Other CRFB Papers

Op-Ed: Now or Never on Debt Issue

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?

Op-Ed: Nation Does Not Need Another Government Shutdown

The Hill | September 6, 2013

The last real government shutdowns occurred in the winter of 1995.  Two funding gaps that winter resulted in a total of 26 days of hiatus when President Clinton battled it out with Speaker Gingrich and Majority Leader Dole over spending and taxes. While threats of government shutdown raised their head in 2011, 18 years have passed since anyone has really experienced a shutdown.

I had a ring side seat during the last shutdowns. I would advise against a repeat of the winter of 1995.
 
Surely members who were present in 1995 would agree. But how many current members have actually experienced a real government shutdown? The answer is only 1 in 5 current members of the 113th Congress were also members of the 104th Congress when the shutdowns occurred.  Specifically, only 88 members of the House of Representatives and 19 sitting senators were present for the last shutdown. Overall, only 107 of the 535 members might remember the challenge and heartaches of a real government shutdown.   That sad experience was generally shared between the parties, slightly more than half of these current members are Democrats, with only 45 current Republicans.
 
Fortunately, the four current leaders, Speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Pelosi (D-Calif.), as well as Senate Majority and Minority Leaders Reid (D-Nev.) and McConnell (R-Ky.) were on the scene in 1995. They should know no one benefited, neither political party, from the experience.  In the presidential and congressional elections that followed, Republicans lost 4 House seats, President Clinton won reelection over Senator Dole, and the Senate remained unchanged. The public’s respect for Congress was the real loss to our system of governance. The unfavorable rating of Congress increased over 5 points to 60 percent shortly after the 1995 shutdowns -- an unfavorable rating the current Congress would enjoy since today that metric tops 80 percent.
 
Besides the politics, the implementation of the shutdown was a major negative. One current Republican member, then chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Service of the House Oversight and Government Reform Rep. John Mica (R-Fl.), reviewed the 1995 shutdown in detail. Mica concluded that the execution of the shutdown by the agencies and the President’s Office of Management and Budget, was “disorganized and illogical, at best, and oftentimes chaotic.”  
 
Today, talk of shutting down government this fall (or worse defaulting on our public debt) has once again entered the political lexicon unless certain “demands” are met.  A key demand by some conservative Republicans is that President Obama’s signature health care legislation should be “defunded.” 
 
While I agree with many of those who have concerns about provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) , and wish health care reform could have been done with a more bipartisan approach that might have lessened the extreme divisions that exist today, to “defund” the law in any funding or debt limit bill or suffer the consequences of a government shutdown makes little sense to me.
 
First, most of the funding for the health care program is “entitlement” funding -- subsidies for families and individuals who purchase insurance on the exchanges, expansion of Medicaid and various Medicare benefits.  A continuing resolution (CR) deals with annually appropriated accounts, and even if some limited ACA authorized programs are subject to appropriations, eliminating their funding would not end the ACA at all. Congressional estimates of the programs subject to appropriations in the ACA total $100 billion over the next decade and $85 billion of that was simply to reauthorize programs that existed prior to the ACA.
 
While some appropriations will fund salaries of government employees who must administer the ACA, the 1995 government shut down illustrates that not funding government salaries does not guarantee employees will be furloughed.  In 1995, initially the Social Security Administration furloughed over 61,000 employees due to lack of government funding.  However, within a short time, nearly 5,000 were recalled to administer the processing and payment of social security benefits.  The basis for this decision lay in a 1981 Civiletti opinion that ruled that benefit payments (entitlements)  continue to be made and therefore the authority to administer those payments must also continue. 
 
Second, even if “defunding” on a House-passed CR could make it out of the Senate, which is extremely unlikely, it would be vetoed by the president and the veto would not be overridden. Then the government would shutdown.  But even more disconcerting for “defunding” proponents, if magically the president were to sign such legislation, because most of the funding for the law is not subject to annual appropriations, a government shutdown would be avoided but the key provisions of the ACA would continue. It would be a futile exercise; accomplishing nothing that advocates for defunding the law have sought.
 
The ACA should be amended if it is to achieve the goals of reducing health care costs, improving the quality of care delivered and ensuring coverage to those who are without health insurance. No legislation of this magnitude, impacting 20 percent of our economy could possibly be without fault. Had the legislation been considered under normal legislative procedures it is possible that some of the controversy surrounding it today would not exist.  Would of, should of, could of is in the past.  But “defunding” the program today will not accomplish the goal of those opposed to the law and it would further add chaos to implementing an already imperfect law this coming year.
 

