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Posts Tagged ‘Spending’

Congressional negotiators are trying to craft a budget deal by mid-December. Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square asked twelve experts what they hoped that deal would include. My suggestion: it’s time to fix the budget process:

Odds are slim that the budget conference will deliver anything big on substance. No grand bargain, no sweeping tax reform, no big stimulus paired with long-term budget restraint. At best, conferees might replace the next round of sequester cuts with more selective spending reductions spread over the next decade.

Those dim substantive prospects create a perfect opportunity for conferees to pivot to process. In principle, Congress ought to make prudent, considered decisions about taxes and spending programs. In reality, we’ve lurched from the fiscal cliff to a government shutdown to threats of default. We make policy in the shadow of self-imposed crises without addressing our long-run budget imbalances or near-term economic challenges. Short-term spending bills keep the government open – usually –  but make it difficult for agencies to pursue multiyear goals and do little to distinguish among more and less worthy programs. And every few years, we openly discuss default as part of the political theater surrounding the debt limit.

The budget conferees should thus publicly affirm what everyone already knows: America’s budget process is broken. They should identify the myriad flaws and commit themselves to fixing them. Everything should be on the table, including repealing or replacing the debt limit, redesigning the structure of congressional committees, and rethinking the ban on earmarks.

Conferees won’t be able to resolve those issues by their December 13 deadline. But the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The budget conferees should use their moment in the spotlight to do so.

P.S. Other suggestions include investing in basic research, reforming the tax system, and slashing farm programs. For all twelve, see here.

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At 8:30 this morning, Uncle Sam suddenly shrunk.

Federal spending fell from 21.5 percent of gross domestic product to 20.8 percent, while taxes declined from 17.5 percent to 16.9 percent.

To be clear, the government is spending and collecting just as much as it did yesterday. But we now know that the U.S. economy is bigger than we thought. GDP totaled $16.2 trillion in 2012, for example, about $560 billion larger than the Bureau of Economic Analysis previously estimated. That 3.6 percent boost reflects the Bureau’s new accounting system, which now treats research and development and artistic creation as investments rather than immediate expenses.

In the days and months ahead, analysts will sort through these and other revisions (which stretch back to 1929) to see how they change our understanding of America’s economic history. But one effect is already clear: the federal budget is smaller, relative to the economy, than previously thought.

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The public debt, for example, was on track to hit 75 percent of GDP at year’s end; that figure is now 72.5 percent. Taxes had averaged about 18 percent of GDP over the past four decades; now that figure is about 17.5 percent. Average spending similarly got marked down from 21 percent of GDP to about 20.5 percent.

These changes have no direct practical effect—federal programs and tax collections are percolating along just as before. But they will change how we talk about the federal budget.

Measured against an economy that is bigger than we thought, Uncle Sam now appears slightly smaller. Wonks need to update their budget talking points accordingly.

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Immigration policy poses an unusual challenge for the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. If Congress allows more people into the United States, our population, labor force, and economy will all get bigger. But CBO and JCT usually hold employment, gross domestic product (GDP), and other macroeconomic variables constant when making their budget estimates. In Beltway jargon, CBO and JCT don’t do macro-dynamic scoring.

That non-dynamic approach works well for most legislation CBO and JCT consider, with occasional concerns when large tax or spending proposals might have material macroeconomic impacts.

That approach makes no sense, however, for immigration reforms that would directly increase the population and labor force. Consider, for example, an immigration policy that would boost the U.S. population by 8 million over ten years and add 3.5 million new workers. If CBO and JCT tried to hold population constant in their estimates, they’d have to assume that 8 million existing residents would leave to make room for the newcomers. That makes no sense. If they allowed the population to rise, but kept employment constant, they’d have to assume a 3.5 million increase in unemployment. That makes no sense. And if they allowed employment to expand, but kept GDP constant, they’d have to assume a sharp drop in U.S. productivity and wages. That makes no sense.

Because increased immigration has such a direct economic effect, the only logical thing to do is explicitly score the budget impacts of increased population and employment. And that’s exactly what CBO and JCT intend to do. In a letter to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan on Thursday, CBO Director Doug Elmendorf explained that the two agencies would follow the same approach they used back in 2006, the last time Congress considered (but did not pass) major immigration reforms.

