The Center's work on 'Congressional Action' Issues


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.

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.