Report: Social Security Reform and the Cost of Delay

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Update 8/11/15: We've updated this report with the new data available in the 2015 Trustees report in our blog.

Op-Ed: Neither The President Nor Congress Earned A Vacation This Summer

Forbes | August 21, 2013

Congress has left for its summer recess vacation at home. The President took his at Martha’s Vineyard. Based on legislative achievement, neither can be said to have earned time off. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea for both to depart the wearying, unproductive Washington battleground and rest up for the fall budget challenge.

Both need some relief from the intense frustration and animosity that have become Washington’s hallmarks. Congress, in particular, needs to hear from its constituents at home. The President always looks cool on TV, but in the toughest job on earth, he, too, needs occasional rest and family time.

While they rest and ponder the challenges of the rest of 2013, they will find that none of the problems which they have failed to solve in the first half of the year have not become any easier. Kicking the can down the road, as they have doing, buys some time, but it also makes solutions ultimately more costly and painful.

Because there weren’t many, adding up the successes of the first half of 2013 is easy. After the McConnell-Biden tax compromise that got us past the 2012’s fiscal cliff, our policy makers have done very little. For them it was 7 months of name-calling and blaming their opposition.

Their best effort was a reasonable college loan compromise. A responsible start to tax reform was begun by the chairmen of the Ways and Means and Finance Committees. And, after a confirmation dust-up, the Senate managed a filibuster compromise. For the people, that was pretty thin gruel for 7 months of work.

Just like in the stables, when the job is not done, work begins to pile up. The debt ceiling which reached its limit in May, has been postponed by clever manipulations at Treasury, but it will bite us sometime in the 4th quarter. No progress has been made there. Indeed, other than public statements of no concessions, the matter has hardly been discussed.

September 30 is the deadline for financing the government for Fiscal Year 2014. In its budget, the Senate dismissed the sequester. The House budget etched it in stone. There have been no real efforts to negotiate the differences yet.

No appropriations bills have been enacted, so another set of continuing resolutions will have to suffice, but the same budget differences  must be negotiated there. Perhaps the appropriators will be better negotiators than the budgeteers, but there is no evidence of that yet.

The sequester poses a similar, but slightly different, problem. Both parties, and nearly all the policy makers, believe it is a thoughtless way to cut expenses. There is general agreement that it must be modified, but no agreement as to how. The Senate insists on wishing it away. The House demands that the total spending reductions be maintained and that other cuts be substituted for the unwise “meat-axe” approach.

Tax reform activity, bravely started, has little chance of success this year, or even next year for that matter. It is highly desirable, but it probably can’t stand on its own feet. Democrats want revenue for “investments.” Republicans want lower tax rates, both corporate and individual.

Even if agreement can be reached on the thorny problems of what preferences to repeal, the question of investments versus rates can only be negotiated in a grand bargain of spending controls and tax reforms. Aware of the problem for many years, the policy makers have repeatedly proved they are unwilling to negotiate that “grand bargain.”

They prefer the “grand delusion” that their team will win the next election. Then they can do the budget their way. Observers with the best prediction records believe that divided government will continue after the 2014 elections. Nevertheless, the grand delusion continues to dominate both parties’ strategic thinking.

So, when the stalwarts at the Capitol and the White House return, fully rested, to face this fall’s version of the fiscal cliff, there is no indication that they are interested in negotiating a long term arrangement. They may be more relaxed after their vacation, but both sides remain adamant as they face a fiscal cliff as difficult as 2012.

The best possible outcome is almost certain be a “small deal” that solves none of the long-term problems. That will keep the can rattling down the road. Perhaps they all need a longer rest. We who must watch the exercise, need one too.

Op-Ed: Credible Debt Plan Would Boost the US Economy

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

Op-Ed: "Blank Slate" Key to Tax Reform

POLITICO | July 22, 2013

In the quarter century since Congress last reformed the Tax Code, back in 1986, it seems Washington has worked overtime to create the most inefficient and ineffective globally anti-competitive tax system humankind could dream up.

It’s time to start over — time to start with a blank slate.

The 1986 reforms accomplished a great deal to simplify the Tax Code and promote economic growth by eliminating tax preferences and using the resulting funds to lower the top rate to 28 percent. Unfortunately, those deductions, exclusions and other preferences have returned over the years in the form of approximately $1.3 trillion worth of annual backdoor spending that now litters the Tax Code.

