The budget process focuses on the short term, often at the expense of longer-term considerations. This distortion allows policies to be crafted in ways that mask their true costs, and produces results that downplay looming fiscal challenges. The short-term focus leads to many poor outcomes, such as emphasis on short-term deficit reduction (with little improvement in the long-term fiscal outlook), the use of “timing gimmicks” designed to obscure the budgetary impact of policy choices, and the reliance on one-time savings are to ensure “deficit neutrality” within a budget window but deficit increases beyond it.
The short-term focus also causes policymakers to undervalue policies which produce modest savings in the near term but grow significantly over time, including changes to gradually slow the growth of health and retirement programs, or that exempt current beneficiaries of a given program or tax break.
In addition, the short-term focus has led many in Washington to brag that the fiscal situation is under control based on a short-term improvement in the deficit despite the fact that the debt is projected to grow faster than the economy over the medium and long term. (see Deficit Falls to $483 Billion, but Debt Continues to Rise)
The short-term emphasis is the result of both an overreliance on ten-year budget windows for scoring and analysis, and insufficient enforcement of long-term fiscal goals. Modifying the rules governing the budget process could be a powerful tool to help correct this myopic thinking. We suggest several possible remedies:
- Require long-term estimates for significant legislation
- Codify rules prohibiting legislation from increasing long-term deficits
- Allow long-term savings targets for reconciliation
- Establish a second-five-year test for PAYGO
- Require annual budget documents to include long-term information
- Expand the use of accrual accounting where appropriate
One of the first and most important priorities Congress should be agreeing to a budget resolution conference report that lays out a framework for pursuing priorities and addressing issues in a fiscally responsible manner before making major decisions on spending or revenues. We recommend that Congress move forward under regular order, while adhering to the following principles when crafting a budget resolution.
1.Put the Debt on a Downward Path
- Propose revenue and spending targets sufficient to put the debt on a downward path as a share of the economy over the medium- and long-term
- Make realistic and gimmick-free assumptions to achieve this goal
2.Responsibly Address Upcoming “Fiscal Speed Bumps”
- Recognize and address the need to raise the federal debt limit
- Include a plan to fully offset reforms to the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR)
- Provide for a plan to make solvent the Highway Trust Fund
- Set achievable and responsible discretionary spending levels and offset any sequester relief with more permanent and thoughtful savings
- Responsibly address tax extenders, preferably through tax reform
3.Provide for Tax and Entitlement Reform, Using Reconciliation Where Appropriate
- Include significant and achievable savings targets to slow the growth of Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs, along with credible examples to achieve these savings and reconciliation instructions to facilitate deficit reduction
- Include language promoting Social Security reform designed to make the program as a whole solvent and avoid the pending insolvency of the SSDI program
- Call for pro-growth tax reform that is preferably revenue-generating and at least revenue-neutral relative to current law; and include mechanisms to provide for prompt action on tax reform
- Focus on the long term by prioritizing savings that grow over time and avoiding timing shifts that would result in higher deficits beyond the budget window
4.Strengthen Budget Enforcement
- Strengthen prohibitions of timing shifts, phony savings, and other budget gimmicks
- Tighten rules exempting Overseas Contingency Operations costs from budget limits
- Prohibit the passage of legislation that would increase deficits in the long term
In the coming months and years, lawmakers will face a number of important budget-related deadlines, or Fiscal Speed Bumps, that will require legislative action. These Fiscal Speed Bumps will present challenges, risks, and opportunities. Addressed irresponsibly, they could cause serious disruptions and/or add as much as $3 trillion to the debt over the next decade above what current law would allow. But if dealt with thoughtfully, they offer an opportunity to pursue reforms that would grow the economy, improve the policy landscape, and reduce the risk of an uncontrollably growing national debt.
We have identified six major speed bumps this year and one next year that is significant enough that it should be dealt with in 2015. These speed bumps include:
- Expiration of the CR funding Homeland Security (February 27, 2015)
- Reinstatement of the debt ceiling (March 16, 2015/Fall 2015)
- Expiration of the “doc fix” and return of the SGR (March 31, 2015)
- Expiration of the highway bill, insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund (May 31, 2015)
- Expiration of 2015 appropriations, return of sequestration (October 1, 2015)
- Deadline to renew tax extenders retroactively (December 31, 2015)
- Insolvency of the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund (late 2016)
In Fiscal Speed Bumps: Challenges, Risks, and Opportunities we discuss each of these moments in detail, put them into historical context, and explain the options available to policymakers as they navigate these speed bumps.
Each of these Fiscal Speed Bumps must be addressed to avoid a major disruption and in each case, unfortunately, addressing the issue irresponsibly could substantially worsen an already unsustainable fiscal situation.
Instead, policymakers should use these speed bumps as opportunity to pursue responsible changes that result in better policy, a stronger economy, and a more sustainable long-term debt path.
Read the full paper below, or download a printer-friendly version here.
Note: The paper has been updated from its original posting to clarify that the $3 trillion difference in debt is above what current law allows (assuming trust funds cannot borrow) rather than CBO's baseline.
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.