October 30, 2014

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Thursday, March 31, 2011 - 1:30 PM

Moe, Larry and Curly are fighting in the back seat of the car. No one is in the driver’s seat. As the boys settle down, Curly looks up and says, “Hey, don’t look now but we’re about to be killed.”

Leave it to The Three Stooges to provide the perfect metaphor for what passes as a budget debate in Washington these days.

It appears that we’re headed for a government shutdown in April and a possible default in May all because politicians can’t stop squabbling over a few billion dollars from a small slice of the budget while our overall fiscal policy is headed for a cliff.

The long-awaited “adult conversation” has not yet begun.

Very few dispute the fact that we’re on an unsustainable fiscal path. Yet too few seem willing to take the mountain of official and unofficial warnings seriously enough to do anything about them.

Indeed, they seem eager to engage in a reckless game of fiscal chicken, virtually daring the other side to do something responsible. We are left with a fierce debate over non-security appropriations that account for only 12 percent of the budget.

That is why even tentative sprouts of reason are worth nurturing. For...

Thursday, December 16, 2010 - 4:55 PM

The legal term severable normally gets little notice outside the world of constitutional law -- yet now it has become a big buzzword amongst health care analysts and federal budget wonks. The reason has to do with the numerous legal challenges to the Accountable Care Act's individual mandate to purchase health insurance. 

A U.S. District Court Judge in the Eastern District of Virginia recently declared the mandate unconstitutional. He also declared it severable from the rest of the health care reform legislation. This means that even though he found that one provision is unconstitutional, he held that the rest of the legislative package is constitutional and can continue on its path to full implementation. If the courts ultimately agree with this judge's interpretation, the budgetary results could become disastrous without congressional action.

While we have discussed the primacy of the individual mandate in making health care reform work (here and here,) it makes sense to revisit the issue of...

Monday, December 6, 2010 - 11:54 AM

By now we've seen a number of proposals for fiscal sustainability from groups with very different perspectives. Some of the harshest critics of the bipartisan deficit-reduction panels are liberal-leaning groups that argue that the recommendations of the President's commission, as well as those of the Bipartisan Policy Center and the MacGuineas-Galston plan, leaned too heavily toward the conservative side and proposed packages that were too heavy on spending cuts and too insistent on keeping taxes (too) low. (I may agree that I would have preferred more revenue increases in the overall mix than the President's commission proposed, but I don't think that should lead me to declare the overall proposal "dead on arrival" or to reject the the individual policies contained within it.)

I've looked at two...

Monday, November 22, 2010 - 5:52 PM

My least favorite argument in deficit reduction debates is that a particular option can’t be chosen because it is too unpopular. If that criterion is strictly applied, we might as well fold our tents and wait for the inevitable fiscal crisis because we’ll never eliminate trillion-dollar deficits with “popular” options.

That message was clearly conveyed last week by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force, led by two veterans of past deficit-reduction efforts, Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin. Their report followed a similarly tough message from Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of the President’s bipartisan fiscal commission.

Elected officials have not flocked to embrace these reports and it is easy to see why. They propose spending cuts in popular programs. They challenge cherished tax breaks and raise revenues in the process. They produce howls of protest from powerful interest groups on the political left and right.

But they each do one more thing: They outline plausible paths to a sustainable fiscal policy.

As a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s task force, I’m very proud of the resulting report. We worked together in a spirit of cooperation and compromise....

Thursday, November 11, 2010 - 3:07 PM

The problem with campaign rhetoric is that you’re stuck with it if you win.

The danger is that people might just believe you can really do all the wondrous things you promise and if you don’t deliver, they get angry. That, in part, helps to explain what happened to President Obama and congressional Democrats last week.

Now, it’s the Republicans’ turn to see if they can live up to their campaign rhetoric. On the fiscal front, they have set a very high bar for themselves.

Republicans campaigned on a written pledge to put the nation on a path to a balanced budget by cutting spending and not raising taxes.

It is easy to see the political appeal in that promise. Most people think the deficit is too big and that the federal government spends too much. Very few want to see their taxes go up.

The problem with the Republicans’ pledge is that the numbers don’t add up.

Forget ideology and just look at the projections. Last year’s deficit came in at $1.3 trillion. This year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects a deficit of $1.1 trillion. Beyond then, CBO projects 10-year deficits totaling $6.2 trillion.   

...

Monday, November 1, 2010 - 12:15 PM

By the end of the week, the political landscape in Washington will have changed. We will have a new Congress and attention will quickly turn to the 2012 presidential contest.

