The Trump Administration Dilemma on Tax ReformPosted: May 5, 2017 Filed under: Taxes and Budget, Uncategorized 4 Comments »
This post originally appeared on TaxVox.
Q: Since the modern federal income tax was created in 1913, how often has Congress enacted a revenue-neutral income tax reform that significantly expanded the tax base and lowered rates??
A: One. In 1986.
It is no wonder that the Trump administration—like others before it—is struggling with broad and systemic tax reform. To better understand why, think of tax legislation in three distinct flavors: tax cuts, tax increases, and revenue-neutral changes.
Most income tax bills cut taxes. The reason is obvious. Elected officials like to give something to voters rather than take something away from them.
Since the large tax increases required to finance World War II, most revenue bills reduced taxes, particularly in the period up through 1981. Significant reductions in defense spending as a share of the economy, along with inflationary increases in incomes that pushed people to pay higher individual income tax rates, made legislated tax cuts possible during what I call the Era of Easy Finance.
In a few cases, Congress did raise income taxes. Tax historians Joseph Thorndike and Elliott Brownlee have shown that almost all major income tax increases came about as a result of war. Others, generally raising annual revenues by well less than 1 percent of GDP, have been enacted, for instance, as part of several deficit reduction agreements between 1982 and 1997.
Broad-based and systemic income tax reform that keeps revenues roughly the same as current law requires a tremendous amount of work, largely because it means broadening the tax base by identifying which popular tax subsidies, now costing more than $1 trillion annually, should be targeted for elimination.
Less broad-based but still systemic reforms are also possible. Outstanding modern examples are the codification effort of 1954 and the 1969 reform best known for addressing tax issues surrounding foundations and charities.
As economic coordinator of the Treasury’s 1984 study that led to the Tax Reform Act of 1986, I remember how difficult it was for Treasury and Joint Committee on Taxation staffs to draft legislation and to estimate cost and distributional effects for those proposals. Increasing taxes on some to pay for tax cuts for others requires tax writers to agree on principles to guide and justify their actions. The political aspects of tax reform, building a political coalition to push to see these principles enacted, are even more difficult than the technical concerns.
Tax reform of the revenue-neutral variety is much harder than merely cutting taxes. To cut taxes, lawmakers simply tally a set of wants, perhaps pare them down to fit within a specified amount, and leave the financing bill for current tax cuts to future generations of unidentified taxpayers.
Finally, the design of any systemic reform must acknowledge the economic and political environment of its time. The 1986 Act, for instance, took advantage of bipartisan concerns over tax shelters, President Reagan’s focus on high tax rates, Democrats’ objections to the rising income taxation of the poor, and social conservatives’ efforts to reverse the rising burden being placed on families with children. Deficits were perceived to be a problem, though a smaller one than today in part because Congress had raised taxes and cut spending in the 1982 and 1984 budget agreements and in the Social Security Act of 1983.
President Trump and his team have promised to cut tax rates for all businesses and for the middle class, while not increasing the deficit. They can’t get there by taxing the poor. Even if they assume greater economic growth, it’s not going to be enough to pay for the historically large tax cut provisions. So what’s left?
Some seem to want simply to throw in the towel on revenue neutral tax reform and just cut taxes instead. But $1.3 trillion in additional spending is already built in for 2026 (largely due to rising interest costs and increased spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid). This is far more than the $850 billion in additional taxes projected to be collected for that year due to a growing economy. How will Congress and the president cover that existing shortfall, even before they think of more tax cuts?
That’s the box the Administration is in. And it is why tax reform is no easier than health care reform. Avoiding big new revenue losses requires systemic reform, such as increasing taxes on individuals to offset business tax cuts. Or engaging in true budget reform that includes scaling back on popular programs. Those are the requirements of our time, like them or not, and while briefly they might be ignored politically, over the longer run they can’t be dodged as a matter of either economics or arithmetic.
How Both Public Tax Reform and Private Sector Initiatives Can Strengthen CharitiesPosted: April 27, 2017 Filed under: Columns, Nonprofits and Philanthropy, Taxes and Budget 2 Comments »
This post originally appeared in TaxVox.
In the March and April 2017 print editions of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, I proposed both a public and a private sector initiative for strengthening charities. These included improved tax policies as well as steps charities could take independently of any legislation. These initiatives aim to increase charitable giving of income, wealth, and time.
My organizing principle was simple: First, make tax subsidies more effective and efficient. Second, improve the way charities market themselves. Neither Congress nor the charitable sector has ever approached either task in a comprehensive way. The articles are here and here, with permission of the Chronicle.
