Policy Paper

Sequester Offset Solutions (SOS) Plan

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Download a 1-page summary of the plan.

Update 9/16/2015: The appendix was corrected to accurately describe the proposed change to federal employee retirement contributions.

The Gathering Storm: Fiscal Clouds Amass This Fall

In early 2015, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) warned of the upcoming Fiscal Speed Bumps, explaining “lawmakers will face a number of important budget related deadlines…that will require legislative action.”

Inaction and postponed deadlines have created a gathering storm where Congress and the President must address four remaining Fiscal Speed Bumps before the end of the year:

  • The end of 2015 appropriations and return of sequester caps (October 1)
  • The expiration of the highway bill and insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund (October 30 & Summer 2016)
  • The exhaustion of extraordinary measures to avoid raising the Debt Ceiling (mid-Fall)
  • The deadline to renew tax extenders retroactively (December 31)

Although deadlines vary, political considerations may cause lawmakers to combine these issues – leading to a double, triple, or even quadruple cliff.

An irresponsible approach could add up to $2.5 trillion to the debt by 2025 above what current law allows, after interest. Instead, lawmakers should take advantage of this gathering storm to make sensible reforms to improve policy, accelerate economic growth, and address the overall fiscal situation.

Appropriations End. Sequester-Level Caps Return (October 1)

When the government’s fiscal year ends on September 30, so too will the laws that provide discretionary dollars. In theory, Congress is supposed to pass 12 appropriations bills before October in order to fund the government for Fiscal Year 2016 (FY 2016). However, the House has passed only six so far, while the Senate has not passed any. Failure to pass appropriations bills or a Continuing Resolution (CR) would result in a government shutdown.

Assuming policymakers avoid a shutdown, they will still need to decide at what level to fund the government. The Ryan-Murray Bipartisan Budget Act set spending levels for only FY 2014 and FY 2015. For FY 2016, current law spending caps will be dictated by automatic spending reductions commonly referred to as the “sequester.”

Under sequestration spending levels, nominal discretionary caps will rise only $3 billion (0.3 percent) next year – and remain about $90 billion below the pre-sequester caps set in the Budget Control Act. A number of policymakers and outside analysts have called for repealing or reducing the impact of this sequester.

Permanent sequester repeal would cost $1 trillion before interest over the next decade – although policymakers could enact a partial and/or temporary reduction of the sequester cuts. In any case, lawmakers should fully offset the costs with more thoughtful permanent savings that grow over time, without relying on gimmicks.

Legislation increasing the discretionary caps could also be accompanied by budget process reforms to strengthen their enforcement and restrict the use of gimmicks – such as the use of the Overseas Contingency Operations in the Congressional budget to effectively circumvent the defense caps. We describe such reforms in Strengthening Statutory Budget Enforcement.

In September, CRFB will release a plan to replace a portion of the sequester cuts over the next two years and on a permanent basis with savings elsewhere in the budget.

To learn more, read Everything You Should Know About Government Shutdowns, Appropriations 101, and Understanding the Sequester.

Highway Bill Expires and Trust Fund Runs Low (October 30 & Summer 2016)

At the end of October when the current highway bill expires, no new funds may be obligated to transportation projects without additional legislation. If highway spending is continued at current levels without additional revenue, the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in the fourth quarter of FY 2016, or next summer.

Ultimately, policymakers should close the structural gap between dedicated tax revenue (e.g., the gas tax) and highway spending, which is projected to total about $13 billion this year and $175 billion through 2025. Preferably, this gap would be closed permanently with structural changes to revenue and/or spending, although a fully-offset general revenue transfer could be used to buy time, as it was this July.

CRFB released an illustrative plan in May: The Road to Sustainable Highway Spending, which included a fully-offset, short-term cash infusion into the trust fund, a process for tax and transportation reform, a scheduled 9-cent per gallon gas tax increase if alternatives were not identified, and a spending limit to keep future highway costs in line with revenue.

For more background, see our paper Trust or Bust: Fixing the Highway Trust Fund.

Federal Debt Ceiling is Reinstated (Mid-Fall)

The federal debt ceiling – which was suspended in February 2014 – was reinstated this March, limiting gross federal debt to its current level of $18.15 trillion. Through “extraordinary measures,” the Department of Treasury has been able to delay the need to address the debt ceiling even as the federal government continues to borrow. However, those measures are estimated to run out sometime after the end of October.

Policymakers must increase or suspend the debt ceiling to avoid a potentially disastrous government default, and should do so in a timely manner because waiting until the 11th hour could have negative economic consequences. At the same time, the debt ceiling can be – and in the past has been – an opportunity to take stock of the nation’s unsustainable fiscal situation and make fiscal reforms. An increase would ideally be accompanied with improvements to reduce the long-term debt.

