October 23, 2014

Posts on congress

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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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Friday, June 20, 2014 - 1:44 PM

More than 7,000 students, retirees, political leaders and other citizens have played The Concord Coalition’s updated Federal Budget Challenge since we put the updated version online a month ago.

The exercise lets players decide for themselves how they would reduce the nation’s projected budget deficits over the next 10 years by choosing among 40 different policy options, each with its own price tag or savings.

The updated version, built with our partners from the California-based non-profit Next Ten, takes into account what policymakers have done to reduce the deficit over the last two years and showcases several additional options that are available for further deficit reduction.

The Federal Budget Challenge, based on our interactive group exercise Principles and Priorities, also provides participants the opportunity to learn about some of the policy options available to create a more sustainable fiscal future.

In the updated Federal Budget Challenge, the most unpopular choice by players thus far is an increase in discretionary spending -- the part of the budget Congress...

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 - 9:39 PM

Yesterday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released the 2015 government payment levels for the Medicare Advantage private insurance plans that are offered to seniors as an alternative to traditional Fee-for-Service (FFS) Medicare. In a bit of a surprise, CMS projects that total payments will increase by about 0.4 percent despite earlier CMS guidance suggesting payments would be cut by 1.9 percent.

The change follows months of lobbying by the private insurance industry -- fearful of lost profits -- along with members of Congress from both parties who are fearful of being attacked for cutting benefits to seniors.

Medicare Advantage plans have seen annual cuts to their payments from the government through a process set in motion by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and cuts are scheduled to continue (despite the slight increase for next year). The payment reductions were intended to fix a fundamental financing disparity between FFS Medicare and the Medicare Advantage program; insurers are paid more per beneficiary than it would cost the government if the beneficiaries remained in FFS. 

The negative reaction from politicians and interest groups to these continual cuts...

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...

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, 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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