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Q&A: Everything You Need to Know About a Budget Conference

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This year, Congress made it a priority to pass a concurrent budget resolution. Both the House of Representatives and Senate passed their own budget plans at the end of March, and now they must work through the differences in the two budgets through a budget conference committee. This week, both chambers began the process and appointed conferees to serve on the committee.  Below, we explain how this budget conference will work, and what it intends to accomplish.

What is a budget conference?

A budget conference is a process by which the House and Senate iron out the differences in the budget resolutions they each passed separately to arrive at a unified “concurrent budget resolution” that each chamber will then adopt. The leaders of each party and budget committee in both houses choose members to participate in the conference committee.

Over what time period will the conference negotiate?

According to the Budget Act of 1974, which created the current budget process, a budget conference is supposed to be completed and the resolution passed by both chambers by April 15th. Obviously, Congress has not met this deadline – and indeed it is routinely missed. However, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) and House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) have already been negotiating ahead of a formal conference, and formal negotiations will begin shortly now that conferees have been named. A formal meeting of the conference committee will occur on April 20th, after which a timeline for completion may become clearer.

Who is in the budget conference?

The budget conference committee will consist of 30 lawmakers – 22 from the Senate and 8 from the House of Representatives. Of the Senate members, 12 are Republicans and 10 are Democrats (including two independents caucusing with Democrats). Of the House members, 5 are Republicans and 3 are Democrats. The conference committee is chaired by Representative Tom Price (R-GA) and Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), and includes Representatives Diane Black (R-TN), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), John Moolenaar (R-MI), Gwen Moore (D-WI), Todd Rokita (R-IN), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and John Yarmuth (D-KY) and Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Bob Corker (R-TN), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Angus King (I-ME), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), David Perdue (R-GA), Rob Portman (R-OH), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Mark Warner (D-VA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
 

Report: CBO's Analysis of the President’s FY 2016 Budget

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Today, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its re-estimate of the President’s FY 2016 budget, using its own economic and technical assumptions. While CBO generally shows lower debt in the near term than the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) did, it also shows debt on a slight upward path as a share of GDP after 2020. Thus, it is less likely that the budget would stabilize debt over the long term, as OMB’s projections showed.

According to CBO, debt held by the public in the President’s budget would reach 73.1 percent of GDP by 2025, 1 percentage point lower than in 2014 (and about what OMB estimated), but 1 percentage point higher than in 2020. In dollars, debt would rise from about $13.1 trillion today to $20.1 trillion by 2025.

CBO projects debt under the President’s budget would be $1.1 trillion lower than in CBO’s current law baseline in 2025. Those savings can be mostly attributed to two factors: increased revenue and reductions in war spending that are largely already expected to occur.

CBO projects annual deficits would fall from $486 billion (2.7 percent of GDP) in 2015 to $380 billion (2.0 percent of GDP) in 2016 before rising in every subsequent year to over $800 billion (2.9 percent of GDP) by 2025. Both spending and revenue will be growing as a share of GDP over this period, but spending will increase slightly faster, from 20.5 percent in 2015 to 22.1 percent in 2025, while revenue will rise from 17.8 percent to 19.2 percent. These increases are the result of both current law trends and policy changes proposed in the President’s budget.

CBO estimates deficits through 2025 will be $206 billion higher under the President’s budget than OMB estimates, with more than the entire difference ($345 billion) coming from differences in economic projections. In the other direction, $139 billion of technical differences reduced deficits relative to what OMB estimated. In addition, using CBO’s GDP instead of OMB’s results in the 2025 debt-to-GDP ratio being one percentage point higher.

Ultimately, CBO shows that while the President’s budget responsibly offsets its new spending, it does not go far enough in reducing the debt to ensure fiscal sustainability over the long term.

Read the full paper below, or download a printer-friendly version here.

Report: Analysis of the President’s FY 2016 Budget

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Today, the President released his FY 2016 budget, laying out his priorities and proposals for the coming year. The budget includes policies and initiatives to reform immigration, taxes, and Medicare, while promoting early and higher education, reducing low-income and middle-class taxes, repealing a portion of future sequester cuts, and implementing other tax and spending changes.

