July 24, 2014

Posts on federal budget

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Monday, July 14, 2014 - 11:18 AM

With the economy continuing its slow recovery, the administration’s Mid-Session Review budget projections released on Friday show little change in the overall outlook. Under the President’s policies, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) anticipates a deficit for the current fiscal year of $583 billion, down $66 billion from the administration’s March projection and far below the trillion-dollar-plus deficits that came with the Great Recession.

It is important to remember, however, that the federal debt -- high by historical standards, at nearly $17.6 trillion -- remains a deep concern, even with quite favorable economic and political assumptions.

Under its proposed budget, the administration says, the 10 annual deficits over the next decade would add another $5.5 trillion to that total. That is up by nearly $600 billion over the March budget.

While the deficit is lower than the earlier projection for 2014-16, it is higher in all subsequent years. The biggest change is that revenues are now projected to be $760 billion lower over the coming decade.

As a result of higher deficits in the out years, debt held by the public is now projected to be slightly higher (72 percent of GDP) in 2024 than projected in the March...

Saturday, June 28, 2014 - 9:58 AM

Short-term improvements in the federal government’s finances have led to widespread complacency in Washington about fiscal reform.

But a panel discussion this week highlighted the continuing need for such reform, with former members of Congress lamenting the sharp political divisions within the two major parties as well as between them that hinder constructive change.

“We have a fiscal challenge which is really a political challenge which really is a societal challenge. . . .the two parties are more polarized than ever before,” said Evan Bayh, a former senator (D-Ind.). “The Democratic Party has moved further left, the Republican Party has moved even further right.”

Mike Castle, a former congressman (R-Del.), sounded a similar theme, noting the pressures faced by moderates in both parties. “The Congress of the United States today,” he said, “is a difficult place.”

The panel discussion took place in Washington on Wednesday night, when The Concord Coalition honored Senators Dick Durbin and Tom Coburn with the 2014 Paul E. Tsongas Economic Patriot Award.

Joining Bayh and Castle for the panel discussion were former senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), former House member John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert L. Bixby.

Castle and Tanner are Concord’s co-...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 - 10:00 AM

Following last year’s bipartisan budget agreement, this was supposed to be the year of a harmless fiscal ceasefire on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, the ceasefire is becoming a retreat for fiscal responsibility.

On issues ranging from tax and entitlement reform to highways and veterans health, Congress has backtracked, ducked and gimmicked its way around hard choices. This pattern does not bode well for any attempt to put the budget on a sustainable track after the fall elections.

Backing away from military retirement reforms. The first sound of retreat came in February with overwhelming votes in the House and Senate to repeal a provision included as part of their budget agreement just a month earlier that limited cost-of-living adjustments for working-age military retirees.

The minor change supported by the Pentagon would not have saved a huge amount of money (roughly $7 billion over 10 years) but represented the type of difficult choice necessary to reduce defense spending. However, in the face of complaints from veterans groups, Congress quickly backed down. To save face, lawmakers replaced the savings on paper with unspecified automatic cuts 10 years from now, but it was still a clear case of kicking the can down the road.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014 - 9:19 AM

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) cost estimate for the Senate’s expansion of veterans’ health care has been getting a lot of attention from budget groups and members of Congress. As illustrated by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, when fully implemented, the part of the legislation that provides broad access to care providers outside the VA system might cost up to $50 billion a year -- more than doubling what is currently spent for veterans’ health. This new “mandatory appropriation” would increase the deficit by more than the prescription drug benefit under Medicare Part D.

While there has been a lot of misplaced consternation among members of Congress about CBO’s scoring accuracy, there has also been some constructive discussion about the need to find offsets for the new spending. However, there has not been nearly enough discussion about whether the entire congressional strategy and this rushed “fix” are misguided.

The first problem is that Congress, in trying to rapidly...

Monday, May 5, 2014 - 4:00 PM

A book titled “Dead Men Ruling” is not the place you would expect to find an optimistic message about our nation’s future. That is the case, however, with a new book from budget expert Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. The critical connection he draws between renewed fiscal freedom and generational fairness casts the budget debate in a far more important context than deficit reduction for its own sake. This larger theme is one that The Concord Coalition has long embraced.

Despite the dismal fiscal outlook, which portends rising deficits and debt in perpetuity, Steuerle argues that “we no more live in an age of austerity than did Americans at the turn of the twentieth century.... Conditions are ripe to advance opportunity in ways never before possible, including doing for the young in this century what the twentieth did for senior citizens, yet without abandoning those earlier gains.”

The key to realizing these opportunities, he says, is “breaking the political logjam that…was created largely by now dead (and retired) men.”