This hidden spending complicates tax filing, distorts economic decision making and slows economic growth. It also means that despite a top individual rate of 39.6 percent, deficits are still far too high. The current Tax Code is badly broken.

The conventional wisdom holds that real reform — reform that reduces or eliminates tax preferences to cut tax rates, simplify the Tax Code, promote economic growth and help to control the national debt — is impossible as long as powerful interests continue to promote the status quo.

But conventional wisdom was turned on its head recently when the two leaders of the Senate tax-writing committee called for starting tax reform with a “blank slate.”

The bold proposal from Chairman Max Baucus and ranking member Orrin Hatch begins by eliminating each and every tax preference. Starting from scratch, as Sens. Baucus and Hatch propose, provides the single best chance to accomplish fundamental tax reform, which could be one of the best ways to get the economy moving.

On the Fiscal Commission (known colloquially as Simpson-Bowles), our decision to take a similar approach — we called it the “zero plan” — was a turning point that truly broke the partisan logjam. At the time, we found eliminating all tax preferences would allow the top individual rate to be reduced to 23 percent and the top corporate rate to 26 percent, while still dedicating some of the revenue to reducing the deficit.

This was a true game changer that made it possible for us to put forward tax reform that accomplished the Republican goal of substantially reducing rates and the Democratic goal of raising new revenue.

Importantly, starting from scratch doesn’t mean that all tax preferences will be eliminated. Instead, it puts the onus on advocates of tax preferences to justify their existence and it requires policymakers to pay for those add-backs with higher rates. We believe most will not pass the cost-benefit analysis and will either be eliminated or phased out. Those deemed to serve important public policy purposes can be added back more efficiently and cost-effectively — for example, by using credits instead of deductions.

On the Fiscal Commission, we put forward an illustrative tax plan that added back a number of tax expenditures in a scaled-back, better targeted form, and achieved a top rate of 28 percent. Former Congressional Budget Office and OMB Director Alice Rivlin and former Sen. Pete Domenici have their own tax plan that includes similar rate reduction. Both plans would increase the progressivity of the Tax Code and, importantly, both would help raise new revenue to help pay down the deficit.

With $1.3 trillion of annual tax preferences, there are plenty of funds available to lower rates, restore worthwhile tax preferences and contribute to deficit reduction. And if we design the reform right, it also can do wonders for economic growth.

Of course, tax reform can’t do all the work on its own. Any successful effort to truly unlock the U.S. economy’s potential must bring our rapidly expanding national debt under control, which means slowing the growth of our unsustainable entitlement programs to match revenues from tax reform, along with other cuts in spending.

Combining tax reform with a broader package, one that also replaces the mindless sequester cuts with larger and smarter spending cuts and entitlement reforms, would represent a tremendous accomplishment.

Agreeing on such a package will not be easy. But the efforts and leadership of Sens. Baucus and Hatch, along with the hard work Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp has done in the House laying the foundation for reform, make it seem more possible than it has in some time.

Starting with a blank slate doesn’t allow us to avoid the hard choices. But it does make them just a little bit easier. It lets us build the Tax Code we want, rather than chip away from the Tax Code we have. If members of Congress and the administration rise to the challenge, this country’s future will be a whole lot brighter.

Op-Ed: Should Social Security Cost-of-Living Increases be Trimmed?

CQ Researcher | July 18, 2013

Should we measure inflation as accurately as possible? Of course we should, particularly when the fiscal implications of measuring inaccurately are so large. The so-called chained Consumer Price Index (CPI), a far more accurate inflation index than the one used now, would better reflect retirees’ actual spending patterns and the cost increases they encounter. Economists from the left, right and center broadly agree on that, and their view is affirmed by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adopting this improved measure would also generate more tax revenue, slow government spending growth and strengthen the Social Security system. 

So how can anyone oppose this change? Some special interest groups do so for their own financial benefit, while others argue that seniors face faster price growth or the most vulnerable would be hurt by this change.

Yet alternative measures that purport to show seniors spending more are highly flawed — including in the ways they measure housing and health care — to the point that the CBO has concluded, “It is unclear...whether the cost of living actually grows at a faster rate for the elderly than for younger people.”

