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.


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.

Health Reform Reduces the Deficit, Contrary to Senate GOP Analysis

October 21, 2014 at 5:00 am

A recent analysis by Senate Budget Committee Republican staff that claims health reform will increase the deficit rests on two dubious propositions.  Under more reasonable assumptions, health reform will reduce the deficit, as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation have consistently estimated.  Just a few months ago, CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf wrote, “the agencies have no reason to think that their initial assessment that [health reform] would reduce budget deficits was incorrect.”

How did the Senate Budget Committee’s Republican staff reach such a different conclusion?

First, they produced an estimate of savings from the health reform provisions that reduce Medicare and other program costs that’s significantly lower than CBO’s.  They did so by assuming that health reform had nothing whatsoever to do with the substantial slowdown in health care cost growth in the past few years.  That slowdown has led CBO since 2010 to lower its projections of Medicare and Medicaid spending by $1.1 trillion over this decade (see graph).

The decline in projected Medicare spending means that health reform provisions that cut Medicare costs directly will save less than previously thought.  (A provision that reduces Medicare costs by a certain percentage will save fewer dollars if that percentage cut is applied to a smaller base of costs.)  But the Senate Republican analysis lowers CBO’s estimate of health reform’s Medicare savings to reflect that effect alone, as though not one dollar of the savings from the slowdown in health costs were due to health reform’s focus on reducing cost growth in the U.S. health care system.

As Kaiser Family Foundation President Drew Altman has written, “Even though its direct effects on system-wide costs may be limited so far, I believe Obamacare is having a significant indirect effect, although cause and effect and the magnitude are hard to prove. . . . [It] is entirely likely that Obamacare has played and will continue to play a role in the slowdown in health-care cost growth and accelerating market change.”

Even under the conservative assumption that health reform accounts for only a small part of the slowdown in health care costs, it would more than offset the Senate Republicans’ reduction in health reform’s estimated Medicare savings

Second, the Senate Republican analysis overstates the budgetary impact of changes in labor supply (that is, the total hours of work that workers choose to supply) under health reform.  CBO estimates that health reform will cause a small reduction in the labor supply, in significant part because some people who now work mainly to obtain health insurance — a situation known as “job lock” — will choose to retire earlier or work somewhat less; that reduction will shrink total labor compensation by roughly 1 percent from 2017 through 2024, according to CBO.  The Senate Republican analysis assumes that the overall amount of income subject to tax will drop by the same percentage.

But wages and salaries, in fact, represent only about 70 percent of adjusted gross income, which also includes interest, dividends, rental income, capital gains, and some retirement distributions.  Thus, a 1-percent cut in labor compensation would shrink tax revenues by much less than 1 percent.

Correcting the Senate Republican staff analysis for these two factors shows that health reform will still reduce the deficit, as CBO has estimated — not increase it.  Those who seek the best assessment of the fiscal impacts of health reform should stick with CBO’s.

Ryan’s Call for “Dynamic Scoring” in Tax Reform Would Invite More Mischief

October 3, 2014 at 2:18 pm

“The reality of tax reform . . . is that any politically feasible plan to scale back tax benefits doesn’t generate enough money to significantly cut tax rates without increasing the deficit,” my latest post for U.S. News’ Economic Intelligence notes.  “Rather than grapple with this reality, . . . House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan invoked the last refuge of supply-side tax cutters in recent comments about how to proceed with tax reform.”  Specifically:

Ryan wants to change long-established methods for estimating the revenue effects of proposed tax changes that the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation use to “score” the budgetary effects of such legislation.  Ryan . . . badly mischaracterizes existing revenue estimation methods while ignoring the fatal flaws in requiring budget crunchers to use so-called dynamic scoring.

Contrary to Ryan’s claim, current revenue estimates reflect many kinds of changes in households’ and business’ behavior resulting from proposed policy changes.  But they don’t reflect possible changes in the overall level of economic activity that might result from proposed legislation — and with good reason:

First, estimates of the macroeconomic effects of tax changes are highly uncertain.  Second, the most credible estimates usually show changes that are quite small.  Finally, and quite importantly, dynamic scoring would impair the credibility of the budget process because the resulting budget estimates will inevitably be controversial and subject to political manipulation.

Adopting dynamic scoring for tax reform, my post concludes, is a gimmick that would only invite more mischief.

