In response to the recent budget deal which has already passed the House of Representatives, Taxpayers for Common Sense has issued a new report “Real Savings, Real Deficit Reduction: Relieving Budget Caps with Common Sense Savings in Fiscal Year 2014”, showing how $100 billion could be cut from the federal budget for fiscal 2014, completely offsetting the supposedly onerous cuts required by the sequester. Here is a summary of what TCS has come up with:
Of course there are many ways to achieve $100 billion in savings in a single year and this is only one particular way to do it. But it is a balanced plan making roughly comparable cuts from many different agencies and also including a significant amount of tax expenditure savings. It would, of course, be much better to also include adjustments to entitlement spending such as Social Security and Medicare. A big reason for keeping the sequester in place, or offsetting it with equivalent cuts, as TCS is suggesting, is to create more interest in making necessary changes in entitlement programs.
Yet another way of accomplishing the same goal would be to keep the sequester spending levels in place but to give each government agency the authority to rearrange the spending cuts within its only agency. This is what management should be doing anyway on a routine basis.
It is very disappointing that Congress will not do the job, one way or another, that is required to operate the government on a sound financial basis. Let’s hope that the voters make big changes in the elections coming up in 2014!
Beltway insiders are praising the just announced budget deal between the Democrats and the Republicans. For example, a news analysis in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Accord Is Departure for Capitol”, suggests that budget politics may be changing, getting any deal is very hard, that perhaps bipartisanship isn’t dead in Washington but that there is still unfinished business. This is a purely euphemistic assessment. All this deal really does is to let the big spenders off the hook.
What it does is to relax the sequester by $63 billion for the next two years for very little in return. The $84 billion in new fees over ten years “officially” reduces the deficit by $21 billion but two year’s worth of new fees is just $16.8 billion. This means that the deficit will actually increase by $46 billion over the next two years.
But the real problem is that the leverage represented by the sequester is being thrown away for the next two years and this sets a bad precedent for the future. For example, we can now assume that the debt limit will also be raised for two more years in February 2014 because there will no longer be any leverage for bargaining for any other changes.
This in turn means that entitlement reform is for all practical purposes dead for the next two years. This is the really hard problem to solve. Big spenders will do anything to avoid dealing with it. Responsible fiscal conservatives know it must be addressed and need all the help they can muster to get something done.
What happens if the budget deal is not passed by Congress? It simply means that the sequester remains in effect and that discretionary spending will be $43 billion lower this current budget year than otherwise. The value of the sequester is to force action on the really thorny issue of reducing entitlement spending. Let’s preserve it for this purpose and not throw it away for nothing significant in return.
Leaders are supposed to address issues, not walk away from them!
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal columnist David Wessel responds too mildly in “Why It’s Wrong to Dismiss the Deficit” to Larry Summers’ view that we should not worry about the deficit. Mr. Summers says, “Let me be clear. I am not saying that fiscal discipline and economic growth are twin priorities. I am saying that our priority must be on increasing demand.” According to Mr. Wessel, here is the essence of Mr. Summers’ argument:
The deficit isn’t an immediate problem; growth is.
We’ve done enough (about the deficit) already.
The future is so uncertain that acting now is unwise.
Granted that the deficit for fiscal year 2013 is “only” $680 billion after four years in a row of deficits over a trillion dollars each and that interest rates are at an historically low level at the present time. The problem is that the public debt is now at the very high level of 73% of GDP and is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to continue climbing indefinitely. Interest on the debt was $415 billion for fiscal year 2013 which represents 2.5% of GDP of $16.8 trillion. With GDP growth increasing at about 2% per year since the end of the recession in June 2009, this means that interest on the debt is already slowing down the economy and it’s just going to keep getting worse as interest rates inevitably return to higher historical levels.
Growth is very definitely an immediate problem. But increased government spending is the wrong way to address it. The right way to address it is with broad based tax reform (lowering tax rates in return for closing loopholes) to stimulate investment and risk taking by businesses and entrepreneurs. Significant relaxing of the regulatory burden would also help, especially for the small businesses which are responsible for much of the growth of new jobs. So would immigration reform to boost the number of legal workers.
As uncertain as the future is, we can be quite sure that entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) will be going up fast in the very near future as more and more baby boomers retire and the ratio of workers to retirees continues to decline. It would be very risky indeed to assume that economic growth will increase fast enough to pay for increased entitlement spending.
Conclusion: large deficits are a very urgent and immediate problem which we ignore at our peril! Furthermore the best ways of boosting the economy don’t require increased government spending.