The Center's work on 'Federal Budget' Issues

The Center informs the debate over federal budget priorities by analyzing the President’s budget and major congressional proposals throughout the annual budget process. We pay particular attention to the adequacy of funding for programs that assist low- and moderate-income families. We also analyze long-term budget challenges and measures to address them. In addition, we promote measures to improve fiscal responsibility.


4 Reasons Why the House Has the Wrong Approach to Tax Extenders

November 20, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Congress is expected during the lame-duck session to address “tax extenders,” a set of tax provisions (mostly for corporations) that policymakers routinely extend for a year or two at a time.  While the Senate has pursued temporary extensions, the House has taken a far different approach that’s flawed on both policy and priorities grounds, as our updated paper explains.

The House has: made a number of extenders permanent; permanently expanded one of the biggest extenders, the research and experimentation credit; and permanently extended some temporary tax breaks that aren’t extenders — such as “bonus depreciation,” which lets businesses take larger upfront tax deductions for purchases like machinery.  (A temporary measure to help revive a weak economy, bonus depreciation is largely ineffective.)   But it hasn’t offset any of the considerable costs.

The House approach would:

  1. Undo a sizeable share of the savings from recent deficit-reduction legislation. At a combined ten-year cost of $312 billion, the nine extenders provisions that the House Ways and Means Committee has passed this year would give back two-fifths of the $770 billion in revenue raised by the 2012 “fiscal cliff” legislation.  (The full House has already approved seven of these, costing $235 billion.)  House Republicans also are pushing to make permanent an expanded version of bonus depreciation in an extenders package; adding this to the nine Ways and Means provisions pushes the total ten-year cost to $588 billion, or roughly three-quarters of the revenue raised in the “fiscal cliff” legislation.
  2. Constitute a fiscal double standard. Failure to pay for making the extenders permanent would contrast sharply with congressional demands to pay for other budget initiatives, from easing the sequestration budget cuts to extending emergency unemployment benefits for long-term unemployed workers.  While demanding that spending measures be paid for, the House is pushing for permanent, unfinanced tax cuts that would cost much more.
  3. Bias tax reform against reducing deficits. If policymakers make the extenders permanent before they enact tax reform, a tax reform plan wouldn’t have to offset their cost to be revenue neutral.  This would free up hundreds of billions of dollars in tax-related offsets over the decade that policymakers could then channel toward lowering the top tax rate.  The resulting package would lock in substantially larger deficits than under revenue-neutral tax reform that paid for the extenders or let them expire.
  4. Place corporate tax provisions ahead of other, more important tax provisions scheduled to expire. Most notably, key elements of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit will die at the end of 2017 unless policymakers act, pushing more than 16 million people in low-income working families, including 8 million children into — or deeper into — poverty.  When policymakers consider which expiring tax provisions to continue, they should give top priority to making those key low-income provisions permanent.

Will Congress Shortchange the Census?

November 18, 2014 at 3:06 pm

A key question as Congress finalizes funding for this fiscal year is whether it will give the Census Bureau what it needs to prepare for the next census in 2020.  A House-passed funding bill from June fell far short, as we explained then.  In its final spending measure, Congress should acknowledge that the Census Bureau — as it has in past decades — must prepare early to get the nation’s head-count right.

As seven former Census Bureau directors from both Democratic and Republican administrations recently wrote Congress:

While the 2020 Census might seem far off . . . 2015 is a pivotal year for decisions that will determine the efficacy of promising, but complex, new initiatives [to improve quality and cut costs]. . . . These new initiatives show great promise, but they need to be tested thoroughly and in census-like environments to confirm their efficacy.

Much is at stake, including the quality of the data to allocate congressional seats, draw voting districts, allocate hundreds of billions of dollars a year in federal funding, and help businesses know where to open stores and towns know where to open schools.  The census is also the foundation for other household surveys, which give policymakers and the public vital data on issues from poverty to commuting patterns.

Congress markedly boosted Census funding in the fifth year before the 2000 and 2010 censuses to enable the Census Bureau to prepare.  (See graph.)  But the House funding bill for 2015, five years before the 2020 census, gives the Census Bureau $238 million less than it requested.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a bill with more adequate funding, though roughly $62 million less than the Census Bureau requested.

