Deficits and Debt
The Hill | October 29, 2013
The recent budget showdown was both completely predictable and totally avoidable, as was the resulting damage to our economy and public confidence in our government. Not only did the shutdown and debt-ceiling standoff slow growth, waste money and inhibit basic governmental functions, but it distracted from the real issue: the long-term debt challenge facing our nation.
It is time for leaders to break the cycle of bouncing from crisis to crisis by taking three common-sense steps: Stop the madness, start talking and solve the problem.
Reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling was a good start in at least putting the madness on hold, and agreeing to establish a conference committee on the budget resolution will help facilitate a start of discussions. Our leaders must now find a way to make these discussions fruitful both in terms of slowing the growth of our debt and ending the practice of operating the world’s largest economy on a month-to-month basis.
We suggest deliberations should start by identifying areas of agreement. There seems to be broad-based support for reforming farm subsidies, modifying the federal worker retirement system and charging user fees that better reflect the actual costs of certain government programs. Savings in these areas could be used to soften the blow of the mindless sequestration over the next year or two and allow appropriators to fund defense and non-defense discretionary programs at more reasonable levels.
Trading across-the-board, temporary and anti-growth cuts for more targeted and permanent savings would represent an important step, but negotiators must resist the temptation to declare victory with such a “small ball” approach.
As Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf recently warned, despite some improvements, “the fundamental federal budgetary challenge has hardly been addressed.” A budget conference that does not make progress in this area will not have lived up to its potential.
And progress could indeed be made if leaders start talking to each other instead of talking at each other. The two parties have been close to agreement in the past, and there is more potential for common ground than either side realizes.
Both sides have taken encouraging steps toward a principled compromise. The budget President Obama put forward earlier this year incorporated some tough choices and politically difficult compromises, including adopting a chained Consumer Price Index to measure inflation more accurately and achieving significant savings from Medicare. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently identified a number of areas of potential agreement in an op-ed, including means-testing Medicare premiums, modernizing Medicare cost-sharing rules and pursuing pro-growth tax reform.
Building from some of these policies and concepts, any responsible plan must have a few key elements. It should slow the rate of growth in federal healthcare spending by enacting structural reforms that improve incentives for all parties. It should eliminate unwarranted subsidies and low-priority spending while reducing fraud and improving the way we index the federal budget to inflation. It should protect and enhance important investments and support for low-income individuals. It should put in place a process that allows House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to pursue comprehensive tax reform that cuts tax preferences to lower rates, promotes growth and reduces the deficit. Finally, it should find a way to reform Social Security on a separate track to make the program financially sound for future generations.
Savings from these policies should be used both to reduce the mindless cuts from sequestration and help to stabilize and reduce the debt as a share of the economy. A plan large enough to at least stabilize the debt could also be used to justify a permanent indexing of the debt limit, which would put an end to the repeated political brinksmanship by eliminating the need to pass debt-ceiling increases so long as the debt remains on a sustainable path.
Earlier this year, the two of us put forward a plan — built on the progress made in previous bipartisan negotiations — to achieve $2.5 trillion in savings, replacing the sequester with smarter, more gradual deficit reduction that would avoid disrupting a fragile economic recovery while putting the debt on a clear downward path relative to the economy over the next 10 years and beyond. Importantly, the plan would achieve this deficit reduction while respecting the principles and priorities of both parties. It called for significant savings from entitlement reforms, but with important protections for low-income and vulnerable populations. Likewise, it proposed additional revenues for deficit reduction, provided that those revenues be achieved through pro-growth tax reform and not higher marginal income rates.
The proposal we put forward is not our ideal plan, and it is certainly not the only plan. We also recognize that it may not be possible to reach a bipartisan agreement on a plan as aggressive as the one we put forward. But so far, we have done the easy stuff (raising taxes on the wealthy and calling for unspecified cuts in discretionary spending) and we’ve done the stupid stuff (across-the-board cuts under sequestration). Now it’s time to do the tough stuff and the smart stuff: reforming our entitlements and tax code.
Policymakers should seek to reach agreement on a framework that at a minimum stabilizes the debt as a share of GDP. Reaching such an agreement will require Democrats to accept some structural reforms of entitlements, and will require Republicans to use a portion of revenues that will result from simplifying the tax code for deficit reduction, instead of using all savings to reduce tax rates. But such an agreement is achievable.
It is going to take real political courage on both sides to come together to find common ground. The problem is real, the solutions are painful, and there is no easy way out. But there is room for a solution if both parties commit to stop the madness, start talking and solve the problem.
The Hill | October 9, 2013
We are on a collision course with financial calamity. A first-time-ever failure to extend the federal debt limit would lead to higher interest rates not only for the U.S. government, but also for every business, home, car, student and personal loan in America. The looming debt ceiling — and the ongoing government shutdown — is causing harmful uncertainty around the world and here at home.
But there is a way out.
It’s right in front of us. Bipartisan proposals have been advanced to get America back on track. Whether it is Simpson-Bowles, Domenici-Rivlin or even where President Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) left off their negotiations two years ago, there are common elements in all of these plans that could be implemented now to bring this crisis to a close.
