Other CRFB Papers

The PREP Plan: Paying for Reform and Extension Policies

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In the coming months, Congress and the President will face a number of important decisions with significant fiscal implications. Specifically, they must decide how to address “Sustainable Growth Rate” (SGR) cuts, which threaten to significantly reduce Medicare physician payments next April, and 55 “tax extenders” that expired at the end of last year.

If policymakers address these two issues irresponsibly, they could add up to $1 trillion to the debt over the next decade. Yet policymakers could also use these moments to make a down payment toward tax and entitlement reforms that slow health care cost growth, speed economic growth, and help put the debt on a sustainable long-term path.

To responsibly address the Sustainable Growth Rate, policymakers should:

  • Permanently replace the SGR with a value-based payment system
  • Fully offset any costs relative to current law
  • Enact offsets that bend the health care cost curve and are gimmick-free

To responsibly address the expired tax extenders, policymakers should:

  • Address most tax extenders permanently in the context of tax reform
  • Fully offset the cost of any continued extenders without undermining tax reform
  • Include a fast-track process to achieve comprehensive tax reform

There are many ways to achieve these goals. The Paying for Reform and Extension Policies (PREP) Plan represents one such approach. We assume, but don’t endorse, the Tricommittee SGR bill and two years of tax extenders and propose $170 billion of SGR offsets that bend the health care cost curve, $83 billion of extender offsets that improve tax compliance, and a fast-track process for tax reform. Offsets would total $250 billion over ten years.

Summary of the PREP Plan (Costs/Savings over Ten Years)

Enact Tricommittee SGR Reform $170 billion
Extend "Tax Extenders" to 2015
$83 billion
Reform Provider Incentives
-$80 billion Improve Tax Enforcement -$35 billion
Reform Beneficiary Incentives -$80 billion  Close Tax Avoidance Loopholes -$45 billion
Reduce Medicaid Costs -$10 billion  Restrict Inversions -$3 billion
Total Offsets -$170 billion Total Offsets  -$83 billion
Set Up Fast Track Process for Comprehensive Tax Reform TBD
Ten-Year Deficit Impact : $0

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Report: Deficit Falls to $483 Billion, but Debt Continues to Rise

Original October 8th: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected the FY 2014 budget deficit at $486 billion.  While the CBO works closely with Treasury to come up with their estimates, CBO's report was preliminary.

The FY2014 budget deficit totaled $483 billion, according to today’s statement from the Treasury Department. Although this is nearly 30 percent below the FY2013 deficit and 66 percent below its 2009 peak, the country remains on an unsustainable fiscal path.

In this paper, we show:

  • Annual deficits have fallen substantially over the past five years, largely due to rapid increases in revenue (mostly from the economic recovery),  the reversal of one-time spending during the financial crisis, small decreases in defense spending, and slow growth in other areas.
  • Simply citing the 66 percent fall in deficits over the past five years without context is misleading, since it follows an almost 800 percent increase that brought deficits to record-high levels. 
  • Even as deficits have fallen, debt has continued to rise, more than doubling as a percent of GDP since 2007 to record levels not seen other than during a brief period around World War II.
  • Both deficits and debt are projected to rise over the next decade and beyond, with trillion-dollar deficits returning by 2025 and debt exceeding the size of the economy before 2040, and as soon as 2030.

Unfortunately, the recent fall in deficits is not a sign of fiscal sustainability.

The Deficit in FY2014

According to the Treasury Department, the federal deficit totaled $483 billion in FY2014 (an initial estimate from the Congressional Budget Office on October 8th estimated the deficit at $486 billion), with $3.02 trillion of revenue and $3.50 trillion of spending. The figure below largely reflects CBO’s estimates rather than Treasury’s final numbers.

Since 2009, the budget picture has changed significantly, with deficits falling by 66 percent, from $1.4 trillion to slightly under $500 billion. This reduction was driven largely by the 44 percent (roughly $900 billion) increase in tax collections, primarily a result of the economic recovery, which has helped restore revenues as a share of GDP from their depressed 2009 levels to about their historical average. New taxes from the American Taxpayer Relief Act and the Affordable Care Act have also played a role.

