July 23, 2014

Posts on federal budget

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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...

Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - 10:08 AM

Developments on the budget front last week demonstrated both the difficulty of achieving a grand bargain and why it may not be totally out of reach.  

First, the difficulty.

It became apparent last week that the House and Senate have made no progress on resolving their differences over Fiscal Year 2014 appropriations.  At issue is whether to assume that the sequestration cuts that took effect in March will continue. They are about $90 billion apart and unable to budge.

Then, in a speech last Tuesday, President Obama floated a new kind of  “grand bargain”: one aimed at short-term job creation rather than long-term fiscal sustainability.  The speech broke no new ground and did little to break the budgetary logjam.

While conceding that a fiscal sustainability plan must eventually be adopted, including a way to replace the sequestration cuts, Obama argued that his plan would at least address the current slow pace of job creation.

Essentially, he proposed to pay for a package of jobs programs (such as he proposed in his budget) with “transition revenue” from base-broadening corporate tax reform ideas that he proposed last year. The only new...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - 5:39 PM

The Obama Administration released its Mid-Session Review (MSR) of the budget on Monday. It would be nice to say that this update arrived just in time to clinch the deal on a fiscal sustainability plan, or even a plan to get through the rest of the year, but sadly that is not the case.

There are no apparent negotiations going on between the House and Senate to work out their differences over next year's spending levels, let alone any broader deal involving the President. Certain mechanical functions are grinding forward, such as the release of the MSR and approval of a few appropriations bills, but these are disjointed efforts with no attempt at coordination.

We no longer have "regular order" so much as we have regular chaos. A tacit decision seems to have been made to take no action on the budget until a crisis is at hand, which is not likely to occur until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.  And even then, the "fix" might be to simply push things forward just enough to reach the next crisis point – raising the debt ceiling - later in the fall.

Within that context, the MSR means little. Still, it is useful to have the administration reiterate its most recent proposals with updated numbers.

...
Monday, June 10, 2013 - 2:37 PM

Judging by recent media reports, there is a growing belief in Washington that the best way to deal with the deficit is to “declare victory.” 

It won’t work.

The deficit problem is far from being solved and its lengthy shadow will hang over every other issue, including the economy, until a fiscal sustainability plan is in place.

To be sure, the deficit is coming down and that is good news. However, most of the improvement comes from a recovering economy, allowing expiring tax cuts to expire and assuming that improbable cuts in discretionary spending and Medicare provider payments will actually occur.

And even if all these things turn out as planned, the budget is still on an unsustainable track. We’ll need a lot more than a short-term declining deficit to declare victory. We’ll need a plan that doesn’t just bring the deficit down but keeps it down on a sustainable basis.

The core problem is not a cyclical deficit driven by the ups and downs of the economy but an underlying structural deficit caused by a mismatch between future spending promises and current tax law.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that under current law the deficit will bottom out at $378 billion in 2015 before turning higher again, reaching $895 billion by 2023. Meanwhile, as a share of the...

Monday, May 20, 2013 - 2:37 PM

For those inclined to look beyond the sharp drop in the deficit this year, as we should, the budget update released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on May 14 has some striking indications of things to come. 

Not surprisingly, these indications tell us that the most powerful factors in the current budget dynamic are aging, health care costs and interest on the debt -- things political leaders seem the least interested in doing anything about.

One way to show the looming problem is to compare the composition of federal spending in 2013 with 2023 under the CBO current-law baseline. During those 10 years, total spending is projected to rise from 21.5 percent of the economy (GDP) to 22.6 percent. However, it is far from a uniform acceleration.

Discretionary spending, which includes defense, is projected to shrink from 7.6 percent of GDP to 5.5 percent, the lowest level on record.  

Mandatory spending other than Social Security and the major health care programs is also projected to shrink, from 2.6 percent of GDP to 2.1percent. Between these declining categories, the total drop in spending totals a very substantial 2.5 percent of...

