Here’s a quick multiple choice quiz about the Gang of Six’s new budget proposal.
Over the next ten years, would the proposal:
a. Cut taxes by $1.5 trillion
b. Increase taxes by $2.0 trillion
c. Increase taxes by $1.2 trillion
d. All of the above.
If you answered (d), you have a fine future as a budget watcher (or you peeked at the answer from the last time we played this game).
The answer depends on the yard stick you use to measure changes in tax revenues. Unfortunately, people now use at least three different yard sticks.
The first, known as the current law baseline, assumes that Congress doesn’t change the tax laws on the books today. That means every temporary tax cut expires in the next two years, including the individual tax cuts enacted in 2001/2003 and extended in 2010, the “patch” that limits the growth of the alternative minimum tax, and the current estate tax.
The second, known as the current policy baseline, assumes those three temporary tax cuts all get permanently extended.
The third, known variously as the Fiscal Commission’s plausible baseline or the alternative fiscal scenario of 2010, assumes that those three temporary tax cuts all get extended with one big exception: the tax cuts that benefit “high-income” taxpayers expire.
With three different yard sticks, we get three different measures of the impact of the Go6 proposal.
Relative to the current law baseline, the Go6 plan would be a $1.5 trillion tax cut. In other words, the Go6 plan would raise $1.5 trillion less in revenue over the next ten years than if Congress did nothing, and all the temporary tax cuts expired. That’s an important number because the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office are required to use current law in preparing official budget scores.
Relative to the Fiscal Commission’s baseline, the Go6 plan is a $1.2 trillion tax increase. That includes three pieces: $1.0 trillion from reducing tax preferences (some of which may be the moral equivalent of cutting spending), $133 billion in new revenues for the highway trust fund (but not from higher gas taxes), and about $60 billion from using a lower measure of inflation – the chain CPI – to index the tax code.
Relative to current policy, finally, the Go6 plan is roughly a $2 trillion tax increase. In addition to the $1.2 trillion in tax increases noted above, it assumes an additional $800 billion in revenue – equivalent to what would be raised by allowing the “high-income” tax cuts to expire.* The Go6 plan would thus raise about $2 trillion more in revenue over the next ten years than if Congress simply kept in place the tax policies that apply in 2011 (except the payroll tax holiday, which everyone assumes will eventually expire).
Bottom line: You should expect to hear the plan characterized as anything from a $1.5 trillion tax cut to a $2 trillion tax hike.
P.S. For a similar discussion comparing two of the three baselines, see this nice piece by David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal.
P.P.S. What really matters, of course, is the plan itself, not how it scores against some possibly arbitrary baselines. Bob Williams makes that point here.
* I revised this sentence to emphasize that the plan includes revenue equivalent to letting the “high-income” tax cuts expire; it doesn’t actually let the rates expire – instead, it includes a wholesale reform that includes lowering the top rate to no more than 29 percent.