At the same time, nominal spending is nearly $15 billion lower than in 2009, even as the economy grows, and inflation erodes its value. The decreases are largely driven by the absence and reversal of financial rescue and economic recovery spending through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the stimulus, though defense spending has also fallen. Most other categories of spending have grown in nominal terms; however, Medicare, non-defense discretionary spending, and interest costs have grown more slowly than was expected.

Importantly, at $483 billion (2.8 percent of GDP), last year’s deficit was still substantially higher than the pre-recession deficit of $161 billion (1.1 percent of GDP) in 2007.

Deficits Fell From Record Levels But Will Rise Again

A 66 percent drop in annual deficits since 2009 is certainly significant, but when put in context it is less impressive than some would suggest. The rapid fall was from record-high levels and followed a rapid increase. At $1.4 trillion, the 2009 deficit was the highest ever as a share of the economy except during World War II (and in real dollar terms, the highest in history), having increased 779 percent from 2007 as a result of the Great Recession and measures enacted to combat it.

Moreover, while legislated spending reductions, tax increases, and other factors played a role, the end of trillion-dollar deficits was mostly the expected result of the economic recovery and the fading of measures intended to boost the recovery. As unemployment rates have fallen and GDP recovers, revenue collection has risen to more normal levels and countercyclical spending in areas such as unemployment insurance and food stamps has begun to subside. Meanwhile, stimulus and financial rescue measures enacted to speed the recovery have mostly wound down.

Unfortunately, even with these gains, the deficit remains more than three times as high as in 2007 (1.7 percentage points higher as a percent of GDP) and is projected to grow over time. Under CBO’s current law baseline, annual deficits will return to trillion-dollar levels by 2025. Under their more pessimistic Alternative Fiscal Scenario, the deficit will reach $1.5 trillion in 2025, exceeding the nominal-dollar record set in 2009.

As Deficits Fall, the Debt Keeps Rising

Arguably the most important metric of a country’s fiscal health is its debt-to-GDP ratio. And unfortunately, even as deficits have fallen the last five years, debt has grown. Indeed, over the same period that deficits fell by 66 percent, nominal debt held by the public grew by 69 percent – from $7.5 trillion to $12.8 trillion. As a percent of GDP, debt has grown extremely rapidly, from 35 percent of GDP in 2007 to 52 percent of in 2009 and to over 74 percent in 2014.

Falling deficits have not prevented the debt from growing; rather, they have only slowed down the growth trend. While the debt-to-GDP ratio may stabilize for a few years, debt is projected to continue growing faster than the economy over the long run. As the population ages, health care costs grow, and interest rates rise to more normal levels, CBO projects debt will rise from 73 percent of GDP in 2018 to 77 percent of GDP by 2024, and will exceed the size of the economy before 2040. Under CBO’s Alternative Fiscal Scenario (AFS), debt will exceed the size of the economy before 2030.

Conclusion

The fact that deficits have fallen from their trillion-plus dollar levels is an encouraging sign that the economy continues to recover. Unfortunately, Washington’s myopic focus on short-term deficits has likely slowed the recovery by cutting deficits somewhat too fast in the short term while leaving substantial imbalances in place over the long term.

While the deficit has indeed dropped significantly, this drop followed a massive increase, was largely expected, and does not suggest the country is on a sustainable fiscal path. Currently, debt levels are at historic highs and projected to grow unsustainably over the long run.

In only a decade, deficits are projected to again exceed $1 trillion, and within 15 to 25 years debt is projected to exceed the entire size of the economy.

Policymakers must work together on serious tax and entitlement reforms to put debt on a clear downward path relative to the economy, not declare false victories and sweep the debt issue under the rug.

