Other CRFB Papers

Op-Ed: Tax Reform: A Real Possibility and Necessary

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 Baucus and Hatch are a clear step forward and may be the last chance for reforming our inefficient and outdated tax code.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.

Report: Analysis of CBO’s 2014 Budget and Economic Outlook

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Note: The paper's mention of the change in deficits from 2015 to 2024 has been corrected.

Op-Ed: Helping the Budget $150 Billion at a Time

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.

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