Under pressure from Congress to cut costs, Census has committed to conduct the 2020 census for the same cost as the 2010 census, despite inflation, population growth, and the growing tendency of busy Americans to ignore surveys.  The Census Bureau says it thinks it can still conduct a successful census, but only if it can test new software, methods, and machinery before then.   Shortchanging this essential preparatory work would be penny wise and pound foolish.

Finalizing 2015 Funding

November 18, 2014 at 2:20 pm

We just issued several short pieces on congressional negotiations over funding levels for this fiscal year. They explain:

  • Why Congress shouldn’t pass another stopgap funding bill but instead agree on funding levels for the rest of the fiscal year.
  • Why 2015 will almost inevitably be another year of shrinking real (inflation-adjusted) resources for non-defense discretionary programs, which include everything from law enforcement and homeland security to veterans’ medical care, scientific and medical research, public health, education, and environmental protection.
  • Why the Senate approach to 2015 funding for non-defense discretionary programs better protects domestic priorities than the House approach.
  • Why the President’s requested funds to respond to the Ebola epidemic shouldn’t count against the 2011 Budget Control Act’s funding caps.
  • Why Congress should give the Census Bureau what it needs to prepare for the next census in 2020.

“Dynamic” Estimates Are Highly Uncertain, Subject to Manipulation

November 17, 2014 at 5:10 pm

An American Action Forum event today to promote “dynamic scoring” for tax and spending legislation unintentionally illustrates what Chye-Ching Huang and I explain in a newly updated paper:  estimates of the macroeconomic effects of policy changes — which is what dynamic scoring would include — are highly uncertain and subject to manipulation, so they shouldn’t be part of official cost estimates.

In reasonably balanced remarks, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said that “we should not expect dynamic scoring to produce outsized miracles from either the supply side or the demand side.”

But Tax Foundation President Scott Hodge, in giving his organization’s estimates of the effects of several tax proposals, promised just such miracles.  According to Hodge, cutting the corporate income tax rate or allowing full expensing of investments (that is, allowing firms to deduct the investments’ full cost from their taxable income up front, rather than depreciating it over the investments’ lifetime) would more than pay for itself by boosting economic growth and, in turn, tax revenues.

That’s highly implausible.  But it shows how advocates can manipulate assumptions or cherry-pick dynamic-scoring estimates to buttress their agenda.  Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) did the same thing when he cited only the most optimistic of many “dynamic” estimates in touting the benefits of his tax reform proposal, as our paper and the graph below show.

A Dangerous Way to “Fix” American Government

October 21, 2014 at 4:21 pm

“A dangerous proposal is circulating in states across the country that could widen political divisions and jeopardize cherished rights and freedoms,” CBPP President Robert Greenstein explains today in the Washington Post’s PostEverything blog.  He continues:

The push is coming primarily from well-organized, arch-conservative groups seeking to capitalize on the decline in public trust in government to limit the federal government’s role and spending powers.  And the method they prefer is a constitutional convention — the first since the 1787 conclave that produced the U.S. Constitution.

Under the Constitution, if two-thirds of state legislatures call for a convention to amend it, one must be convened.  Some of those pushing for a convention say that 24 of the needed 34 legislatures have approved such resolutions.  Advocates of a convention have targeted more than a dozen other states and are developing lobbying campaigns to push for such resolutions there.

The implications are enormous.  At stake, potentially, are the freedoms we take for granted under the Bill of Rights; the powers of the president, Congress and the courts; and the policies the government can or cannot pursue.  Conventioneers could alter absolutely anything about the way the United States is governed.  Some say they want to terminate all federal taxes and to require super-majorities in the House and the Senate to put any new taxes in their place.  Others want to bar the government from carrying out a number of its functions, for example by constraining its ability to regulate interstate commerce.  Whatever changes a convention approved would be enshrined in the Constitution if three-fourths of the states ratified them.

Yet the processes for impaneling the convention, selecting the delegates, setting the convention’s voting rules, and determining what issues the convention would consider and how much of the Constitution it would seek to rewrite are a mystery.  That means that under a convention, anything goes.  There are no rules, guideposts or procedures in any of these areas. . . .

Click here for the full post.