Even if a better measure were produced for measuring cost increases affecting only retirees, adopting it would raise serious fairness concerns. Should the one-third of Social Security beneficiaries who are not retirees receive smaller cost-of-living adjustments so seniors can receive larger ones? Should New Yorkers, with their high cost of living, receive a higher percentage than Detroiters? Should each government program get its own index or only those backed by powerful interest groups?

As for the most vulnerable, it makes little sense to measure inflation incorrectly for everyone in order to retain a desired windfall for the neediest. Doing so would cut taxes for the top 1 percent by $1,000 each in order to keep an average $20 tax cut for the lowest fifth. Instead, desired tax relief and benefit enhancements for the most vulnerable should be achieved through targeted reforms designed specifically to strengthen those populations.

Ultimately, the best thing we can do for the most vulnerable in society — at least within Social Security — is to make the program sustainable and solvent and avoid the 23 percent across-the-board benefit cut currently scheduled for when the program’s funds dry up. If we can’t even measure inflation correctly, how can we hope to make the hard choices necessary to keep Social Security funded for future generations?

Op-Ed: Grand Budget Bargain? No, Congress Would Prefer To Fight

Brookings | July 8, 2013

Barring a miracle, budget bargains, either grand or petty, are not in the cards this year. The Congress would prefer to fight. It is happily at war with itself over immigration, student loan interest rates, the farm bill, energy policy and the like. The president has abandoned his charm offensive, and is chasing other butterflies.

With no other candidates in sight, it is not surprising that tax reform has re-emerged as the major economic issue in Washington.

In the Senate, Finance Chairman Baucus and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Hatch, announced that they would soon begin work on a tax bill. The Senators intend to start clean, with a bill stripped bare of all tax preferences. Senate Finance Committee members were warned that they would have to amend that bill with any preferences they wished to restore or add.

Ways & Means Chairman Camp is still working assiduously to build consensus in his Committee. The members are well prepared, and thoroughly briefed, but there is no bill yet. Camp’s start may well be quite like that of Baucus and Hatch.

The “fresh start” approach is a splendid idea, one that was suggested in the Simpson-Bowles report. Both Bowles and Simpson have come out strongly in support the Senate process. Other tax reform advocates have similarly blessed the announced process. 

However, huge obstacles remain. No process, however inspired, can overcome the fact that tax reform is still an essential part of a budget bargain. Each party’s sharply conflicting budget visions are dependent on tax reform. The Democrats need tax reform to fund their “investments” and control their deficits. The Republicans need it for tax cuts to stimulate growth.

Those differences mean that a stand-alone tax reform bill is almost impossible. Tax reform is too big a part of the budget to move by itself. It must be a part of the budget bargain. A good start is welcome because, at best, tax reform is a difficult and time-consuming effort. But, it will remain inextricably linked to a budget agreement. If there is no budget agreement, there will be no tax reform.

Therefore, it is folly for tax reformers to get over-enthusiastic now. Sens. Baucus and Hatch, and Rep. Camp, ought to be commended for bravery, and encouraged. They have a couple of years of hard work ahead of them with a high risk of failure.

A budget bargain requires negotiation and compromise on macro-accounts. Thereafter, the details can be thrashed out by the various committees. Tax reform has the same negotiation requirements, but, in addition, each petty little micro-detail has to be worked out in advance of passage. The devil is said to lurk in the details, and tax reform is the epitome of detail.

Perhaps an even greater problem is timing. A budget agreement and tax reform need to march together. If a tax bill is perfected long before a budget agreement is made, it will be subjected to a furious attack from all the losers in the preference game. No bill, however cleverly constructed, can withstand the full fury of a strong lobby scorned.

Tax reform’s last lap around the track was in 1986. Then, legislative leaders of both parties were guilty of conspicuous cooperation in the quest for tax reform. They, and the president, perceived that the bill was good for the country and for both political parties. That attitude won’t appear again at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue until there is some budget agreement.

There is none now. Funding the government for FY ‘14 will be by Continuing Resolution(s). The debt ceiling, which has to be settled this fall, could be a major crisis and another train wreck for the economy. House Republicans, who lost that debate in 2011, still see value in the debt ceiling even though the President has declared it “non-negotiable.”  Even budget “hawks” are beginning to despair that this is not the year for budget compromise.

So let the Finance and Ways and Means Committees begin the tax reform process with the good wishes of tax reform advocates. Just don’t expect the exercise to be crowned with success until Congress is ready to deal with the larger budget issue.

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