The Center's work on 'Process' 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. . . .

Click here for the full post.

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.)

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.

Ryan’s “Opportunity Grant” Would Likely Force Cuts in Food and Housing Assistance

July 29, 2014 at 11:59 am

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan maintains that consolidating 11 safety-net and related programs into a single “Opportunity Grant” would give states the flexibility to provide specialized services to low-income people.  But providing these additional services would require cutting assistance funded through the Opportunity Grant to other needy people.  And because SNAP (formerly food stamps) and housing assistance together make up more than 80 percent of the Opportunity Grant, the cuts would almost certainly reduce families’ access to these programs, which are effective at reducing poverty — particularly deep poverty.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that anyone who qualifies under program rules can receive benefits, and is heavily focused on the poor.  Over 91 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line, and 55 percent goes to households in deep poverty — that is, households with cash incomes below half of the poverty line (about $9,800 for a family of three in 2013).

As a result, SNAP kept 4.9 million people out of poverty in 2012, including 2.2 million children.  It also lifted 1.4 million children out of deep poverty, more than any other benefit program.

Similarly, housing vouchers and other rental assistance lifted 2.8 million people — including 1 million children — out of poverty in 2012.

Chairman Ryan’s proposal to add new work requirements and provide individualized services to recipients of Opportunity Grant-funded assistance would surely require new staff and significantly raise administrative costs.  States would likely turn to SNAP for at least some offsetting savings:  it alone makes up more than half of the resources in the Opportunity Grant, and the Ryan proposal ends SNAP as an entitlement, eliminating eligible families’ guarantee to food assistance.  Rental assistance, which makes up nearly a quarter of the Opportunity Grant, is another likely target of cuts — though even today it serves only one in four eligible low-income families due to limited funding.

Whatever merit Chairman Ryan’s proposal for personalized services has, his Opportunity Grant could not possibly reach as many families as these existing programs serve.

Cutting food and housing assistance that lifts millions of people out of poverty and is effective at reducing hunger and homelessness in order to provide additional services to a smaller number of poor households isn’t a sound way to reduce poverty.

History Suggests Ryan Block Grant Would Be Susceptible to Cuts

July 28, 2014 at 2:47 pm

At the heart of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan is a block grant — called the “Opportunity Grant” — that would consolidate 11 disparate low-income programs, the largest being SNAP (formerly food stamps).  Ryan says that the block grant would maintain the same overall funding as the current programs.  But even if one thought that current-law funding levels were adequate, they likely wouldn’t be sustained over time under the Ryan proposal:  history shows that block grants that consolidate a number of programs or may be used for a wide array of purposes typically shrink — often very substantially — over time.

The table below shows 11 major block grant programs created in recent decades.  Eight of them have shrunk since their inception, in some cases sharply.  (Our analysis accounts for the effect of inflation.)

Block grants’ very structure makes them vulnerable to cuts.  Block grants generally give state and local governments more flexibility in how to use funds, leading to varied approaches for achieving program goals.  But this variety makes it hard to see how changes in funding levels affect beneficiaries, or even to be sure how the money is being used.  That, in turn, makes it easier for policymakers looking for savings to target block grants rather than other benefit programs for long-term freezes or cuts.  Block grants in general have fared poorly in the competition for resources.

A Constitutional Convention Poses Grave Risks

July 16, 2014 at 4:33 pm

The idea of convening a constitutional convention to propose a balanced budget amendment or similar amendments raises grave problems, as we explain in a new paper.  A number of states have passed resolutions calling for such a convention, and proponents of a constitutional convention are targeting more states in an effort to obtain the 34 states needed to call one (see map).

