August 20, 2014

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Monday, November 18, 2013 - 1:16 PM

In recent interviews and speeches, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the military is “challenging every past assumption, every past formula” for allocating budget resources as he tries to reorganize the military for 21st century challenges in the face of a rapidly tightening budget.

Hagel appears to be on the right path in encouraging top Pentagon officials to take a fresh look at everything in setting defense priorities. But uncertainties about sequestration and the Fiscal 2014 budget in general are complicating that work.

In January a new round of sequester cuts is scheduled to reduce the military’s budget cap by $21 billion. The Pentagon faces nearly $1 trillion in overall spending cuts over the next decade due to the budget caps and sequestration put in place by the Budget Control Act. In FY 2012, the defense budget was $670 billion.

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale says he implemented $37 billion in cuts required by the sequester earlier this year in part by delaying sending army units...

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...

Sunday, October 13, 2013 - 1:10 PM

We will soon see whether there is any remaining capacity in the U.S. political system to reach compromise across partisan lines for the common good.

Republican congressional leaders say that if President Obama wants the government to reopen and the debt limit to be increased he will have to make concessions on spending and agree to negotiate a long-term deficit reduction deal. Obama says he will not negotiate anything until the debt limit is raised and the government reopened. After that, he’ll talk.

If neither side blinks, the government will remain shut and nation could begin defaulting on a portion of its obligations within a matter of days..

That disastrous outcome must be avoided. But how?

Backing down now would be politically perilous for either side. Failing to back down, however, would be perilous for the economy, the nation’s creditworthiness and the trust that citizens place in elected leaders to carry out the most basic functions of government.

Surely, both sides know that ultimately two things have to happen.

1.) The debt limit must be increased. There is no realistic alternative and any set of fiscal options, even Paul Ryan’s austere House Budget Committee plan, would require additional borrowing.

2.) There must be a meaningful negotiation over fiscal policy in...

Saturday, October 12, 2013 - 9:48 AM

Reflecting the sour public mood towards Washington, a panel of experts on the federal budget described themselves Thursday night as worried, puzzled, frustrated and disappointed as the fiscal stalemate dragged on.

They faulted top political leaders and other elected officials in both parties for irresponsibility, inflexibility and, in some cases, a lack of common sense.

It all led former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) to recall a comment by Will Rogers on congressional philosophy: “If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t stupidity get us out?”

Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert L. Bixby offered this suggestion for members of Congress who have failed to level with the public on the nation’s fiscal challenges: “If you are trying the strategy of pandering, pandering, pandering, and you are at 5 percent in the polls, why not try something else – coming together and legislating?”

The panel discussion took place at The Concord Coalition’s annual Economic Patriots Dinner in Washington.

Also on the panel were former Federal Reserve vice chair Dr. Alice Rivlin, former senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), and former senator Bill Brock III (R-Tenn.). Washington Post reporter Lori...

Monday, October 7, 2013 - 4:13 PM

Lawmakers struggling with the Fiscal 2014 budget will face an even tougher challenge funding the government in future years as interest payments rise to record levels, squeezing other parts of the budget and making it more difficult to quell rising deficits.

Although slow economic growth and Federal Reserve monetary policies have kept interest rates at record lows in recent years, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expects rates to rise steadily in the coming years, making interest payments the fastest growing part of the federal budget.

For Fiscal 2013, CBO estimates interest payments totaling $223 billion, or 1.3 percent of GDP. By 2023, interest payments are expected to climb to $823 billion, which is 3.1 percent of GDP -- a percentage that has only been exceeded once in the past 50 years. By 2038 the figure would increase to 4.9 percent.

Rising interest payments would make a larger share of revenue unavailable for spending on federal programs; to prevent the deficit from growing larger, rising interest payments would either crowd out spending on federal programs or cause taxes to go up.

Assuming Washington eventually navigates its immediate budget and debt limit difficulties, interest rates are expected to rise in the next few years due to an improving economy. Yet, if interest rates are even...

Monday, September 9, 2013 - 9:48 AM

Syria is not the only challenge Congress faces as it returns to Washington from its August recess. Monday was the first of only nine legislative days that both the Senate and House of Representatives will be in session before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. Congress will need to approve a spending plan before then and take action on the debt limit not long after that.

Unfortunately, little progress has been made towards passing a budget this year. The budget resolutions adopted by Senate Democrats and House Republicans are $91 billion apart in overall spending levels, and no appropriations bills have been signed into law.

House Republicans have only been able to muster support for their deep proposed spending reductions in five of twelve appropriation bills, while the only appropriations bill brought to the Senate floor was defeated by a filibuster.

With so little time left on the legislative calendar, Congress is extremely unlikely to finish its appropriations bills on time. That would leave lawmakers with an important choice: adopt a continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government or allow it to shut down.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the government could default within weeks unless Congress raises the debt ceiling. The Treasury warns that it will run out of "...

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...

Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - 10:08 AM

Developments on the budget front last week demonstrated both the difficulty of achieving a grand bargain and why it may not be totally out of reach.  

First, the difficulty.

It became apparent last week that the House and Senate have made no progress on resolving their differences over Fiscal Year 2014 appropriations.  At issue is whether to assume that the sequestration cuts that took effect in March will continue. They are about $90 billion apart and unable to budge.

Then, in a speech last Tuesday, President Obama floated a new kind of  “grand bargain”: one aimed at short-term job creation rather than long-term fiscal sustainability.  The speech broke no new ground and did little to break the budgetary logjam.

While conceding that a fiscal sustainability plan must eventually be adopted, including a way to replace the sequestration cuts, Obama argued that his plan would at least address the current slow pace of job creation.

Essentially, he proposed to pay for a package of jobs programs (such as he proposed in his budget) with “transition revenue” from base-broadening corporate tax reform ideas that he proposed last year. The only new...

Monday, July 22, 2013 - 2:36 PM

For those who follow the credit rating agencies’ assessments of the United States, the past several weeks have offered mixed messages. Overall, some improvement has been noted, mostly due to the steadily improving economy and the declining deficit. Concerns remain, however, about the long-term outlook and the ability of elected leaders to raise the nation’s debt ceiling without provoking a crisis.  

When Moody's Investors Services upgraded the U.S.'s credit-rating outlook from "negative" to "stable" last week, it warned that without further action in Congress, the rating could be under pressure again in the future.    

Moody's observed that, "over the longer term, a rise in the fiscal deficit associate[d] with pressure on government spending from health care and Social Security could also pressure the rating if not addressed."  

Nevertheless, Moody’s provided the most upbeat assessment for the U.S. of the three main agencies, which also include Fitch Ratings and Standard and Poor’s. Aside from the switch to a stable outlook, Moody’s maintained its AAA rating for the U.S..

In a ...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - 5:39 PM

The Obama Administration released its Mid-Session Review (MSR) of the budget on Monday. It would be nice to say that this update arrived just in time to clinch the deal on a fiscal sustainability plan, or even a plan to get through the rest of the year, but sadly that is not the case.

There are no apparent negotiations going on between the House and Senate to work out their differences over next year's spending levels, let alone any broader deal involving the President. Certain mechanical functions are grinding forward, such as the release of the MSR and approval of a few appropriations bills, but these are disjointed efforts with no attempt at coordination.

We no longer have "regular order" so much as we have regular chaos. A tacit decision seems to have been made to take no action on the budget until a crisis is at hand, which is not likely to occur until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.  And even then, the "fix" might be to simply push things forward just enough to reach the next crisis point – raising the debt ceiling - later in the fall.

Within that context, the MSR means little. Still, it is useful to have the administration reiterate its most recent proposals with updated numbers.

...