Here are the common elements:
- Extend the debt limit for at least one year, preferably two, without condition. That aligns with Obama’s position that we not negotiate on the debt limit.
- Do the negotiating within the context of a continuing resolution to fund the government and end the shutdown.
- Agree to the Republican funding level of $988 billion for this fiscal year.
- Agree on a process for individual and corporate tax reform next year. The goal should be to reduce rates and raise additional revenue to go toward deficit reduction. A reasonable goal would be $300 billion to $400 billion in additional revenue over the next 10 years.
- Agree to additional savings in Medicare and other healthcare accounts by better coordinating care, especially of the chronically ill. A reasonable target would be $300 billion to $400 billion over the next 10 years.
- Take the savings from numbers 4 and 5 above and use them to cut in half the effects of the sequester.
- Adopt “chained CPI” as a more accurate measure of inflation that both reduces spending and raises revenue. The combined effect is a savings of about $250 billion over the next 10 years
- Repeal the medical device tax of 2.3 percent, about which no one seems enthusiastic.
- Name a commission to reform Social Security to ensure its long-term solvency. The longer we wait, the more draconian the solutions will have to be.
Of course, neither party would be completely happy with all of these proposals. However, it’s not really a “bargain” if neither side has to give up things on its wish list.
We can do this. We can end the shutdown, resolve our debt crisis and put America back on a more sustainable course for the future. Let’s do it!
Correction: This paper originally stated that the Social Security trust fund is projected to be exhausted in 2033. The combined Social Security and Disability (OASDI) trust funds are actually projected to be exhausted two years earlier, in 2031.
The Hill | September 17, 2013
For more than a decade, I have dedicated myself to sounding the alarm about our government’s fiscal mismanagement and promoting a change in course to preserve the American Dream for future generations. Now I am ending my full-time efforts so others can take the lead, especially younger Americans who have the most at stake.
The task ahead will be challenging, but based on what I’ve seen and heard, especially in my travels to all 50 states, we have more reason for hope than despair. Here’s why:
We the People are in charge.
Today we have a government that is neither representative of nor responsive to the American people. That can change if Americans insist on accountability and punish unduly partisan and ideological politicians in the voting booth.
The truth is, President Obama—like President Bush (43) before him—has failed to use the powers of his office to champion responsible reforms to the American people. And our leaders on Capitol Hill, both Republican and Democrat, have shown an appalling lack of courage in standing up to the extreme wings of their parties. As long as Republicans kowtow to those resisting any increases in revenue—despite a tripling of our national debt in the last decade—and Democrats knuckle under to those refusing to rein in the unsustainable costs of our social insurance systems, we will remain in political gridlock.
More than anyone else, I have gauged the will of my fellow citizens when it comes to fixing our government’s financial mismanagement—most recently in a nationwide bus tour through 27 states last fall. Their verdict could not be clearer. In gatherings across the country, with participants of every political stripe, we obtained 92 percent agreement on six key principles to guide a fiscal “grand bargain.” The reforms should lead to economic growth, and be socially equitable, culturally acceptable, mathematically accurate, politically feasible, and able to achieve meaningful bipartisan support. When we discussed specific reforms, most conservatives and liberals were willing to put aside ideology as long as proposals were deemed to be fair and part of a comprehensive plan.
That tells us that politicians in Washington can gain the public support they need for bold reforms as long as they explain our urgent need to act and then lay out responsible positions. I am convinced that over time political courage and leadership will be rewarded—and cowardice will be punished.
More policymakers are focused on the issue.
There is a growing roll call of present and former government officials who recognize the need to achieve a fiscal grand bargain. During Comeback America Initiative's (CAI) tour last fall, which engaged Americans on our nation’s deteriorating financial condition, we had the explicit support of, among others, two former chairmen of the Federal Reserve, two former chairs of the RNC and DNC, former directors of the Office of Management and Budget, and a who’s who of former governors, senators and representatives from both parties.
It is also clear from recent news reports that President Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would like to strike a deal on a grand bargain. An increasing number of members are also acknowledging the reality that the status-quo is unacceptable and unsustainable. Hopefully, we will reach the tipping point where enough politicians in Washington will put the good of the country before the next presidential election.
More organizations have joined the cause.
CAI has been far from alone in its efforts. The Concord Coalition and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget have pushed for fiscal responsibility for a number of years, and now they are joined by newer organizations like Fix the Debt, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and The Institute for Truth in Accounting. The group No Labels is pushing for a new politics of bipartisan problem-solving, and the Government Transformation Initiative is a coalition of corporations, non-profits and others dedicated to changing the way government does business. There is even a Millennial-led organization, The Can Kicks Back, which is mobilizing young people to fight for their fiscal future. The grassroots efforts of these and other organizations, coupled with the pressures they’ll bring to bear in Washington, will augur well for our future.
Clearly the hole we have dug ourselves is deep, and getting deeper, and our political system is badly broken. But I am hopeful about our ultimate prospects for success. We the People have awakened, and Washington is slowly waking up, too. If we act boldly and responsibly, our best days will surely lie ahead.