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Report: Analysis of CBO's Updated Budget and Economic Forecast

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Today, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released updated budget and economic projections for the coming decade, showing today’s record-high debt levels continuing to rise over the next decade. The report focuses on a “current law” baseline, which assumes policymakers break with the current practice of deficit-financing extensions of various expired or expiring policies. Even under this somewhat optimistic scenario, CBO shows the following:

  • In nominal dollars, deficits will grow from $506 billion in 2014 to $960 billion in 2024, and debt will grow from $12.8 trillion to $20.6 trillion.
  • As a percent of GDP, debt will stabilize around its post-World War II record high of 74 percent through 2020, before rising to above 77 percent of GDP by 2024.
  • Deficits will remain below 3 percent of GDP through 2018, but rise to 3.6 percent of GDP by 2024.
  • Federal revenues will stabilize at about 18 percent of GDP, while spending will grow from 20.4 percent of GDP in 2014 to 21.8 percent in 2024.
  • The fastest growing part of the budget is interest payments, which will rise from 1.3 to 3.0 percent of GDP by 2024. Spending on the major health and retirement programs will grow from 9.8 to 11.5 percent of GDP.
  • Compared with prior estimates, CBO expects the economy to be somewhat weaker, mostly due to 2014 growth being 1.2 percentage points lower.
  • Compared with prior projections, CBO expects the debt to be about $400 billion lower in 2024, reaching 77.2 percent of GDP rather than 78 percent.
  • If extrapolated forward, we find CBO would project debt to exceed the size of the economy before 2040 and reach nearly 150 percent of GDP by 2060.

CBO continues to show an unsustainable outlook for federal debt, even under current law. Under CBO’s Alternative Fiscal Scenario, where Congress extends various expiring tax provisions, continues “doc fixes,” and eliminates sequestration, debt would reach 85.7 percent of GDP in 2024 instead of 77.2 percent. Lawmakers will therefore need to strictly abide by pay-as-you-go rules and take steps to control the growth of entitlement spending, while enacting other tax and spending reforms to put debt on a downward path over the long run.

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Report: Analysis of the 2014 Social Security Trustees' Report

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See our followup blog series for additional information on the Trustees Report not included in the analysis below.

The Social Security and Medicare Trustees released their annual reports today on the finances of both programs. The reports are an annual reminder of the action lawmakers should take to ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare – both of which continue to face large and growing shortfalls. With regards to Social Security, the Trustees show that:

  • The Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund is on the brink of insolvency, and is projected to be exhausted in 2016 – just 2 years from today. Absent legislation, beneficiaries in that program would face an immediate 19 percent across-the-board benefit cut.
  • Assuming reallocation or interfund borrowing, the combined Old Age, Survivors’, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) trust fund is projected to be exhausted in 2033. At that point, absent reform, all beneficiaries would face an immediate 23 percent across-the-board benefit cut.
  • Over 75 years, Social Security’s actuarial imbalance totals 2.88 percent of taxable payroll, or 1.02 percent of GDP. This is modestly higher than the 2.72 percent of taxable payroll (0.98 percent of GDP) imbalance that the Trustees reported last year.
  • The gap between Social Security spending and revenues is projected to grow from 1.3 percent of payroll (0.45 percent of GDP) this year to 3.9 percent of payroll (1.4 percent of GDP) by 2035 and 4.9 percent of payroll (1.7 percent of GDP) by the end of the 75-year window.
  • This report represents the fourth straight year where the 75-year shortfall has increased. In the 2010 report, the shortfall was estimated at 1.92 percent of taxable payroll, but it is now about fifty percent larger at 2.88 percent.

Although the projections have worsened somewhat, Social Security’s long-term outlook is fundamentally unchanged. The DI trust fund will be insolvent in just two years, and the old-age trust fund by the time today’s 48-year-olds reach the normal retirement age – or when today’s 60-year-olds turn 79. The report sends a clear signal on the need for lawmakers to act promptly to reform and secure the Social Security programs for current and future generations

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See the full paper below, or download it here.

Report: The 2014 CBO Long-Term Budget Outlook

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The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) today released its 2014 Long-Term Budget Outlook, detailing the budget picture for the next 75 years. The report shows debt rising as a share of the economy continuously after 2017, a trend which CBO describes as unsustainable over the long run.

Under the Extended Baseline Scenario (EBS), which assumes that policymakers allow temporary spending and tax provisions to expire and do not further increase deficits in the years ahead, debt held by the public will rise from 74 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2014 – a post-war record – to 108 percent by 2040, 147 percent by 2060, and 212 percent by 2085.

