huge and emotions high. We believe these conferees can do so as well if they have courage and party leaders have their backs.