Reassessing a View on Federal Accounting

September 26, 2014 at 1:55 pm

So-called “fair-value accounting” is misguided because it would make federal loan and loan guarantee programs look more expensive than they really are, as my colleague Richard Kogan and I have explained.  Jason Delisle and Jason Richwine, writing in the latest issue of National Affairs, correctly note that the logic of our argument is inconsistent with a 2005 CBPP analysis of proposals to invest part of the Social Security trust funds in stocks instead of Treasury bonds.  We concur.  We have re-analyzed our assessment of investing a portion of the Social Security trust fund in equities and now come to a different conclusion than we did in 2005.

The current method of accounting for federal credit programs fully records — on a present-value basis — all the cash flowing into and out of the Treasury.  In contrast, fair-value accounting would add an extra amount to the budgetary cost, based on the fact that loan assets are somewhat less valuable to the private sector than to the government for several reasons: businesses must make a profit; they can’t put themselves at the head of the line when collecting a debt; they borrow at higher interest rates; and private-sector investors are risk-averse — they dislike losses (in this case, higher-than-expected loan defaults) more than they like equal, and equally likely, gains (lower defaults).  None of these factors represents an actual cost that the government incurs when it makes loans.

Including in the budget a cost that the government does not actually pay would overstate spending, deficits, and debt, making the federal budget a less accurate depiction of the nation’s fiscal position.  It would also treat different federal programs inconsistently, because it would not make a similar adjustment for non-credit programs whose costs are also uncertain and variable.  In a recent article, New York University law professor David Kamin thoroughly explains why “including the cost of risk would skew budget estimates.”

Proposals to invest the Social Security trust funds in the stock market raise similar issues.  Stocks produce higher returns than Treasury bonds on average over the years, but they also entail a greater risk of losing money.  That risk is an important consideration in assessing the pros and cons of a proposal, but it’s not an actual cost to the government and therefore doesn’t belong in the budget.  This conclusion differs from the one CBPP reached in 2005, which, upon further consideration, we now believe was mistaken.

(Proposals to replace Social Security with private accounts are very different, since individuals, rather than the government, would bear the risk of holding their retirement savings in stocks.  Individuals are rightly risk-averse.  As a result, any analysis of their well-being — as distinguished from analysis of the impact on government finances — should account for the variability of the stock market.)

Sequestration’s Effects Linger for Housing Agencies

September 16, 2014 at 7:47 am

The 2013 sequestration budget cuts caused severe shortfalls at state and local housing agencies that administer federal rental assistance programs, and the cuts are continuing to affect low-income families, as the New York Times reports.  Most agencies sharply reduced the number of families they assisted by not reissuing housing vouchers when the families using them left the program.  These cuts have continued into 2014, despite the fact that Congress partly reversed sequestration this year.  As of March, housing agencies were assisting some 90,000 fewer low-income families due to sequestration.

The agencies are passing the budget strain on to low-income families in other ways, too.  In New York, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development is raising the rent for nearly one-third of the 32,000 low-income families using its housing vouchers.  This forces families to make tough choices: either absorb rent increases of as much as several hundred dollars per month or move to a smaller, lower-priced unit, if they can find one in New York’s tight rental market.

Such choices are particularly difficult for seniors, who are disproportionately affected by the rent increases in New York.  Many have lived in their current apartment for many years, and they may have difficulty navigating the process of finding, moving, and adapting to a new apartment and neighborhood.

Housing authorities across the nation — from Napa, California, to Alexandria, Virginia — have continued to make similar changes in response to sequestration.  While Congress partly reversed the sequestration cuts in 2014, many housing agencies have been reluctant to reverse rent increases or cuts in the number of families they’re assisting, due in large part to the uncertain budget outlook for 2015.

Congress has yet to complete the fiscal year 2015 budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which administers the housing voucher program and most other federal rental assistance programs, and it likely won’t until after the November elections.  Moreover, the HUD funding bills approved by the House and the Senate Appropriations Committee would increase housing voucher funding modestly, but not enough to cover the increase in program costs due to rising rent and utility costs.  As a result, they would risk locking in most of the sequestration voucher cuts.

As Congress completes the 2015 budget this fall, it should make a priority of fully restoring the vouchers lost to sequestration, or current voucher holders will face higher rents, while families on waitlists continue to pay unaffordable rents, risking homelessness if they fail to make ends meet.

How the Federal Budget Process Works — and What Happens When It Doesn’t

September 12, 2014 at 11:21 am

With Congress expected to approve a stopgap funding bill before October 1 to keep the government running for the next few months, this is an appropriate time to review how the federal budget process is supposed to work.  Our newly updated backgrounder does just that, describing the laws and procedures under which Congress decides how much money to spend each year, what to spend it on, and how to raise the money to pay for that spending.

