The Center's work on 'Deficits and Projections' Issues


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. . . .

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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.)

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.