Our main findings from the budget are:

  • The President’s budget includes sufficient revenue and spending cuts to pay for his new initiatives and reduce deficits by about $930 billion relative to current law over the next decade. Relative to the President’s baseline, the budget includes $2.2 trillion of deficit reduction.
  • Based on its own projections, debt under the President’s budget would remain relatively stable as a share of GDP, reaching 73 percent of GDP in 2025 compared to 74 percent today. In dollar terms, debt will rise from about $13 trillion today to over $20 trillion by 2025.
  • Deficits under the President’s budget would remain steady over the course of the decade at about 2.5 percent of GDP each year.
  • Between 2015 and 2025, spending will grow from 20.9 percent of GDP to 22.2 percent and revenue from 17.7 percent of GDP to 19.7 percent. Historically, they have averaged 20.1 and 17.4 percent, respectively.

Interest costs alone, in the budget, will grow from under $230 billion (1.3 percent of GDP) today to nearly $800 billion (2.8 percent of GDP) in 2025.

The President’s budget should be commended for responsibly identifying tax and spending offsets sufficient to pay for new spending and tax cuts, and setting aside additional savings for deficit reduction beyond that.

However, the budget does far too little to reduce current debt levels nor slow the growth of entitlement spending over the long-run. Under the President’s budget, debt remains roughly twice as high as in 2007 and higher than any time in history other than around World War II. Meanwhile, Social Security and Medicare remain on paths toward insolvency and both programs – along with interest spending – will continue to grow rapidly.

Ultimately, significant entitlement reforms will be necessary to put the debt on a sustainable path. And the longer we wait to enact these reforms, the larger and more abrupt they will need to be.

Update (2/4): Figure 3 has been updated to incorporate official Treasury Department estimates on the extension of the refundable tax credit expansions.

Report: CBO's January 2015 Budget and Economic Outlook

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The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its Budget and Economic Outlook today, showing their budget and economic forecasts through 2025. After falling to post-recession lows below $470 billion this year and next, CBO projects deficits will again start to rise, exceeding $1 trillion by 2025.

Over the next decade, CBO projects deficits of $7.6 trillion (3.3 percent of GDP), with deficits growing from a low of $467 billion (2.5 percent of GDP) in 2016 to $1.09 trillion (4.0 percent of GDP) by 2025.

As a result, debt will rise over the next decade, from $13 trillion today to $16.6 trillion at the end of 2020 and $21.6 trillion by the end of 2025. As a share of GDP, debt will remain stable at current post-war highs of about 74 percent of GDP through 2020, but then rise continuously to almost 79 percent of GDP by 2025 and continue to grow unsustainably over the long run.

The gloomy debt and deficit outlook is the result of rising spending and relatively flat revenue collection. Despite discretionary spending falling as a share of GDP, Social Security, health care, and interest spending will grow substantially, pushing spending from 20.3 percent of GDP in 2015 to 22.3 percent by 2025. At the same time, revenue will remain roughly flat at near 18 percent of GDP through most of the next ten years, reaching 18.3 in 2025.

Compared to their prior projections, released last August, deficits are about $175 billion lower through 2024 – almost entirely due to changes in 2016 through 2018. However, long-term economic projections have also worsened – with nominal GDP about 1 percent lower in 2024 – resulting in a slightly higher debt-to-GDP ratio by 2024.

Even these projections assume that lawmakers do not enact new deficit-increasing policies. If they act irresponsibly and extend temporary policies and repeal scheduled cuts, debt would be much worse and could reach 88 percent of GDP by 2025.

Overall, CBO’s baseline shows a fiscal outlook which is clearly unsustainable. Correcting this course will require reducing the gap between spending and revenue by enacting serious tax and entitlement reforms. The longer policymakers wait, the more difficult they will find it to put our fiscal house in order.

The Better Budget Process Initiative: Improving Focus on the Long Term

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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:

  1. Require long-term estimates for significant legislation
  2. Codify rules prohibiting legislation from increasing long-term deficits
  3. Allow long-term savings targets for reconciliation
  4. Establish a second-five-year test for PAYGO
  5. Require annual budget documents to include long-term information
  6. Expand the use of accrual accounting where appropriate

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