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


IRS Funding Cuts Harm Customer Service and Raise Deficits

January 14, 2015 at 4:56 pm

Honest taxpayers will feel the pain of Congress’ cuts in the IRS budget, new reports from National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson and IRS Commissioner John Koskinen confirm.  As we’ve written, funding cuts in recent years have compromised taxpayer service and weakened enforcement of the nation’s tax laws.  Olson warns that this year’s cuts will worsen these problems, predicting that taxpayers will likely receive the worst service from the IRS in over a decade.

Congress has cut IRS funding sharply since 2010 (see chart), despite repeated warnings of the negative effects.  Funding is 19 percent below the 2010 level and at its lowest level since 1997, after adjusting for inflation.  Yet the number of tax returns filed has grown significantly, and the IRS has received major new responsibilities related to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act and the Affordable Care Act.

In her 2014 Annual Report to Congress, released today, Olson warns that funding cuts have led to a “devastating erosion of taxpayer service, harming taxpayers individually and collectively.”  The IRS will answer as few as 43 percent of taxpayers’ estimated 100 million calls this filing season, and callers will face an average wait time of at least 30 minutes.  In comparison, in 2004 the IRS answered 87 percent of calls with an average wait time of less than 3 minutes.  The IRS also won’t be able to respond to any taxpayer questions except “basic” ones this season, according to Olson.

Similarly, Commissioner Koskinen explained in a letter to IRS employees yesterday that this year’s funding cut will delay improvements in information technology for taxpayer services and force a reduction in enforcement funding of more than $160 million.  Cutting enforcement funding actually raises budget deficits by weakening tax collections.  Koskinen estimates this year’s cut in enforcement funding alone will cost the federal government at least $2 billion in revenue that it otherwise would have collected.

The IRS performs one of government’s most essential functions by collecting the revenue it needs to operate.  Congress should stop undermining it and give it the resources it needs.

New House Rule Could Ease Passage of Deficit-Increasing Tax Cuts

January 5, 2015 at 11:02 am

Our new paper analyzes a House Republican plan to amend House rules this week to require the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) to use “dynamic scoring” for official cost estimates of tax reform and other major legislation.   Under dynamic scoring, the official cost estimates would incorporate estimates of how legislation would affect the size of the U. S. economy and, in turn, federal revenues and spending.

Incoming Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has said this change is designed simply to generate more information on the impact of proposed policies.  In reality, however, the House would be asking CBO and JCT for less information, not more, and the new rule could facilitate congressional passage of tax cuts that are revenue-neutral only on paper.

As our paper explains:

CBO and JCT already provide macroeconomic analyses of some proposed bills as a supplement to the official cost estimates they produce.  These analyses typically present a range of estimates of the legislation’s impact on the economy.

The new House rule, in contrast, asks for an official cost estimate that only reflects a single estimate of the bill’s supposed impact on the economy and the resulting revenue impact.  By incorporating additional revenue in the official cost estimate (as a result of an estimate of economic growth), this would enable lawmakers to write bills with deeper tax-rate cuts, or smaller offsetting curbs on tax breaks, than they otherwise could do.

The economic impact of even a well-designed tax reform plan is likely to be modest relative to the size of the U.S. economy.  But the estimates of revenue gains from the plan’s estimated dynamic effects could be large in the context of current fiscal debates.  Those estimates could also be highly dubious, depending on the models and assumptions used.

For example, JCT estimated that the tax reform plan that former Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp produced last year could generate between $50 billion and $700 billion of additional revenue over the decade through faster economic growth (see chart), with the $700 billion estimate reflecting a series of very rosy assumptions — including the assumption that a future Congress will stabilize the debt as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) by approving large spending cuts that aren’t part of the Camp bill.  If highly optimistic economic and fiscal assumptions like these are included in official cost estimates but then fail to materialize, the result will be higher deficits and debt.  And as CBO, JCT, and other analysts have warned, tax cuts that ultimately expand deficits can slow economic growth, rather than increase it, because the higher deficits can create a drag on saving and investment.