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...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 - 12:09 PM

Is the federal budget heading for unsustainable deficits or unsustainable surpluses?

It all depends on the long-term assumptions. 

Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued an update of its long-term fiscal outlook for the federal government. As in prior reports,  GAO found that an extension of current law (the Baseline Extended simulation) leads to rising and eventually unsustainable debt “driven by a fundamental imbalance between revenue and spending, which, on the spending side, is driven by the aging of the population and rising health care costs.”

On the other hand, the President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a new estimate last week showing that an extension of President Obama's budget policies would not just be sustainable but would lead to growing surpluses that would eventually pay off the national debt.

Not that OMB thinks this will actually happen. In fact, OMB calls the end result “unrealistic and undesirable.”

As explained by OMB in the Analytical Perspectives of the 2014 Budget, “These projections are not intended to be a prediction of future legislative action, nor are they intended to reflect explicit policy proposals for the years beyond 2023; rather, they are a mechanical extrapolation of the Budget policies.”

But in...

Monday, April 8, 2013 - 11:25 AM

Opening Day for the baseball season has come and gone in Washington but for the budget season it comes on Wednesday, when the President officially unveils his Fiscal Year 2014 proposals. Will he get a hit or be sent back to the bench?

Early indications are that he will at least put the ball in play, and that’s a promising start.

Some Republican leaders in Congress have already declared, in effect, that the President’s budget is a whiff or a foul ball at best. Even among Democrats, there are those who seem to regard the forthcoming budget as a sacrifice bunt because of its apparent concessions to Republicans on entitlement cuts.

Clearly, there will be a vigorous debate. However, there is reason to be optimistic that the President’s budget may help move budget discussions in the right direction.

If preliminary reports are correct, the budget will include a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases that would bring the deficit down to 1.7 percent of GDP by 2023. That’s higher, but more realistic, than the House Republicans’ balanced budget goal and more ambitious than the Senate Democrats’ goal of bringing the deficit down to 2.2 percent of GDP.

 In other words, it aims for a compromise, albeit one closer to the Senate Democrats’ goal, which is hardly surprising.

The key, of...

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 - 11:22 AM

Most plans to put the federal budget on a more sustainable path make a crucial assumption: That today’s younger workers will pay more of their own retirement costs than previous generations have.

By setting aside more money for retirement, the thinking goes, these younger workers can enable the federal government to reduce the high projected growth of Social Security and Medicare. They should theoretically be able to do this because they have more time to save large amounts of money and to let those savings compound.

As The Concord Coalition has often noted, however, Washington already favors older generations in many ways. And younger Americans face a number of financial hurdles and future challenges that must be kept in mind.

Many of them have been hit hard by the last recession, struggling with a poor job market and – thanks to skyrocketing tuition costs -- large amounts of student debt. With companies cutting back on retirement and health care programs, many younger people who have jobs  do not receive the compensation or employee benefits that their parents did.

The large and growing federal debt, meanwhile, means that younger Americans can expect higher taxes and less assistance from the federal government...

Monday, March 25, 2013 - 11:52 AM

President Obama is back home after a diplomatic mission to the Middle East in which he exhorted the Israeli people, particularly young Israelis, to ignore the competing claims of extremists and take the push for peace into their own hands. His speech on this topic at the Jerusalem International Convention Center seems to have hit a responsive chord.

It got me thinking that the President should repackage some of the same themes for a national address as Washington enters a crucial phase in negotiations over a budget deal between Democrats and Republicans. While the policy choices in each situation are not directly comparable, some of the points he made in the Jerusalem speech could resonate in this country as well.

Obama could begin by addressing America’s youth with the same message he had for Israelis.

“Part of the reason I like talking to young people,” he said, “is because no matter how great the challenges are, their idealism, their energy, their ambition always gives me hope. ... I believe that you will shape our future.”

Next, he could remind Americans that even deep differences can be bridged if the ultimate...