Reforms to the debt ceiling itself should also be considered. Through our Better Budget Process Initiative, CRFB has presented a number of ideas for Improving the Debt Limit to better promote fiscal responsibility without generating as much economic risk.

To learn more about the debt ceiling, read Q&A: Everything You Should Know About the Debt Ceiling and Understanding the Debt Limit.

“Tax Extenders” Reach Reinstatement Deadline (December 31, 2015)

At the end of last year, over 50 temporary “tax extenders” expired. These include individual and business tax breaks for research and experimentation, wind energy, state and local sales tax, and many others.

Most are renewed regularly and can be reinstated retroactively through the end of 2015, and possibly later. Doing so for 2015 would cost over $40 billion before interest, and extending them into 2016 would cost about $95 billion. Many of these provisions have been enacted temporarily to hide their costs, but the price mounts if they are continued year after year. A permanent extension would cost roughly $500 billion through 2025 for traditional extenders, $245 billion for bonus depreciation, and $200 billion for expiring refundable credits – about $940 billion total, without factoring in interest costs.

Rather than add to the debt, lawmakers should use this deadline as an opportunity for comprehensive, pro-growth tax reform that simplifies the tax code, reduces tax rates and deficits, broadens the tax base, promotes growth, and makes thoughtful choices about how to address each tax extender. Last year, CRFB proposed the PREP Plan, which combined a temporary extension with a fast-track process for tax reform and offset the cost with tax compliance measures.

To read more about the tax extenders, see The Tax Break-Down: Tax Extenders.

* * * * *

The gathering fiscal storm facing our country this fall will require legislation to address the important budgetary issues mentioned above. We hope Congress and the President use this as an opportunity to improve, rather than worsen, the nation’s unsustainable fiscal situation.

Update 9/10/2015: This paper was updated for the Department of Transportation's announcement that the Highway Trust Fund would last through the third quarter of FY 2016, and updated to clarify when listed costs included interest.


Debunking 8 Social Security Myths on Its 80th Birthday

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August 14 marks the 80th birthday of the Social Security program, which was established in the Social Security Act of 1935. Over the past 80 years, Social Security has provided important cash benefits and income security to seniors, survivors, individuals with disabilities, and their families – including to nearly 60 million people today.

Yet Social Security is on a financially unsustainable course – and is not on track to be able to pay full benefits through its 100th birthday. Last year, the program paid $73 billion more in benefits than it raised from taxes. As the more of the baby boom population retires and Americans continue living longer, that gap is projected to grow – depleting the trust fund reserves of the disability program late next year and the old age program in the early- to mid-2030s. Failure to address the gap between spending and revenue could result in an immediate 19 percent cut to all workers with disabilities, and a 20 to 30 percent across-the-board cut to retirees.

Sadly, instead of identifying solutions to prevent depletion of the trust funds, many commenters have relied on myths and half-truths to avoid having a conversation about the necessary choices. In this paper, we identify eight such myths – though there are many more:

  • Myth #1: Social Security does not face a large funding shortfall
  • Myth #2: Today’s workers will not receive Social Security benefits
  • Myth #3: Social Security would be fine if we hadn’t “raided the trust fund”
  • Myth #4: Social Security cannot run a deficit
  • Myth #5: Social Security has nothing to do with the rest of the budget
  • Myth #6: We don’t need to worry about Social Security for 20 years
  • Myth #7: Social Security reform is code for slashing benefits, especially for the poor
  • Myth #8: Social Security is too hard to fix

Below, we debunk these myths in the hopes that an honest discussion of the facts will lead policymakers to come together and put Social Security on a sustainable path for the next 80 years.

See the full document below or download it here.

Update 8/17/2015: The original version of this paper described the changes needed to fix Social Security as “modest” while describing the changes that could gradually take place over time. We've updated the language to “incremental” for clarity.


Fiscal FactChecker: 16 Budget Myths to Watch Out For in the 2016 Campaign

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Update: The original version of this paper had a mathematical typo, saying that Medicare beneficiaries get, on average, 350% more out of the program than they paid in. The average beneficiary actually receives 250% more than they paid in, which is 350% of the taxes paid.

The Road to Sustainable Highway Spending

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The current legislation authorizing highway and mass transit spending is scheduled to expire at the end of May, and only a few months later the Highway Trust Fund will run out of reserves. Extending the life of the trust fund through the end of the year will require $11 billion, and extending it for a decade will require nearly $175 billion.