A balanced budget amendment poses serious risks in and of itself.  But, as a number of legal experts across the political spectrum have warned, a convention could open up the Constitution to broader radical and harmful changes.  Such serious concerns are justified, for several reasons:

  • A convention could write its own rules.  No constitutional convention has been called since the 1787 meeting that wrote the Constitution, and the Constitution provides no guidance whatsoever on what a convention’s ground rules would be.  This leaves wide open to political considerations and pressures such fundamental questions as how delegates would be chosen, how many delegates each state would have, and whether a supermajority vote would be required to approve amendments.  To show the importance of these issues, consider that if every state had one vote in a convention and the convention could approve amendments with a simple majority vote, the 26 least populous states, with less than 18 percent of the nation’s people, could approve constitutional amendments for ratification. 
  • A convention could set its own agenda, possibly influenced by powerful interest groups.  The 1787 meeting went far beyond its mandate.  Charged with amending the Articles of Confederation to promote trade among the states, the convention instead wrote an entirely new governing document.  A convention held today could set its own agenda, too.  There is no guarantee that a convention could be limited to a given set of issues, such as balancing the budget.  
  • A convention could choose a new ratification process.  The 1787 convention ignored the ratification process under which it was established and created a new process, reducing the number of states needed to approve the new Constitution and removing Congress from the approval process.  The country then ignored the pre-existing ratification procedures and adopted the Constitution under the new ratification procedures that the convention proposed.  Given these facts, it would be unwise to assume that ratification of the convention’s proposals would require the subsequent approval of 38 states, as the Constitution specifies.  For example, a convention might remove the states from the approval process and propose a national referendum instead, or approval by a simple majority of states. 
  • No other body, including the courts, has clear authority over a convention.  The Constitution provides for no authority above a constitutional convention, so it isn’t clear that the courts, Congress, state legislatures, or a President could intervene if a convention went beyond the language of the state resolutions calling for a convention or the congressional resolution establishing it.  Likewise, there may be no recourse if the convention altered the process for ratifying its own proposed amendments.  The Constitution has virtually no restrictions on the operations of a constitutional convention or the scope of the amendments that it could produce, and the courts would likely regard legal challenges to a convention as “political questions” that the judiciary does not wade into. 

States should avoid these risks and reject resolutions calling for a constitutional convention, and those that have already approved such resolutions should rescind them.

Click here to read the full paper.

Helping Renters Afford Their Homes

July 16, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Today’s New York Times “Room for Debate” forum asks “Should Housing Policy Support Renters More?”  It’s an important discussion since, as we explain in this chart book, federal housing policy is imbalanced in two ways.  It favors homeowners over renters, and it targets a disproportionate share of subsidies on higher-income households (see chart).

This is the case even though, as Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, points out, “the primary focus of federal housing policy should be to help those most in need.”  Need among renters is rising.  As MacArthur Foundation president Julia Stasch notes, “increasing rents, stagnant wages and inadequate federal support have made rental housing less affordable for more people.”  Low-income renters — including veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and working families — are far likelier than homeowners and higher income households to need assistance to keep a roof over their heads and make ends meet.

Three ongoing policy debates offer opportunities to move in this direction:

  • Most immediately, Congress should provide more resources in 2015 funding bills to restore Housing Choice Vouchers and other low-income rental assistance that was cut as a result of sequestration in 2013.  Those cuts prevented thousands of low-income Americans from receiving the assistance they need to escape homelessness and housing instability, both of which have been linked to developmental, health, and education problems in children.
  • If tax reform moves forward, Congress should replace the mortgage interest deduction with a less-expensive, better-targeted credit that would trim subsidies for higher-income families while expanding them for middle- and low-income homeowners.  It should also use some of the savings from this reform to fund a new renters’ tax credit that would address part of the unmet need for housing assistance among the lowest-income renters.
  • If Congress reforms the housing finance system, it should use new financing fees for robust funding — like that provided in the reform bill that the Senate Banking Committee approved in May 2014 — to develop and rehabilitate affordable rental housing through the National Housing Trust Fund.

Balanced Budget Amendment Likely to Harm the Economy

July 16, 2014 at 4:21 pm

A number of states may soon call for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to require that the federal budget be balanced every year.  But a convention would pose serious risks, and a balanced budget requirement would be a highly ill-advised way to address the nation’s long-term fiscal problems.  It would threaten significant economic harm while raising a host of problems for the operation of Social Security and other vital federal functions, as we explain in a new paper.