In scoring the 2006 legislation, JCT estimated how higher employment would boost total wages and thus increase income and payroll taxes, and CBO estimated how a bigger population would boost spending on programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Social Security. They found that the legislation would boost revenues by $66 billion over the 2007-2016 budget window and would boost mandatory spending by $54 billion; various provisions also authorized another $25 billion in discretionary spending subject to future appropriations decisions.

I remember that estimate well since I was then CBO’s acting director. At the time, I thought this was a pretty big deal, doing a dynamic score of a major piece of legislation. I expected some reaction or controversy. Instead, we got crickets. It just wasn’t a big deal. The direct economic effects of expanded immigration—bigger population, bigger work force, more wages—were so straightforward that folks accepted this exception from standard protocol. I hope the same is true this time around.

Note: The approach CBO and JCT will use in scoring immigration legislation is only partially dynamic. It accounts for the direct effects of increased immigration, such as a bigger population and labor force, but not indirect effects such as changing investment. In other words, it follows the standard convention of excluding indirect changes in the macroeconomy; the innovation is accounting for the direct effects. We used the same approach in 2006, analyzing indirect effects in a companion report separate from the official budget score. CBO and JCT will take the same approach this time around.

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The balanced budget amendment introduced by Senate Republicans yesterday contains a striking error. As written, it would limit federal spending much more than they claim or, I suspect, intend (I said the same back in 2011, when this first came up).

The senators want to balance the budget by limiting spending rather than raising tax revenues. They thus propose the following, according to a press release from sponsor Senator John Cornyn:

Requirement to Balance the Budget. With limited exceptions, the federal budget must be balanced.

Presidential Requirement to Submit a Balanced Budget. Prior to each fiscal year, the President must submit to Congress a balanced budget that limits outlays to 18 percent of GDP.

18 Percent Spending Cap. With limited exceptions, Congress must limit outlays to 18 percent of GDP.

That 18 percent figure is in line with average tax revenues over the past four decades, but well below average spending, which has been about 21 percent.

So what’s the error? The way the amendment would implement the spending limit:

Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed 18 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States for the calendar year ending before the beginning of such fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific amount in excess of such 18 percent by a roll call vote. (Emphasis added.)

The amendment thus doesn’t limit spending to 18 percent of the current fiscal year’s GDP; it limits it to 18 percent of GDP in the previous calendar year.

At first glance that may not sound like much. But it works out to be 21 months during which inflation and real growth will almost always be boosting GDP. For example, fiscal 2014 starts in October of this year. If the amendment were effective today, spending would be limited to 18 percent of last year’s GDP—that’s calendar 2012, which started (of course) in January 2012.

That 21-month lag has a big effect on the spending limit. Consider fiscal 2018, the first year it could conceivably take effect (because of a waiting period in the amendment). The Congressional Budget Office projects that nominal GDP that year will be $20.9 trillion. So the Republicans’ fiscal 2018 spending limit ought to be 18 percent of that, a bit less than $3.8 trillion. But the amendment would look back to calendar 2016 to set the limit. CBO estimates that year’s GDP at roughly $19.1 trillion, nearly $2 trillion less than for fiscal 2018. The amendment would thus limit fiscal 2018 spending to a bit more than $3.4 trillion. That’s only 16.4 percent of GDP that year, about $330 billion less than the Republicans’ stated goal.

If you do the same math for the remaining years in CBO’s latest outlook, fiscal 2019 through 2023, that gap never falls below $300 billion.

The same drafting error came up when GOP senators introduced a balanced budget amendment in 2011. When I wrote about it then, several commentators suggested that perhaps it wasn’t an error, but rather a sneaky way to try to limit spending even further. I am not so cynical. Drafting a spending target based on GDP isn’t easy, since you don’t know what future GDP will be. So I can understand why someone drafting this might try to use a measure of GDP that’s already known, albeit subject to much revision. But they goofed.

It’s disappointing that no one has fixed this error in the intervening 18 months. I am not a fan of an arbitrary constitutional limit on spending—even with a supermajority escape valve—but as a fan of arithmetic, let me offer one simple approach: use a GDP forecast from whatever entity is responsible for the spending forecast. For the president’s budget submission, that would be the Office of Management and Budget, and for the congressional process it would be either CBO or the House and Senate Budget Committees. That would make the GDP forecast even more politically sensitive, of course, but it’s better than a formula that misses its intended target by $300 billion each year.

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My Urban Institute colleague Gene Steuerle says yes: politicians have gone too far trying to control future policies and spending.

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