More specifically, our backgrounder explains:

  • the President’s annual budget request, which is supposed to kick off the budget process;
  • the congressional budget resolution — how it is developed, what it contains, and what happens if there is no budget resolution;
  • how the terms of the budget resolution are enforced in the House and Senate;
  • budget “reconciliation,” an optional procedure used in some years to facilitate the passage of legislation amending tax or entitlement law; and
  • statutory deficit-control measures — spending caps, pay-as-you-go requirements, and sequestration.


It also explains the differences between discretionary and mandatory programs and between budget authority and outlays, as well as other concepts that aren’t widely known but are critical to understanding the budget process.

Noting that in recent years the budget process hasn’t always worked as envisioned, our backgrounder describes what happens if, for example, Congress fails to complete a budget resolution or to pass appropriations bills before the October 1 start of the fiscal year.

IRS Commissioner Confirms House-Passed Cuts to IRS Budget Could Be “Catastrophic”

August 25, 2014 at 3:48 pm

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said, according to Tax Notes, that the effects of House-passed IRS budget cuts would be “very serious if not catastrophic” to the agency’s ability to collect revenue and provide taxpayer services, adding: “I no longer want people to think that if we get less money it doesn’t make any difference.  It makes a big difference on taxpayers, on tax preparers, on tax compliance, on tax enforcement.”

As we have written, the House bill would cut IRS funding by $1.5 billion in 2015, including a $1.2 billion reduction in the agency’s enforcement budget, relative to 2014 funding.  The enforcement budget is crucial to the IRS’ ability to collect revenue and pursue tax cheats.  As Commissioner Koskinen affirms, reducing the IRS enforcement budget actually increases the deficit because it prevents the agency from thwarting tax fraud, evasion, and other illegal behavior, thus reducing federal revenue:

Congress is starving our revenue-generating operation. If voluntary compliance with the tax code drops by 1 percent, it costs the U.S. government $30 billion per year.  The IRS annual budget is only $11 billion per year.

And the House cuts would come on top of years of IRS budget cuts that have already weakened enforcement and harmed taxpayer services.  Funding for the IRS fell by 14 percent (after accounting for inflation) between 2010 and 2014 (see chart).  These cuts forced the agency to reduce its workforce by over 10,000 employees and have led directly to a significant decline in the quality of taxpayer services.

For example, millions of taxpayers depend on IRS assistance over the telephone, yet in 2013, a typical caller to the IRS waited on hold for about 18 minutes for an IRS representative, and about 40 percent of calls were never answered.  This is a sharp decline from 2010, when the IRS answered three-quarters of calls and had an average wait time of just under 11 minutes.

Commissioner Koskinen was frank about the impact of continued cuts:

You cannot continue to reduce our resources and ask us to do more things.  The blind belief in Congress that they can continue to cut funding and we will just become more efficient is not the case.  We are becoming more efficient but there is a limit.  Eventually the effects will show up.  We are no longer going to pretend that cutting funding makes no difference.

Policymakers must give the IRS the resources it needs to fulfill its tax-collecting mission and provide the services taxpayers depend on.  The first step is for the Senate and the President to reject the reckless House cuts.

Why the Ryan Plan Should Worry Those Concerned About the Affordable Housing Crisis, Part 2

August 5, 2014 at 11:52 am

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal to consolidate 11 safety net and related programs, including the four largest federal rental assistance programs, into a single block grant to  states risks significant funding cuts to housing assistance that helps 4.7 million low-income families, as we explained last week.  Today, we’ll describe how the combination of those cuts, and the possible elimination under Ryan’s plan of program rules that ensure housing stability and affordable rents, could undercut rental assistance programs’ effectiveness and put substantial numbers of vulnerable families at risk for homelessness.

Federal rental assistance programs are effective.  They sharply reduce housing instability and homelessness and lift 2.8 million people out of poverty (with the bulk of these impacts coming from the programs included in the Ryan plan).  These effects, in turn, are linked to educational, developmental, and health benefits that can improve children’s long-term life chances.