For over 50 years, federal highway spending had been financed with dedicated revenue, mainly from the gas tax. Since 2008, however, dedicated revenues have fallen short of spending, and policymakers have covered the difference with about $65 billion of general revenue transfers – often without truly paying for the cost. Those transfers are projected to run out before the end of the year, disrupting infrastructure spending across the county.

To maintain important infrastructure investments and avoid adding an additional $175 billion to the debt, Congress must identify responsible solutions to close the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. Fortunately, Congress has many options at its disposal to do so (see Appendix for more).

One solution that has recently gained popularity would rely on revenue generated from business tax reform to close some of the $175 billion gap. While this would be a sensible solution, tax reform will not pass before the current highway bill expires, and there is a risk it will not pass at all this year.

CRFB’s plan, The Road to Sustainable Highway Spending, would encourage the passage of tax reform while also ensuring the Highway Trust Fund remains adequately funded regardless of tax reform’s fate. The plan would:

  1. Get the Trust Fund Up to Speed ($25 billion) by paying the “legacy costs” of pre-2015 obligations with savings elsewhere in the budget.
  2. Bridge the Financing Gap ($150 billion) with a default policy to raise the gas tax by 9 cents after a year and limit annual spending to income.
  3. Create a Fast Lane to Tax Reform to help Congress identify alternative financing before the gas tax increase and spending limits take effect.

The Road to Sustainable Highway Spending would ensure the Highway Trust Fund remains solvent while giving policymakers flexibility to decide the level of highway spending and how it would be paid for. Our plan represents just one of many possible solutions. Importantly, any solution must responsibly address the gap between spending and revenue without resorting to gimmicks or deficit-financed transfers.

The full paper can be read below, or downloaded here. A 1-page summary is available here.

Updated Appropriations 101

What are appropriations?

Appropriations are annual decisions made by Congress about how the federal government spends some of its money. In general, the appropriations process addresses the discretionary portion of the budget – spending ranging from national defense to food safety to education to federal employee salaries, but excludes mandatory spending, such as Medicare and Social Security, which is spent automatically according to formulas.

How does Congress determine the total level of appropriations?

Under current law, after the President submits the Administration’s budget proposal to Congress, the House and Senate Budget Committees are each directed to report a budget resolution, which if passed by their respective houses, would then be reconciled in a budget conference (see Q&A: Everything You Need to Know About a Budget Conference). The resulting budget resolution, which is a concurrent resolution and therefore not signed by the President, includes what is known as a 302(a) allocation that sets a total amount of money for the Appropriations Committees to spend. For example, the conferenced budget between the House and Senate set the 302(a) limit for FY 2016 at $1.017 trillion.

In addition, discretionary spending is currently subject to statutory spending caps. The Budget Control Act of 2011 set discretionary caps through 2021, which were modified for 2013, 2014, and 2015 by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 and Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. Beyond 2015, the statutory caps set by the Budget Control Act are reduced by about $90 billion annually through an enforcement mechanism known as “sequestration” (see Understanding the Sequester) implemented after the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to produce legislation to reduce the debt.

How does Congress allocate appropriations?

Once they receive 302(a) allocations, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees set 302(b) allocations to divide total appropriations among 12 subcommittees, each dealing with a different part of the budget. Those subcommittees must then decide how to distribute funds within their 302(b) allocations. These 302(b) allocations are voted on by the respective Appropriations Committees but are not subject to review or vote by the full House or Senate. The table below lists the FY 2015 regular (non-war, non-disaster) appropriations, along with the House FY 2016 302(b) allocations for each of the subcommittees.

Source: House Appropriations Committee, Senate Appropriations Committee, CBO.

Each subcommittee must propose a bill that ultimately must pass both chambers of Congress and be signed by the President to take effect. Although the budget process calls for 12 individual bills, many of them are often combined into what is known as an omnibus appropriations bill and sometimes a few are combined into what has been termed a minibus appropriations bill.

How are appropriations levels enforced?

If any appropriations bill or amendment in either house exceeds the 302(b) allocation for that bill, causes total spending to exceed the 302(a) allocation, or causes total spending to exceed statutory spending caps, then any Member of Congress can raise a budget “point of order” against consideration of the bill. The point of order can be waived by a simple majority in the House as part of the rule for floor consideration of the bill and overridden by a 60-vote majority in the Senate. If, despite these points of order, Congress enacts legislation increasing spending beyond the defense or non-defense caps, then the President must issue a sequestration order to reduce discretionary spending across-the-board in the category in which the caps were exceeded, effective 15 days after Congress adjourns for the year. Importantly, certain types of discretionary spending – including for overseas contingency operations and for designated emergencies – do not count against the statutory caps.