The Hill | September 9, 2013
After an August in the countryside or their states or somewhere around the world or Martha’s Vineyard, the president and the Congress are back in Washington.
One hopes they are ready to govern -— because this period from now until the end of the year may be the last legitimate opportunity to do just that before the next election cycle begins in earnest.
The debate about Syria is on the center of the global stage but there is really only one domestic issue that needs to be addressed in this period: the budget and the debt.
With both the end of the fiscal year occurring and the debt ceiling needing reauthorization, it is difficult to comprehend how the issues that underlie and drive both of these events would not be taken up with fervor and a real intent to get something done.
At the center of these issues is of course the fact that we continue on the path of piling up an unfathomable amount of spending that is not paid for. The expenditure is made possible only through borrowing and passing the bills on down the line.
It is true the deficit has dropped a great deal in the last six months. It is also true that the sequester, if allowed to continue to operate, will cut that deficit even further. But no great solace should be taken from either fact, even though certainly on their faces they represent positive movement.
The fact that the deficit is down by over half from its high point is like saying that a person who has fallen off a tall building is doing “OK” when they are only halfway down.
The deficits at their present level still remain the highest in the post-World War II period. At the present rate of compounding, our debt will have tripled by the end of the decade from where it stood at the start of the Obama presidency. Our debt as a percentage of GDP will still be going up at what is generally accepted to be a bankruptcy-in-waiting rate.
Another positive sign of fiscal restraint on its face is the fact that the sequester is continuing to be executed. During the next fiscal year, which starts in October, it will begin to significantly affect domestic discretionary spending. But, it has to also be obvious that this is not the right way to get our fiscal house in order.
The sequester does save money and it does cut spending, but it does it in the wrong places, in the wrong way and at the wrong time.
The issue has never been discretionary spending. This is especially true after the almost trillion dollars in cuts put in place with the agreement reached in the summer of 2011.
The issue has always been entitlement spending and how to change the major entitlement programs so that they can be put on a glide path to sustainability, even as they still serve as a necessary safety net for seniors.
The sequester is an arbitrary, non-programmatic approach that will actually retard economic growth in the short run and most likely negatively effect revenues as a result.
Entitlement reform, such as changing the CPI calculation and the process for reimbursing Medicare costs, will actually create economic growth. It will show people that we are willing to address the real problems behind our debt and thus release all sorts of investment and economic activity.
Of course, all these points which have been made by many and which are obvious to most mean nothing if we do not have a government that functions and moves forward with answers and action.
The next few months are what could be called the “big casino” of governing.
The president either steps up and leads or his presidency ends up on a road to nowhere.
The Republican House either joins in with a constructive effort or else people will ask what is its purpose is when they are next on their way to a polling place.
As for the Senate, it just needs to get a nod, not even a verbal expression, from Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to the senators meeting in the basement that he will give them a pathway to action if they can come up with a bipartisan agreement. They can do this.
The folks are back in Washington. One presumes they came back to do something. Or is that too optimistic?
Financial Times | July 23, 2013
Sir, Edward Luce says that “Simpson and Bowles are wrong about the US debt” (July 15) but he gets it wrong describing their position. In reality, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles are not as far off from Mr Luce as he implies.
Mr Luce describes the debt as a “medium-term threat”, which is the position of Mr Simpson and Mr Bowles and Fix the Debt as well. Our contention is that the US should put in place now a plan addressing the debt that can be phased in over time. Such an approach would be preferable to the steep sequestration cuts that rightly concern Mr Luce. A long-term, comprehensive approach would also include tax reform and curbing healthcare and retirement costs as Mr Luce admits would be ideal.
The threat to Social Security’s solvency is not as hypothetical or as far off as Mr Luce argues. The trustees who oversee the vital programme have been warning for years that the retirement of the baby boomers will put a strain on the programme as more workers receive benefits and fewer contribute to it. As the saying goes, “demography is destiny”. The choices facing policy makers will become increasingly unpleasant the longer action is delayed. Waiting until a crisis is imminent will require harsh solutions such as across-the-board cuts for all beneficiaries, including the poorest seniors. In addition, Social Security’s Disability Insurance Program Trust Fund will be exhausted in just three years, underscoring the fact that this is not a distant concern.
Furthermore, Mr Luce’s implication that addressing the debt versus the economy is a zero-sum game is false. There’s no reason why we can’t do both. In the commission report and the plan they recently put forward, Mr Simpson and Mr Bowles stress the importance of phasing in deficit reduction gradually to avoid harming the economic recovery. Indeed, that is the reason to act now to replace the immediate austerity from sequestration with policies that will reduce the deficit over time. In fact, putting in place a smart, credible debt plan would likely boost the economy by showing markets we are serious about dealing with the long-term debt.
Ultimately, Mr Luce’s condemnation is more geared towards a US political system that is seemingly capable of dealing only with immediate crises as opposed to Mr Simpson and Mr Bowles, who are challenging the system.
Judd Gregg, Former US Senator and Co-Chair, Campaign to Fix the Debt