Yet, regardless of who ends up in charge of Congress, or who begins making frequent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, certain facts will remain the same.

Health care costs, including Medicare and Medicaid, will still be growing faster than the economy. Social Security will still promise more benefits than it can pay under current law. We’ll still be fighting two wars. The costs of extending all the expiring 2001 and 2003 tax cuts will still top $4 trillion. The economy will still be stagnant. And for all these reasons, the debt will still be on an unsustainable track.

Welcome to Washington, 112th Congress. The nation awaits your solutions to these continuing threats.

Not since 1992, when independent presidential candidate Ross Perot captured 19 percent of the popular vote, has fiscal policy been such a dominant issue in a national election. Voters are clearly uneasy with trillion dollar deficits and a growing debt that is on track to reach World War II levels over the next decade.

As retiring...

Saturday, October 16, 2010 - 11:20 PM

The Social Security Administration announced on Friday that for the second year in a row there would be no cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits for 2011.  Why not?  As the SSA explains, this is a straightforward, non-political determination based on historical economic data:

The Social Security Act provides for an automatic increase in Social Security and SSI benefits if there is an increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) from the third quarter of the last year a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) was determined to the third quarter of the current year.

Very objectively, there will be no cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits in 2011 because there was no increase in the cost of living, as measured by the CPI-W, from the 3rd quarter of 2008 (the last time a COLA was triggered, for 2009 benefits) to the 3rd quarter of 2010.  The latest data on consumer prices from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the...

Monday, October 4, 2010 - 10:33 AM

Fiscal Year 2010 ended last Thursday but no one was popping champagne corks. Little wonder. For the second year in a row, the federal government ran a budget deficit well in excess of one trillion dollars.

Final figures will be announced later this month, but it seems likely that the FY 2010 deficit was about $1.3 trillion or 9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Regardless of the exact number, there is little doubt that the deficit will be the second largest as a share of GDP since the end of World War II. If there is any good news in this, it is that the deficit came down from the previous year’s total, which at $1.4 trillion (9.9 percent of GDP) was the largest of the post-WWII era.

This might not be as bad as it sounds if the deficit were projected to shrink as the economy recovers. After all, much of the huge spike in red ink can be attributed to reduced revenues and higher spending caused by the recent recession and attempts to deal with it. As these factors fade, the deficit will come down. However, projections for the next several years don’t get much better.

As the new fiscal year began on Friday, the most recent projection by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) showed a deficit of $1.1 trillion for this fiscal year and cumulative deficits of $6.2 trillion over the coming decade. That,...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 - 2:24 PM

When Congress soon leaves the Capitol for the campaign trail, a long list of unfinished business will likely be left behind. This year will mark the first year since the modern budget process was created in 1974 that no budget resolution has been passed by either the House or the Senate. Of the twelve appropriations bills necessary to fund the federal government during the coming year, Congress has not enacted one of them. To avoid a government shutdown, Congress will need to pass a continuing resolution this week. 

If this breakdown of the budget process were not discouraging enough, there now appears to be a possibility that the Senate could leave without confirming the President's nomination of Jack Lew to head the Office of Management and Budget. The two Senate committees with jurisdiction over the nomination held public hearings and promptly approved the nomination with decisive bipartisan votes. The Budget Committee approved the nomination by a vote of ...

Monday, September 27, 2010 - 4:50 PM

Last week, House Republicans offered a “Pledge To America” outlining their fiscal priorities and reform ideas. As with most such campaign manifestos, it is long on base-pleasing rhetoric and short on troublesome details.

The document correctly warns about the dire fiscal outlook and the potential dangers of escalating deficits and debt. Conspicuously missing from the Pledge, however, is any plan to bring deficits down to a sustainable level or even to improve upon the deficit projections in the President’s budget. It is worth noting that such a plan has also been missing from Congressional Democrats this year because Congress has failed to pass a budget resolution.

The net effect of the Pledge policies would do very little, if anything, to rein in our long-term structural budget deficits and may well lead to deficits even higher than under the President’s budget.

Not only would the Republicans cut taxes by more than the President, but they would spend more on defense and repeal cost-saving provisions in this year’s health care reform legislation. In theory, lower spending on non-defense discretionary programs would offset some of this. But savings from discretionary programs, which must be enacted on an annual basis, are far less certain than savings from entitlement reforms or tax increases, which operate...