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. . . .

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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.