September 22, 2014

Posts on discretionary spending

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Monday, July 7, 2014 - 11:31 AM

In a move that many saw as inevitable unless lawmakers acted, the Department of Transportation announced recently that the dwindling Highway Trust Fund would have to begin delaying payments to state governments in August.

In a press release, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said “there is still time for Congress to act on a long-term solution,” adding that he hoped “Congress will avert this crisis before it is too late.”

Delayed payments would mean financial difficulties for the states, postponement of planned highway projects, and delays on the projects that are already underway. Yet Washington lawmakers continue to struggle over how to replenish the trust fund.

Foxx also said Tuesday there is “no good option when we're...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 - 9:49 AM

Last Thursday, Congressman Reid Ribble invited The Concord Coalition to host a panel of experts on Capitol Hill to talk with congressional staffers gearing up for the annual budget process. Despite the ideological differences on the panel, there was a strong consensus that the process is broken and on ways in which it could be improved.

Gridlock has repeatedly brought our nation to the brink of crisis in the past few years. In October, Congress even temporarily shut down the government and brought the country within days of defaulting on at least some of its financial obligations. According to the GAO, a previous standoff over the debt ceiling cost the Treasury $1.3 billion in FY 2011 alone.

“The political process is the problem,” said Ed Lorenzen, a former aide to Democratic leader Rep. Steny Hoyer and now a senior advisor at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Lorenzen added that lawmakers “are not willing to make tough choices” that are necessary to resolve the country's long-term fiscal challenges.

Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy at the American Action Forum and a former aide to Republican Sen. Rob Portman, agreed. He said that while some of the talk about the broken process is an attempt by politicians to absolve themselves of...

Monday, September 9, 2013 - 9:48 AM

Syria is not the only challenge Congress faces as it returns to Washington from its August recess. Monday was the first of only nine legislative days that both the Senate and House of Representatives will be in session before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. Congress will need to approve a spending plan before then and take action on the debt limit not long after that.

Unfortunately, little progress has been made towards passing a budget this year. The budget resolutions adopted by Senate Democrats and House Republicans are $91 billion apart in overall spending levels, and no appropriations bills have been signed into law.

House Republicans have only been able to muster support for their deep proposed spending reductions in five of twelve appropriation bills, while the only appropriations bill brought to the Senate floor was defeated by a filibuster.

With so little time left on the legislative calendar, Congress is extremely unlikely to finish its appropriations bills on time. That would leave lawmakers with an important choice: adopt a continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government or allow it to shut down.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the government could default within weeks unless Congress raises the debt ceiling. The Treasury warns that it will run out of "...

Friday, August 30, 2013 - 12:55 PM

This year will mark the end of a four-year string of trillion-dollar-plus federal deficits that have troubled the American public and caused turmoil on Capitol Hill.

Fiscal Year 2013 is drawing to a close with a projected deficit of a little over $640 billion, down from $1.1 trillion last year. That’s good news, but it should hardly be considered an “all clear” signal on the nation’s fiscal and economic challenges.

Here are eight reasons why:

1. While the deficit is going down, the federal debt is still going up.

The government is still borrowing a substantial amount of money this year, and that is all being added to the accumulated debt, which is approaching  $17 trillion. That’s why elected officials -- despite their usual lamentations and finger-pointing -- have no choice but to raise the debt limit at some point in the next few months. The real question is what they will do to prevent the debt from growing in the future to unsustainable levels.

2. This year’s lower deficit can be largely attributed to short-term economic factors rather than systemic reforms in the federal budget

During difficult economic times with high unemployment, federal deficits rise as...

Monday, April 29, 2013 - 9:32 AM

Although Congress has plenty of serious budget work to do, lawmakers in both parties can’t seem to resist frittering away time and confusing the public with various proposals that serve no useful purpose. Last week offered a couple good examples.

House Republicans distracted themselves with a bill that would set priorities for payments on federal obligations if the debt limit were reached. There’s understandable confusion and disagreement over what exactly the bill would do, but the general idea seems to be that the federal government could somehow limit the damage of a default by presenting itself to the world as only a partial deadbeat.

As approved by a party-line vote Wednesday in the House Ways and Means Committee, the legislation would tell the Treasury to continue making payments on principal and interest on U.S. debt obligations – and keep Social Security checks going out, of course.

Becoming a partial deadbeat apparently requires some special accounting rules, and so those were tacked onto the legislation. Alas, the nation’s creditors and global financial markets are under no obligation to embrace lawmakers’ unconventional notions about what might constitute a government default.

In any case, there is really...

Friday, March 1, 2013 - 11:19 AM

Back in August of 2011, with the nation’s debt bumping up against its statutory limit and an election year looming, President Obama and Congress made a deal.

