September 20, 2014

Posts on tax policy

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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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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...

Friday, February 28, 2014 - 4:41 PM

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) released a detailed discussion draft on comprehensive tax reform Wednesday that eliminates inefficiencies in the tax code and makes it simpler. The Concord Coalition commends Chairman Camp for his efforts. The shame is that it looks like the rest of Congress and the President are desperate to avoid discussing how to improve upon it and then enact a reform plan.

Camp’s proposal effectively leaves the tax code with three tax brackets: One at 10 percent, one at 25 percent, and an additional 10 percent surtax for high earners. To achieve this consolidation and lowering of rates without adding to the deficit, Camp’s plan limits, discards or merges many of the code’s tax expenditures -- special provisions that favor certain behaviors, individuals and businesses. The proposal significantly alters “sacred cow” provisions like the home...

Monday, January 13, 2014 - 5:02 PM

The national taxpayer advocate, who serves as ombudswoman for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), released her annual report last week, saying budget reductions have “significantly hampered” the agency’s ability to provide top-quality service. While additional funding would undoubtedly help, an even better way to help taxpayers and collect revenue more effectively would be for Congress to eliminate many tax expenditures. 

Nina Olson’s report notes that IRS funding has decreased by nearly $1 billion, or 8 percent of its budget, since Fiscal Year 2010.

Her report says that shrinking budgets for the agency mean “fewer dollars available to fund all federal programs.” Restoring the lost funding, she said, would lead to more effective revenue collection and could help reduce the budget deficit.

The annual report came after a very tough year for the agency. The IRS became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed that it had applied extra scrutiny to some political advocacy groups that had applied for tax-exempt status. Olson’s office issued a special...

Friday, December 13, 2013 - 4:43 PM

Unlike the past few years, the recent budget agreement has smoothed the way for Congress to recess for its winter break well before Christmas. That has left some traditional end-of-year legislation out in the cold.

That is bad news for the unemployed, as emergency unemployment benefits are scheduled to expire. Yet there is also hopeful news for those who wish to bring some sanity to the tax code because the oft-extended package of miscellaneous tax breaks, collectively called the “tax extenders,” is also scheduled to expire.

The tax extenders are temporary provisions. Like other tax expenditures, they are disguised federal subsidies that encourage certain behaviors. Every year Congress has extended them for at least another year, allowing certain individuals and businesses to lower their tax bills. Extenders represent the ad hoc approach that has made the tax code a complex, inefficient mess of tax expenditures.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-Mich.) came out last week against approving the extenders for another year. Instead, they want a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code that would eliminate wasteful subsidies.

Denying a vote on the...

Monday, October 28, 2013 - 9:38 AM

Who says that Democrats and Republicans can't reach a grand bargain?

Harry Reid and Paul Ryan seem to have it figured out. If Democrats and Republicans don’t demand compromises from each other, everyone can get along. It’s the perfect political grand bargain: Do nothing.

Unfortunately, that could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The prospects for a real grand bargain – one that actually makes some headway on solving our fiscal imbalance – are not looking good right now. It is particularly disappointing, however, that already two key members of Congress are simply accepting the gridlocked status quo rather using their leading positions to figure out a better result.

In an interview with the Associated Press (AP), Ryan summed up his view this way: “If we focus on some big, grand bargain then we’re going to focus on our differences and both sides are going to require that the other side compromises some core principle and then we’ll get nothing done.”

That’s a bit like saying elected officials can’t do a grand bargain because it would require a grand...

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...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 1:52 PM

Last Thursday, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Health Care Cost Containment Initiative released a comprehensive plan to increase efficiency and reduce costs while reorienting the nation’s health care system to become more patient-centered. That combination would ideally lead not only to a more sustainable fiscal future but to better health care as well.

The plan targets the largest health care levers that federal policymakers have: Medicare and the tax code -- specifically the exclusion of employer-provided health care from taxation. The plan, as scored by health policy experts, would reduce budget deficits over the next 10 years and then continue to lower the trajectory of the federal debt.

Medicare would be transformed into a system that rewards value and coordination instead of the quantity of services, and the tax code would no longer encourage overspending on health care. Furthermore, these changes at the federal level are meant to encourage and incent a more rational private health care system.

These lofty goals were heralded by BPC’s health care leaders: former Senators Tom Daschle, Bill Frist and Pete Domenici, along with Dr. Alice Rivlin. Their agreement after a year 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...

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...