This dramatic rise in debt assumes policymakers act in a fiscally responsible manner. The Alternative Fiscal Scenario (AFS), which assumes that policymakers will increase spending and reduce taxes compared to current law, shows a steeper climb in debt – to 170 percent of GDP by 2040, and by our calculations to 330 percent by 2060, and 620 percent by 2085.

Despite legislation in recent years to raise revenue and reduce spending – particularly discretionary spending – the long-term debt situation remains far from solved. Health and retirement programs will continue to grow faster than the economy at a quicker pace than revenue growth, leading to growing deficits, rising interest costs, and ever-rising debt levels.

Policymakers should act quickly to put in place tax and entitlement reforms to put debt on a sustainable long-term path. The longer we wait to act, the more severe the consequences and the more painful the choices will be.

See the full paper below, or download it here.

Trust or Bust: Fixing the Highway Trust Fund

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Congress is facing two upcoming deadlines regarding surface transportation programs. At the end of September, the current authorization for highway programs expires and must be renewed. More immediately this summer, the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) will have insufficient funds to continue operating. Failing to replenish this trust fund will cause serious disruption and bring many transportation projects to a stand-still. On the other hand, allowing the HTF to continue to spend beyond dedicated revenue could worsen an already dismal federal debt situation. Fortunately, there are responsible ways forward.

Highway spending has exceeded gas tax and other dedicated revenues regularly over the past decade, and this shortfall will only grow over time. Dedicated revenues currently fund less than three-quarters of total HTF spending, a concern that lawmakers have addressed in recent years by transferring $54 billion of mostly general tax revenue into the HTF (only $15 billion was paid for and partially with a gimmick). In FY2015 alone, highway spending could exceed revenues by nearly $15 billion, and over the next decade that gap will approach $170 billion.

There is broad bipartisan support for funding highways and other transportation infrastructure, which can both help to create jobs in the near-term and enhance long-term economic growth by fostering commerce, communication, tourism, and trade. Unfortunately, policymakers have so far been unable to agree on how to pay for desired levels of highway spending. In the coming months, Congress and the President must identify and agree to a fiscally responsible solution to close the HTF shortfall.

The best approach to address the shortfall would be a long-term highway bill that aligns dedicated revenues with transportation spending. Transferring funds from general revenue into the HTF would be an acceptable alternative if and only if those funds were fully offset with real spending cuts and/or tax increases elsewhere in the budget. Under no circumstance should lawmakers rely on a deficit-financed (or gimmick-financed) general revenue transfer to fund the HTF.

In addition to addressing the funding shortfall facing our highways, policymakers should use the highway bill to ensure better prioritization of funding projects and, importantly, to reform the budgetary treatment of highway spending. The HTF has a unique treatment in the budget, making it immune to the normal forms of budget discipline that ensure policymakers account for the full costs of legislation they pass.

See the full paper below, or download it here.

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Update: We've corrected the paper for a typo since publication. The original paper cited that a VMT of 18.5 cents per mile would provide enough revenue to replace all transportation taxes and fully fund the HTF. The correct figure is 1.85.

Update 6/30/14: We previously reported the necessary cushion for smooth reimbursements to the states at $6 billion, but a more recent letter from CBO indicates the figure is $5 billion.

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.

If a concurrent budget resolution does not pass both chambers, each house then may adopt legislation “deeming” 302(a) allocations – a practice which has become increasingly common in recent years. For example, the recent Bipartisan Budget Act directed the Budget Committee Chairs in the House and Senate to set the 302(a) limit for FY2015 at $1.014 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 FY2014 regular (non-war, non-disaster) appropriations, along with the President’s budget request for FY2015 and House FY2015 302(b) allocations for each of the subcommittees.

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 1?

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 will often pass a continuing resolution, 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 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. Congress often provides broad authority, which gives agencies more control in allocating spending.  However, 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. Agencies 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, in other cases leaving the amount 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?

Both the Senate and House have deemed their 302(a) allocations at $1.014 trillion for regular appropriations pursuant to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. Currently, both chambers are working on writing and passing individual appropriations bills. To follow the progress of individual appropriations bills throughout the process, see our Appropriations Watch: FY2015.

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