They would empower a special committee (the “super committee”) to reach a long-term budget deal worth $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction and give that deal a fast-track path to enactment. All options for cutting spending or raising revenues would be on the table.

To provide an incentive, other than simply doing the right thing, they agreed that if the super committee failed, or if Congress rejected its plan, a fallback mechanism known as “sequestration” would initiate spending cuts worth $1.2 trillion from non-exempt programs over 10 years. Half of the cuts would come from defense spending and the other half from domestic programs. The idea was not to craft rational policy but to install a back-up so arbitrary that no one would want it to go into effect.

The deal provided a grace period throughout 2013 during which a more comprehensive plan could be reached, if the super committee failed.

Here we are, 18 months later, still awaiting a “grand bargain.” The committee failed to produce a plan, nothing has been done to replace the 2011 deal, and the sequester...

Thursday, August 9, 2012 - 9:10 AM

Beginning in January, approximately $109 billion in across-the-board spending cuts are scheduled to automatically take effect. Known in budget policy circles as a “sequester,” these cuts are unusual in that the executive branch directs how the spending cuts occur, as opposed to the traditional locus for such cuts -- the congressional Appropriations Committees.

Because this sequester could have such a dramatic impact on many federal programs and the economy in general, Congress is eagerly awaiting specifics about how the administration plans to implement the cuts. On Tuesday President Obama signed the Sequestration Transparency Act, which requires him and the Office of Management and Budget to put forth a report in 30 days on how a sequester would be implemented. An overwhelming House majority passed the legislation last month, and the Senate approved it unanimously.

Sequesters have been part of the budget process for decades. Were this sequester to go into effect, however, it would be among the few that have ever actually taken place in this country’s history, and would certainly have the greatest budgetary effect.

The sequester was initially intended as a “Sword of Damocles” over the “super committee” created by the August 2011 deal to raise the debt limit. It was not actually designed to take effect;...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012 - 8:34 AM

Throughout this painfully prolonged economic recovery, economic developments as they are reported have often been confusing. They seem to send mixed messages about the best courses of action for fiscal policy.

Sometimes we are told that more personal spending (consumption) would be good, and sometimes we are told we need to save more. Sometimes we are told that we need to reduce the government budget deficit, and sometimes we are told that continued deficit spending is needed to avoid a double-dip recession.

So what should we be doing with fiscal policy right now -- consolidating or stimulating?

The most recent economic news is that the economy’s overall growth rate has slowed and is falling short of expectations (2.2 percent annual growth rate of GDP for first quarter of 2012 compared with 3 percent in the prior quarter and 2.5 percent expected). Personal spending has slowed as well (0.3 percent monthly growth in March, down from 0.9 percent the prior month and below the 0.5 percent expected). Job gains have also weakened and are not keeping pace with the natural growth in the working-age population.

This news suggests that more private consumption spending, encouraged by continued stimulative, deficit-financed government spending and tax cuts, is needed to further expand...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 - 3:52 PM

By Rebecca Williams 

A viable plan to reduce our country’s mounting deficits and debt will be built on painful choices that include revenue increases and cuts to all government spending, including entitlements and defense. With such thorny issues at stake, it should come at no surprise that many policymakers turn to the easy issue first -- foreign aid. Even here, though, there are no exceptions to the need for government to act and spend strategically.

Skeptics of foreign aid question its effectiveness and value, and some hope to dramatically reduce America’s debt by slashing aid. Meanwhile, proponents insist that foreign aid is an art more than a science -- a modest investment that furthers U.S. foreign policy and addresses a few of the world’s ills.

But hardliners in both camps distort what actually goes on.

Americans significantly overestimate how much our government spends in this area. Respondents to one poll guessed that around 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. In reality, it’s approximately 1 percent. The U.S. government will spend $39 billion on foreign aid in FY2011, a sum equal to 3 percent of the estimated $1.4 trillion deficit. 

Ending or deeply cutting foreign aid will not radically alter federal spending or contribute significantly...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 11:57 AM

Here is a trivia question: Under which scenario would Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid make up the larger share of non-interest (i.e. “primary”) federal government spending?

A. President Obama’s budget

B. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget (House Budget Committee)

The answer is B.

Under Ryan’s budget, these programs would grow from 46 percent of primary spending in 2011 to 62 percent in 2021. This compares with an increase to 56 percent under the President’s budget.

The divergence becomes even more pronounced after that. By 2040, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid account for 74 percent of non-interest spending under Ryan’s budget compared to 62 percent under the President’s budget.

At first, this result may come as a surprise because it is clear that Ryan’s budget would do far more than the President’s budget to curtail the growth of federal health care spending. At...