But Chairman Ryan’s proposal, which would give states broad latitude in spending block grant funds, could enable states to jettison federal rules that are essential to the rental assistance programs’ success, or even to eliminate one or more programs.  The drops in funding that likely would occur over time would increase the risks that states would make damaging changes to housing assistance programs.  The following actions are among those states could take:

  • They could cut the number of families receiving rental assistance.  Such cuts would cause the long waiting lists to grow longer and could occur despite Ryan’s promise that his plan would honor existing rental assistance contracts. Most assistance included in the proposed Opportunity Grant is provided through the Housing Choice Voucher and Public Housing programs, which are typically funded annually (with assistance provided through annual contracts).  Most contracts with private owners under the other two rental assistance programs that Ryan would fold into the block grant also are short term, so this protection would not last long.  Moreover, if states seek to shift some funds from housing programs to other uses and don’t renew a substantial share of these contracts or maintain public housing properties, cities and towns — which may have little say in state decisions on how to use the Opportunity Grant funds — could see housing developments become unaffordable for many low-income households.  And if there is a perception that a state could fail to renew contracts or maintain rental subsidies, that almost certainly would make it more difficult and costly to attract private investment for affordable housing.
  • They could reduce per-unit subsidy levels, since the rules that set those levels in existing rental assistance programs would no longer apply.  In the Housing Choice Voucher program (which allows most participants to rent modest units of their choice in the private market), such cuts could force families to rent lower-priced units in higher-poverty neighborhoods with high crime rates and poor schools.  The other three programs that Ryan would include in the Opportunity Grant (Public Housing, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, and rural rental assistance, which the U.S. Agriculture Department administers) tie subsidies to particular developments; in those programs, subsidy cuts could make it difficult to pay for adequate building maintenance — already a major problem among Public Housing developments — or for owners to make units available to poor families at an affordable rent.
  • They could shift costs to participating families by raising rents.  Rent rules currently require most assisted families to contribute 30 percent of their income for housing, a share consistent with commonly accepted standards of affordability.  Rental assistance fills the gap between this contribution and actual costs, within reasonable limits that the federal and local agencies set.  Some poor families who may not be able to pay higher rents might find they could no longer afford their apartments if their rents rose substantially.

Programming Note

August 1, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Off the Charts will be slowing down for the next few weeks, so you might not hear from us every day. But we’ll be back on our regular schedule soon after Labor Day.

CBPP

“Generational Accounting” Spreads Confusion

August 1, 2014 at 1:05 pm

“Generational accounting” purports to compare the effects of federal budget policies on people born in different years.  But, contrary to economist Lawrence Kotlikoff’s New York Times op-ed promoting a bill requiring federal agencies to adopt the practice, generational accounting is far more likely to obscure than illuminate the budget picture.

Kotlikoff helped develop generational accounting over 20 years ago.  It was supposed to provide useful information missing from standard budget presentations.  It doesn’t do that, however, and few budget analysts use the approach.

Generational accounting rests on several highly unrealistic assumptions, as our detailed analysis explains.  It doesn’t account for the benefits that government spending can have for future generations (for example, education and infrastructure spending that raises living standards).  It also ignores the fact that our children and grandchildren will be richer than we are and have more disposable income, even if they pay somewhat higher taxes.

Generational accounting’s most serious flaw may be that it requires projecting such key variables as population growth, labor force participation, earnings, health care costs, and interest rates through infinity.  Budget experts recognize that projections grow very iffy beyond a few decades — and spinning them out to infinity makes them much more so.  The American Academy of Actuaries describes projections into the infinite future as “of limited value to policymakers.”

The Congressional Budget Office, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and other leading budget analysts focus instead on the next 25 years or so, which amply documents future fiscal pressures and presents a reasonable horizon for policymakers.  These organizations produce simple, straightforward long-run projections that show the path of federal revenues, spending, and debt under current budget policies.  In that way, they show clearly what’s driving fiscal pressures, and when (see chart).

Policymakers should certainly look beyond the standard ten-year horizon of most budget estimates, but they already have the tools to do that.  Generational accounting is hard to interpret and easily misunderstood, and including it in the federal government’s regular budget reports and cost estimates would be a mistake.

Why the Ryan Plan Should Worry Those Who Are Concerned About the Affordable Housing Crisis, Part 1

July 31, 2014 at 12:33 pm

A centerpiece of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s poverty plan is the proposal to consolidate 11 safety net programs — including four housing assistance programs — into a single, flexible block grant to states.  Among its downsides, this proposal threatens to lead to reductions in funding that provides housing assistance to millions of low-income families and individuals.