Click here for the full paper.

New York Times Warns Against “Dynamic Scoring”

December 8, 2014 at 12:06 pm

A New York Times editorial this weekend raised several red flags about so-called “dynamic scoring” — that is, including estimates of the macroeconomic effects of policy changes in official cost estimates for tax and spending legislation.  We strongly agree.  Our recent paper making the case against dynamic scoring, and a short summary we released today, explain that:

  • Current budget estimates aren’t “static.” The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) incorporate in their cost estimates many changes in individuals’ and companies’ behavior in response to proposed changes in tax rates and other policies.
  • Dynamic estimates are highly uncertain. Different models and assumptions produce widely varying estimates of how policy changes would affect the overall economy.  Some models’ results depend on assumptions about how future Congresses will reduce deficits.  And the models all have significant gaps.
  • Dynamic estimates are prone to manipulation. Because of this uncertainty, congressional leaders will likely cherry-pick the model and assumptions that give the most favorable estimates.  That’s exactly what House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp did in touting the highest estimates of economic and revenue growth for his tax reform proposal — estimates more than ten times greater than JCT’s lowest ones.  (See figure.)
  • CBO did not use dynamic scoring for the 2013 Senate immigration bill. Some members of Congress claim, incorrectly, that CBO used dynamic scoring to estimate the bill’s budgetary effects.  CBO’s official cost estimate took account of the bill’s direct effect on the U.S. population and labor force.  But it did not include estimates of the bill’s more speculative and uncertain effects on the economy, such as its effects on investment and productivity.

You can follow me on Twitter at @PaulNVandeWater and my co-author Chye-Ching Huang at @dashching.

“Tax Extenders” Package Even Worse Than First Appeared

December 1, 2014 at 3:34 pm

12-1-14taxWe’ve explained that the package that emerged last week to permanently extend several temporary tax breaks (“tax extenders”) and enlarge some of them would raise deficits — thereby putting more pressure on domestic programs for cost-saving cuts — while favoring large corporations and leaving out millions of working families. Following a presidential veto threat, the package now appears dead; but as lawmakers continue to consider options for what to do about the extenders, they should recognize another serious flaw in that package: nearly a quarter of its roughly $400 billion cost would have come from expanding tax cuts for businesses, not just extending them (see chart).

In particular, the package doubled the tax credit for research and experimentation, raising its ten-year cost from $75 billion to $151 billion. Making this and other extenders permanent without paying for them would be fiscally irresponsible; expanding some of them while doing so would be even more egregious.

Our report detailed the package’s main flaws:

  • It would have given back more than half of the revenue raised by the 2012 “fiscal cliff” legislation. If it had become law, more than 85 percent of the deficit reduction achieved since 2010 would have come from budget cuts rather than new revenues.
  • Congressional Republicans insist that future congressional budget plans balance the budget in ten years with no new revenues, cuts in Social Security benefits for current retirees, or defense cuts. Such a plan would already demand deep cuts in important areas; the extenders package would require even deeper cuts. As incoming House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) said recently, “anything that’s made permanent now makes it more difficult to get to [budget] balance.”
  • While permanently extending and expanding tax benefits mostly for businesses, the package failed to extend temporary tax provisions for low-income working families with children. Those provisions — in the Earned Income Tax Credit and the low-income piece of the Child Tax Credit — lift more than 16 million people out of poverty or closer to the poverty line each year, including nearly 8 million children. Their omission would make it less likely they will continue beyond 2017, when they are slated to expire.
  • If policymakers make a number of extenders permanent now, without paying for them, they won’t have to offset the cost of making them permanent as part of tax reform. That would enable them to produce a tax reform bill that cuts the top tax rate more deeply, curbs fewer special-interest tax breaks, or both — and yet still is labeled “revenue neutral.”

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.