Here, briefly, are my suggestions:
What government can do:
- Allow all taxpayers—even current non-itemizers—to claim a deduction for contributions above some minimum amount.
- Extend the deduction to gifts made by April 15 or filing of one’s tax return—similar to the extended contribution date for Individual Retirement Account contributions– rather than December 31 of the previous calendar year.
- Create a better donation-reporting system to IRS to reduce tax non-compliance, with a reward of an extra deduction for those donations; the improved tax compliance should more than pay for the extra reward.
- Make it easier for individuals to make donations from their IRA accounts.
- Reduce and simplify the excise tax on foundations.
- Encourage charitable bequests, especially if the estate tax is cut or repealed.
What charities can do, independently from government:
- Create a national campaign to promote giving, such as:
- Tell simple but powerful human-interest stories extolling generous people.
- Help donors identify worthy programs by promoting access to useful sources of information on each charity.
- Encourage people to give to charity when they settle disputes.
- Help people understand better their potential to give out of wealth, not just income, and to leave lasting legacies:
- Run endowment campaigns.
- Encourage wealth advisers to promote charitable giving.
Today charities feel under siege. They fear they are about to lose direct government support if Congress cuts domestic spending that funds the specific programs they run. And they worry that lawmakers will trim tax benefits for charitable giving by individuals and firms. Their concerns are legitimate but, in truth, over the many decades I have worked with charities on public policy issues, their advocacy has nearly always felt defensive.
Charities can easily become collateral damage from policies that are not aimed directly at them. Congress won’t decide broad issues such as size of government, tax rates, limits on tax incentives, or the share of revenues that should come from income taxes (the only tax where there is a charitable deduction) solely or primarily based on their effect on the charitable sector.
Thus charities must think longer-term as the nation is struggles to define a modern set of public policies and societal goals relevant to 21st century needs and opportunities. My suggestions are intended to extend well beyond any current political battle, no matter which party controls government at any point. Their goal is to strengthen the charitable sector, by improving both government incentives and the outreach and self-examination by non-profits themselves.
Fighting to maintain the status quo is not a strategic option. Nor should every charity expect to come out unscathed in this rapidly changing environment. But the US is facing important choices as it decides the direction and size of government in the Trump era. That debate ought to include a broad look at charities in this new environment and whether that includes strengthening, though reforming, the role of charities in American life.
How the Fight over Symbols Prevents Health, Trade, Immigration and Tax ReformPosted: April 25, 2017 Filed under: Columns, Health and Health Policy, Taxes and Budget 2 Comments »
This post originally appeared on TaxVox.
President Trump came into office promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, abandon key multinational trade agreements, build a wall and send immigrants home, and reform the tax code. Many Democrats have sworn to oppose him at every turn. On the first three items, he has already faced obstacles or stalemate and even temporarily left the battleground. But are these debates really about substantive reform that improves people’s lives? Or mainly over capturing symbols that appeal to each party’s base? Those goals aren’t the same.
Reform defies easy party or ideological labels because it often focuses not on bigger or smaller government but fixing poorly-functioning operations, establishing greater equity among households, or adapting to new circumstances. With health, immigration, trade, and tax policy the need for constant real improvement conflicts with important, but often-counterproductive, fights over political symbolism.
Health Reform. When the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) passed the Senate, backers knew it had flaws. They hoped to fix them later in the legislative process, but the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy cost Democrats their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and made the fixes or amendments requiring a new Senate vote virtually impossible. As a result, the healthcare community and households continue to grapple with an imperfect environment: Gains from expanded insurance coverage have been offset by slower than expected take-up rates, especially among young adults, for ACA marketplace policies, ongoing uncertainty about Medicaid expansions, and failure to come to grips with the full impact of health cost growth, often outside of Obamacare, on the federal budget.
Congress and President Trump have a chance to repair those problems, but both parties find themselves in a box. Republicans can’t accept any reforms that allow Democrats to claim “Obamacare” is being preserved, while many Democrats can’t swallow changes that acknowledge the ACA’s failures.
Trade Reform. Trade is another case where political symbolism impedes needed change. No doubt, our trading partners at times violate the spirit and even treaty letter of “fair” trade (so does the US), but trade agreements are the very vehicle for limiting such violations. Rather than repairing these understandings, political symbolism demands they be torn up or abandoned. Thus, instead of reviving and revising the Transpacific Partnership, which might have enhanced US trade in Asia, the Trump Administration has scrapped it.