By requiring a balanced budget every year, no matter the state of the economy, such an amendment would risk tipping weak economies into recession and making recessions longer and deeper, causing very large job losses.  Rather than allowing the “automatic stabilizers” of lower tax collections and higher unemployment and other benefits to cushion a weak economy, as they now do automatically, it would force policymakers to cut spending, raise taxes, or both when the economy turns down — the exact opposite of what sound economic policy would advise.  Such actions would launch a vicious spiral:  budget cuts or tax increases in a recession would cause the economy to contract further, triggering still higher deficits and thereby forcing policymakers to institute additional austerity measures, which in turn, would cause still-greater economic contraction.

For example, in 2011 one of the nation’s preeminent private economic forecasting firms concluded that if a constitutional balanced budget amendment had been ratified and were being enforced for fiscal year 2012, “[t]he effect on the economy would be catastrophic.”  If the 2012 budget were balanced through spending cuts, the firm found, those cuts would throw about 15 million more people out of work, double the unemployment rate from 9 percent to about 18 percent, and cause the economy to shrink by about 17 percent instead of growing by an expected 2 percent.

The fact that states must balance their budgets every year — no matter how the economy is performing — makes it even more imperative that the federal government not also face such a requirement and thus further impair a faltering economy.

Such a constitutional requirement — which would be notably more restrictive than the behavior of the most prudent states or families — would also cause a host of other problems.  Requiring that federal spending in any year be offset by revenues collected in that same year would undercut the design of Social Security, deposit insurance, and all other government guarantees.  And it would raise troubling questions about enforcement, including the risk that the courts or the President might be empowered to make major, unilateral budget decisions, undermining the checks and balances that have been a hallmark of our nation since its founding.  It is not a course that the nation should follow.

Click here to read the full paper.

Washington Post Misses the Mark on Federal Credit Accounting

June 4, 2014 at 4:58 pm

A Washington Post editorial today mistakenly implies that policymakers omit from the federal budget some of the costs of government loans by putting them “off-budget.”

In fact, the current accounting method for federal credit programs fully accounts for all the cash flows associated with loans and loan guarantees over their lifetimes.  The budget estimates include all expected defaults, late repayments, changes in interest rates, and other factors that affect a loan’s cost to the government.

The approach that the Post favors — so-called “fair-value accounting” — would add a cost to the budget on top of the actual cash flows.  The add-on would equal the extra amount that private lenders would charge if they, rather than the government, issued the loans or loan guarantees.  It would reflect the fact that private individuals are risk-averse and dislike a loss more than they like an equal gain.

Risk-aversion doesn’t belong in the federal budget because it isn’t a cost that the federal government actually incurs.  It never has to be covered by additional taxes or borrowing.

“Whatever decisions the government makes, its books should reflect their actual costs fully and realistically,” the Post says.  That’s precisely what existing credit accounting already does, as we have explained.  Adding a risk-aversion penalty that represents a cost that the government doesn’t bear would mean that the government’s books would diverge from actual costs.

Former Congressional Budget Office Director Robert Reischauer strongly supports the current approach to credit accounting.  He writes, “A society’s aversion to risk may be an appropriate factor for policymakers to take into account in a cost-benefit assessment of any spending or tax proposal but adding a cost to the budget does not make sense.”

Budget Should Show Federal Loan Programs’ Actual Cost

May 27, 2014 at 2:36 pm

A new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report compared the cost of three federal loan programs under standard accounting rules and a “fair-value” alternative, which imposes an added cost based on the extra amount that private lenders would charge if they issued the loans or loan guarantees.  We view this report as a useful reminder that by making these programs appear to cost more than the government is expected to actually spend on them, fair-value accounting would distort budgeting, putting loan programs at an unfair disadvantage relative to other programs.  (The key loan programs at risk are listed here.)

Fair-value accounting adds a penalty, on top of the regular cost estimate, based on the fact that private-sector investors are loss-averse:  they dislike losses (in this case, the possibility of higher-than-expected loan defaults) more than they like gains (the possibility of lower-than-expected defaults).  For the three programs it examined, CBO estimated that such a loss-aversion penalty would average $22 billion per year for federal student loans, $9 billion per year for single-family mortgages guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and less than $2 billion per year for the Export-Import Bank’s loans, guarantees, and insurance.

