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

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.

“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.

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.