Any successful trade agreement must strengthen rather than weaken international commerce if it is to promote economic growth without raising consumer prices. But trade debates occur on treacherous political ground. Any shift in trade, no matter how good or bad, almost inevitably reduces demand for some US-made products and hurts the workers producing those goods, thereby creating a new group of populists who will cry “foul” that the President and Congress have once again abandoned workers.
Immigration Reform. People suffering from persecution, hunger, or lack of human rights will try to escape those horrors and find new opportunity. So it has always been and will always be. Borders are porous enough that there are tens of millions of immigrants, legal and illegal, in the United States and much of Europe. Meanwhile, immigrants grow as a share of developed nations’ total populations, partly due to relatively low-birthrates in the existing populations. We can reduce opportunities for legal entry, step up border patrols, build walls, and send even more people back to their prior country of residence. But none of those actions really address the basic economic and social forces at play, while temporary symbolic political victories leave millions of families fearful of breakup, reduce domestic output by immigrant workers, and hurt America’s image as the home of freedom for people around the globe.
Tax Reform. In taxation, the symbolic fights almost always center on the size of government and progressivity. Yet many of the tax code’s real problems are that it is inefficient, complex, and treats those with equal incomes unequally and inequitably. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 neatly focused on the latter issues by making no significant change in either revenues or progressivity. But even in its early stages, the debate over a 2017 tax reform has already been muddled by a cacophony of mutually inconsistent goals: Reduce tax rates for multinational corporations and cut taxes for the middle class while not increasing the deficit or raising anyone’s taxes.
As long as lawmakers fight mainly over symbols rather than substance, they are unlikely to achieve many real improvements in policy. And tax reform will follow along the path down which health, immigration, and trade reform already seem headed.
Before We Reform Tax Policy, We Need to Know What Is WorkingPosted: March 6, 2017 Filed under: Taxes and Budget 3 Comments »
This post originally appeared on TaxVox
Congress and President Trump are embarking on what is likely to be a major rewrite of the federal income tax code. Yet, neither they nor anyone else knows whether the hundreds of tax preferences embedded in the law accomplish their stated purposes.
Federal agencies routinely collect and assess evidence of the success—or failure—of spending programs. But the IRS is an outlier. Although it manages a broad range of federal programs through the tax code, including housing, health, wage subsidies, and retirement, it has made little effort to evaluate its portfolio.
These policies, sometimes called tax expenditures, add up to more than $1 trillion per year and comprise approximately one-quarter to one-third of combined spending and tax subsidies. Yet the IRS appears to do less than any other agency to gather evidence on the efficacy of the programs it runs.
Years ago, the Office of Management and Budget instructed executive branch agencies to measure performance. Many did so. But the IRS essentially said it didn’t have the information, and did not comply.
Over the years, government has tried repeatedly to gather solid evidence to justify new and existing government policies. Success has been limited. It has tried “Planning, Programming, and Budgeting,” and “Zero-Based Budgeting.” Congress enacted the Government Performance and Review Act (GPRA). Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) advanced this goal recently through the creation of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.
The National Academies of Science has appointed committees to investigate both how to improve the quality of economic evidence and encourage its use to inform policy. I was fortunate enough to chair one of those committees. Jason Furman, President Obama’s last chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, recently noted how new evidence advances our ability to design social policy.
Overall, success has been mixed. But rarely have we learned less than at the IRS. My purpose is not to assess blame. Congress has given the IRS far more responsibility than it can possibly manage, even as it has slashed its budget. That is not likely to change any time soon. But even in that environment, there are ways the IRS can develop and present economic evidence on the programs it runs.
I have two simple suggestions. Both require the Commissioner to place greater priority on generating evidence.
First, the IRS should report administrative information to Congress on each program or subprogram it operates. It should describe how tax subsidies are distributed by taxpayer income and geographical location. It should report on noncompliance or on gaps in its ability to enforce the law in each program. To assess a program adequately, we need solid evidence on how well IRS can administer it.
Beyond basic administrative information, the agency could at least on a rotating basis start to evaluate program benefits and costs.
Second, the IRS commissioner should hire a Chief Evaluation Officer who would work closely with the Taxpayer Advocate to teach and encourage staff to make better use of the tools that generate such evidence. Demetra Nightingale, who recently served in this capacity for the Labor Department, says these tools were most successful when staffers believed they could help them do their jobs better, and not simply the result of some top-down command.
The most successful of modern reforms, the Tax Reform Act of 1986, succeeded in eliminating some tax breaks and deterring some shelters. But even it added new complexity to the code. If Congress is going to look seriously at the scores of subsidies in the current code, it needs better evidence about which achieve their goals and which can be properly administered. To do that, Congress needs to give the agency the resources it needs to properly evaluate the programs it manages. And the agency needs to do more analysis with whatever resources it has.