What happens if funds are needed outside of the appropriations process?

Congress can pass a supplemental appropriations bill in situations that require additional funding immediately, rather than waiting until the following year’s appropriations process. Supplementals are often used for emergencies such as natural disasters or military actions. Occasionally, Congress has used supplemental appropriations to stimulate the economy or to provide more money for routine government functions after determining that the amount originally appropriated was insufficient. Supplemental appropriations bills are subject to the same internal and statutory spending limits as regular appropriations. They require the same offsets to ensure they do not exceed spending limits, unless designated as emergency spending.

What role does the President play in the appropriations process?

Although the President has no power to set appropriations, he influences both the size and composition of appropriations by sending requests to Congress. Specifically, each year the President’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) submits a detailed budget proposal to Congress based on requests from agencies. The appendix to the President’s budget submission contains much of the technical information and legislative language used by the Appropriations Committees. In addition, the President must sign or veto each of the 12 appropriations bills, giving him additional influence over what the bills look like.

What is the timeline for appropriations?

The 1974 Budget Act calls for the President to submit his budget request by the first Monday in February and for Congress to agree to a concurrent budget resolution by April 15th. The House may begin consideration of appropriations bills on May 15th even if a budget resolution has not been adopted, and is supposed to complete action on appropriations bills by June 30th. However, none of these deadlines are enforceable and they are regularly missed. The practical deadline for passage of appropriations is October 1st, when the next fiscal year begins and the previous appropriation bills expire. For a full timeline of the budget process, click here.

What happens if appropriations bills do not pass by October 1st?

If the appropriations bills are not enacted before the fiscal year begins on October 1st, federal funding will lapse, resulting in a government shutdown. To avoid a shutdown, Congress may pass a continuing resolution (CR), which allows for continued funding, providing additional time for completion of the appropriations process. If Congress has passed some, but not all, of the 12 appropriations bills, a partial government shutdown can occur.

What is a continuing resolution?

A continuing resolution, often referred to as a CR, is a temporary bill that continues funding for all programs based on a fixed formula, usually at or at least based on the prior year funding levels. Congress can pass a CR for all or just some of the appropriations bills. CRs can increase or decrease funding and can include “anomalies,” which adjust spending in certain accounts to avoid technical or administrative problems caused by continuing funding at current levels, or for other reasons.

What happens during a government shutdown?

A shutdown represents a lapse in available funding, and during a shutdown the government stops most non-essential activities related to the discretionary budget. To learn more, see Q&A: Everything You Should Know About Government Shutdowns.

Do agencies have any discretion in how they use funds from appropriators?

Executive branch agencies must spend funds provided by Congress in the manner directed by Congress in the text of the appropriations bills. Appropriations bills often contain accompanying report language with additional directions, which are not legally binding but are generally followed by agencies. And in some instances, Congress will provide for very narrow authority or can use funding limitation clauses to tell agencies what they cannot spend the money on. That said, Congress often provides broad authority, which gives agencies more control in allocating spending.  Agencies also have some authority to reprogram funds between accounts after notifying (and in some cases getting approval from) the Appropriations Committees.

What is the difference between appropriations and authorizations?

Authorization bills create, extend, or make changes to the law and specific programs and specify the amount of money that appropriators may spend on a specific program (some authorizations are open ended). Appropriations bills then provide the discretionary funding available to agencies and programs that have already been authorized. For example, an authorization measure may create a food inspection program and set a funding limit for the next five years. However, that program is not funded by Congress until an appropriations measure is signed into law. The authorization bill designs the rules and sets out the details for the program, while the appropriations bill provides the actual resources to execute the program. In the case of mandatory spending, an authorization bill both authorizes and appropriates the funding for a specific program, without requiring a subsequent appropriations law.

Where are the House and Senate in the current appropriations process?

The Senate and House have set a 302(a) allocation level of $1.017 trillion for regular appropriations pursuant to the budget conference agreement. The House has passed the agreement and the Senate is expected to do so in the near future. The House Appropriations Committee has issued the 302(b) subcommittee allocations (see table above), while the Senate has yet to do so. Currently, the House is passing individual appropriations bills through committee and has already begun floor consideration, while the Senate is holding subcommittee hearings. To follow the progress of individual appropriations bills throughout the process, see our Appropriations Watch: FY 2016.

Budget Process in the FY 2016 Budget Resolutions

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For additional budget process resources including specific options for reform, visit our Better Budget Process Initiative home page.

The Better Budget Process Initiative: Improving the Debt Limit

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For additional budget process resources including specific options for reform, visit our Better Budget Process Initiative home page.

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