As Steuerle puts it, “both parties have conspired to create and expand a series of public programs that automatically grow so fast...

Monday, March 17, 2014 - 12:46 PM

House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp (R-Mich.) remarked recently that there are some similar ideas in the tax reform proposals that he and President Obama have suggested. Normally overlap between Republican and Democrat ideas is a welcome occurrence.

But at least one feature in the Camp and Obama tax reform plans is an exception: Their plans to shore up the Highway Trust Fund by using one-time revenue from changes to the corporate tax system.

Unless lawmakers do something, later this year the largest part of the Highway Trust Fund -- the Highway Account -- will be unable to meet all of its obligations. The Congressional Budget Office recently projected that the entire trust fund will become insolvent in 2015.

While lawmakers need to come up with a solution, using short-term revenues from tax changes on unrelated corporate profits earned abroad is not a good approach and would only delay...

Monday, February 24, 2014 - 3:52 PM

As we await the full release of the President’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget, some important specifics have been slowly made public. It looks like this budget, as is usually the case, will contain a mixture of sensible reforms and politically expedient omissions.

The first bit of news is that this year’s budget will not contain a proposal -- included last year -- to switch the government-wide formula for measuring inflation to a more accurate index called the “Chained CPI.” 

Switching would save money in numerous spending programs, including Social Security, that provide cost-of-living increases. That’s because the government’s current formula, according to most economists, overstates inflation. The Chained CPI addresses this problem while ensuring that the value of federal benefits still keep up with citizens’ purchasing power.

Because tax brackets are indexed to inflation, switching to the Chained CPI would also increase revenue.

The President’s budget does not have the force of law and does not normally form the basis for the congressional budget resolution. It is a stylized world in which the administration proffers a multi-faceted policy course and projects where that would lead the nation fiscally.

In that world last year, the administration rightly identified that the country has a...

Friday, February 14, 2014 - 11:46 AM

The House Budget Committee last week approved a bill on a bipartisan 22-10 vote that would switch the annual congressional budget process to a biennial (two-year) cycle.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wisc.), a committee member, has attracted 100 co-sponsors, roughly a third of whom are Democrats. The Concord Coalition has commended Rep. Ribble for pursuing this option.

The difficult struggle each year to pass appropriation bills has made it harder for lawmakers and federal agencies to focus on structural problems in the budget and develop more responsible long-term fiscal policies.

Ideally, biennial budgeting would help Congress improve its allocation and oversight of discretionary spending, which makes up one-third of the budget.

During the first year of a 2-year cycle, lawmakers would set funding levels for federal agencies. Congress would then use the second year to concentrate on oversight, examining how federal agencies administer various programs, how effective the programs are and whether...

Friday, January 31, 2014 - 11:34 AM

For those interested in a vision of fiscal sustainability, the State of the Union Address was a major disappointment.

President Obama noted that the deficit has been cut in half, which is a positive development, but he offered no strategy for making further progress. At $680 billion and 4.1 percent of the economy, last year’s deficit was still quite high. More troubling is that fiscal policy remains on an unsustainable path -- a projection that deserved at least some passing mention.Obama briefly acknowledged that more could be done to bring down the deficit “in a balanced way,” but the general sense was that it was time to move on.

Few would dispute that creating new jobs is a top priority, but that task is compatible with a continued focus on fiscal sustainability. Indeed, a properly phased-in fiscal sustainability plan would improve the economic outlook. Moreover, the budget agreement hailed by the President did little to address either.  

When the President did mention fiscal issues in his speech it was mostly to promote new spending or tax cuts with no cautionary reminder that even a “pay-as-you-go” standard will...

Friday, January 17, 2014 - 1:52 PM

Many state and local governments have done little to address growing structural problems in their budgets that have been aggravated by federal deficit-reduction efforts, according to the State Budget Crisis Task Force.

The bipartisan organization released its final report last week, reiterating a stark warning from its previous reports: “The existing trajectory of state spending, and administrative practices cannot be sustained.”

Former Federal Reserve Chair and Concord Coalition board member Paul Volcker co-authored the report along with Richard Ravitch, a former lieutenant governor of New York. They urged state and local governments to deal with their budget problems and suggested that federal policymakers should focus more attention on how their own deficit-reduction efforts will impact other levels of government.

The task force’s work has concluded with this report, but Volcker plans to start a new organization, the Volcker Alliance, that will follow up on the recommendations and issues raised by the task force.

The task force recommends that Congress create an office to monitor and analyze how federal actions will affect state and local budgets, possibly as part of the Congressional Budget Office.

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