With these loss-aversion penalties, the three programs would appear to lose rather than make money for the federal government.  (CBO’s new estimates of these loss-aversion penalties is somewhat smaller than its estimates of last year.)

CBO currently thinks that adding loss-aversion penalties is a good idea, but former CBO Director Robert Reischauer shares our strong opposition.  (Our short paper and in-depth analysis provide more details on the problems with fair-value accounting.)  Whether one favors or opposes some or all federal credit programs, it is wrong in principle to add non-existent costs to the budget, which — as my colleague Paul Van de Water recently blogged — “would untether the budget from reality.”

House’s Skewed Funding Choices Amidst Non-Defense Funding Squeeze

May 21, 2014 at 12:31 pm

The House Appropriations Committee’s recent decisions on how to divide up the available money for non-defense discretionary programs for next year represent a poor allocation of insufficient resources, our new analysis explains.  Here’s the opening:

The House Appropriations Committee recently adopted its fiscal year 2015 funding allocations for its 12 subcommittees.  The allocations are consistent with the defense and non-defense discretionary funding caps set in last year’s agreement between Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan.  Despite that agreement’s partial relief from the sequestration budget cuts, the overall funding level is much tighter than many observers appreciate.  Further, the House allocations to meet the tight non-defense cap reflect skewed policy choices, likely imposing deeper cuts on programs serving low-income populations and certain other priority programs than on other areas.  These choices are particularly inappropriate in a period of rising inequality.

This analysis’ key findings are:

  • Non-defense discretionary programs need to be cut below the last year’s appropriated levels to stay within the 2015 caps.  The Murray-Ryan deal raised the 2015 cap for non-defense discretionary funding only a small amount above the sequestration level — but not enough to accommodate certain factors largely beyond the Appropriations Committees’ control (such as lower estimates of receipts from Federal Housing Administration [FHA] mortgage insurance) and funding increases already enacted for veterans’ medical care.  Adjusting the 2014 enacted level for these factors, appropriations for other non-defense discretionary programs will need to fall in 2015 by more than $3 billion below the 2014 level.  And the 2014 appropriations themselves were austere, since the Murray-Ryan deal canceled only part of sequestration in that year.  Further, after adjusting for inflation, the cut is almost $14 billion below the 2014 levels.
  • The House Appropriation Committee has targeted funding areas with key low-income programs for deeper cuts.  To meet the 2015 cap, the House Appropriations Committee allocations impose the biggest dollar cuts on the two appropriations bills that cover health, education, housing, transportation, and human services.  These bills include a high concentration of the non-defense discretionary programs that support low-income individuals.  Given the deep cuts that virtually all non-defense discretionary programs have sustained in recent years, the choices Congress faces are difficult.  But in 2015’s constrained funding environment, the pain should be spread more evenly; concentrating the cuts on low-income programs is highly inappropriate.

Of course, Congress could address the problem by funding non-defense discretionary programs at a higher overall level, but it does not seem inclined to revisit the 2015 cap levels set in the Murray-Ryan deal, so it will surely be forced to cut some programs that merit increases.  Non-defense discretionary funding supports a diverse set of public services, ranging from environmental protection and food safety to veterans’ health care and border security.  It supports investments that can boost future productivity, such as in education and basic scientific research, and helps low-income Americans meet basic needs and climb the economic ladder, such as through Head Start, job training, and services for frail elderly and disabled people.

The squeeze on non-defense discretionary funding will become even more acute in 2016.  The Murray-Ryan agreement was a two-year deal that didn’t apply to 2016, so the full sequestration cuts remain in effect for that and subsequent years.

In fact, non-defense discretionary spending in 2016 will fall to its lowest level as share of the economy on record, with data going back to 1962 (see graph).  It will continue to fall as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) in years after that.  Policymakers should consequently commit to providing relief starting in 2016, much as they did in the Murray-Ryan deal, in order to avoid severe cuts in key services upon which many Americans depend and important investments in the nation’s future.

Click here for the report.