My colleagues have already set out some of the reasons to be concerned by Chairman Ryan’s proposal:

  • Block grants have proven to be easy targets for funding cuts, in part because their inherent flexibility makes it difficult to demonstrate how cuts would affect needy families and communities.
  • Total funding to assist low-income families — from federal, state, and local sources combined — likely would also decline, because broad block grants afford states opportunities to use block grant funds to replace state and local funds now going for similar services.

Because housing assistance and SNAP make up more than 80 percent of Ryan’s Opportunity Grant, any cuts in block grant funding would very likely reduce families’ access to these programs, as my colleague LaDonna Pavetti has explained.

The history of housing and community development program funding shows the risk of funding cuts that rental assistance programs face under Ryan’s plan.  Funding for flexible block grant programs such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), HOME (which helps states and localities develop and preserve affordable homes for owners and renters), and the Native American Housing Block Grant has fallen sharply over time.  Meanwhile, programs that provide more narrowly prescribed forms of assistance to low-income families and that Congress funds separately each year — a category that includes housing vouchers, rural rental assistance, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, and Public Housing, the four rental assistance programs that Ryan’s proposal targets — have generally avoided reductions (sequestration in 2013 notwithstanding). (See chart.)

The reasons are easy to understand.  For example, HUD provides Congress every year with precise estimates of the cost of renewing the Housing Choice Vouchers that assist more than 2 million low-income families.  If Congress fails to provide sufficient funding to renew the vouchers, some of those families will lose assistance (and possibly their homes).  In contrast, policymakers can justify cutting a block grant by claiming that local agencies can avoid cutting direct assistance to families by using their flexibility to shift funds from other activities.

Cuts in rental assistance would fall mainly on low-income people who are elderly or have disabilities and working-poor families with children.  More than 80 percent of households with rental assistance in 2010 were elderly, had a disability, worked, or had recently worked.  (2010 is the most recent year for which these data are available to us.)

Rising rents and stagnant incomes have left increasingly more low-income Americans unable to afford decent, stable housing without cutting back on other basic needs.  Already fewer than one in four eligible low-income families receive rental assistance due to funding limitations, and waiting lists are long.  The cuts that would likely result from the Ryan plan would make this shortfall more severe and thus leave more families struggling to pay the rent and keep their homes.

Social Security’s #1 Priority: Raise Share of Payroll Tax Going to Disability Insurance

July 29, 2014 at 4:49 pm

The Social Security trustees’ new report shows why the program’s immediate priority should be to raise the share of payroll taxes allocated to Disability Insurance (DI) and lower the share allocated to Old-Age and Survivors Insurance to keep the DI trust fund from running out in 2016.  Nine million disabled workers face a 20 percent across-the-board cut in DI benefits if the trust fund is depleted.

Social Security’s disability and retirement programs are closely linked, so ideally Congress would address DI’s finances as part of a long-term solvency package for Social Security as a whole — one that extends the solvency of both trust funds well beyond 2033, when the combined trust funds face exhaustion.  Enacting a balanced solvency package before late 2016, however, is highly unlikely.

Surveys find that Americans are willing to pay higher Social Security taxes to preserve and strengthen Social Security for future generations.  Yet some politicians argue for preserving solvency solely through benefit cuts.  Bridging such sharp divisions will be difficult, and holding DI beneficiaries hostage by refusing to reallocate payroll taxes wouldn’t make the task any easier — or success more likely.

Reallocation is unavoidable.  Even if policymakers miraculously agreed on a balanced solvency package by 2016, any changes in DI benefits or eligibility would phase in gradually and hence do little to replenish the DI trust fund by 2016.

Reallocation is a historically noncontroversial action that policymakers have often taken to shift resources between the two trust funds, in either direction.  Both the Bush and Clinton Administrations endorsed it in the early 1990s, and Congress enacted it in 1994 without a single dissenting voice.

Reallocation isn’t a “patch” or “kicking the can down the road,” as some contend — descriptions appropriate for the recent House-approved bill to extend the Highway Trust Fund by ten months, or Congress’ repeated one-year delays in implementing scheduled cuts in Medicare payments to doctors.  A payroll tax reallocation will keep Social Security’s disability and retirement programs solvent for another 15 to 20 years.

And reallocation doesn’t preclude additional actions to strengthen Disability Insurance.  Reversing the recent decline in Social Security’s administrative funding would allow the Social Security Administration to process claims more quickly and ensure that recipients remain on the rolls only as long as they are eligible.  Changes in the process for approving or denying claims might improve the accuracy and consistency of those disability determinations.  We could also test new strategies to help people with disabilities remain in the workforce, as the President’s 2015 budget proposed.