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.
The California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program: Why pension reform turns inefficiently to the statesPosted: December 5, 2016 Filed under: Economic Growth and Productivity, Taxes and Budget 2 Comments »
This post originally appeared on TaxVox.
By: C. Eugene Steuerle and Pamela Perun
Starting as soon as it can be made operational, perhaps in 2018, as many as 7 million private-sector California workers who currently have no access to a job-based retirement plan will be automatically enrolled in a state-managed savings program. The California Secure Choice Retirement Savings program will start with employee contributions of 3 percent of earnings, though the state board managing the initiative could increase the contribution rate to as much as 8 percent. While workers will be auto-enrolled, they can opt out of the plan.
The new law is an important step toward securing better retirement coverage for those who require it most. Too many people reach old age with far too little saving to meet their long-term needs.
While an interesting idea ,the plan, however, faces limits that would be better served through federal reform. For instance, companies that operate across state borders don’t want to be bogged down with 50 different sets of state regulations. In addition, federal law currently grants employee deposits fewer tax breaks than are enjoyed by employer contributions. Only federal law changes can deal with those challenges.
However, changes to federal law that reduce tax revenues may be blocked by the constraints of the federal budget process.
Here’s the rub. At the federal level, any pension reform that might succeed in securing significantly more retirement saving will be scored as losing revenue to the federal government. Big revenues. And no major tax reform or tax cut in recent years, as well as President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign tax plan, has made pension reform a priority.
Suppose, for instance, that a national reform increases net contributions to traditional retirement plans by $80 billion, or one percent of the $8 trillion of wages and salaries that workers earned in 2016. If those savers reduce their tax on new deposits by 15 percent, revenues would decline by $12 billion in the first year and by more than $100 billion over a decade, even after accounting for taxable withdrawals.
Even if we see big new tax cuts in a Donald Trump presidency, that’s a lot of money. However, state legislators do not face the same budget process constraints as federal lawmakers. They are indifferent to the effects of state law on federal revenues, and the impact of a big tax-advantaged savings plan on state revenues are relatively modest given lower state income tax rates. Hence, for now, all incentives point toward the states acting independently, inconsistently, and inefficiently in tackling our nation’s larger retirement security problems.
There are alternatives. We have proposed an alternative strategy through a federal plan that would greatly simplify current law while broadly encouraging both employer and employee contributions.
Of course, it makes some sense to let states operate as laboratories of democracy. However, the more successful this California effort and similar ones being considered in Illinois, Oregon, and Connecticut, the greater the need for the type of coordination that only the federal government can provide. Until we get our federal budget into some sort of order, however, federal reform likely will continue to be stifled. Catch 22, once again.
Photo courtesy of Randy Bayne/via Flickr Creative Commons.
The confusing debate over child tax credits and exemptionsPosted: October 31, 2016 Filed under: Children, Taxes and Budget 1 Comment »
This post originally appeared on TaxVox.
In this year’s presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s proposal to double the child tax credit and Donald Trump’s plan replace the dependent exemption with a higher standard deduction have both helped focus attention on tax treatment of families.
Interestingly, both progressives and conservatives oppose extending preferences to children in middle and higher income families. Progressives prefer to “spend” the money on those with less income, and conservatives, especially supply-siders, believe the funds would be better used to reduce marginal tax rates.
But they confuse the two purposes of providing benefits to children. The first is a classic social welfare argument that revolves around spending to subsidize one thing (in this case, the needs of children) at the cost of higher taxes or lower subsidies for another. This is especially powerful when the benefit goes to those with the greatest needs: Concentrating a greater share of spending on lower-income people results in the greatest reduction in poverty.
But there is second goal of adjusting tax burdens for children—and it is based on a tradition that goes back at least to Aristotle: to treat equals equally under the law. Economists call it horizontal equity, but I prefer the term “equal justice.” In the tax system, this means taxing equally those with an equal ability to pay. And it should apply among all households, rich and poor alike.
This is especially important when you think about households with and without children. In almost all transfer and tax systems, benefits are adjusted for household size. For instance, the federal poverty level is about $12,000 for a one-person household and about $4,000 higher for each additional person, or about $24,000 for a four-person household. To put it another way, the guideline suggests that a $24,000 four-person family can live at the same poverty level of consumption as a $12,000 single person.
In the past, the tax system used the dependent exemption to provide equivalence for families with children. But the exemption waned in importance as per capita income rose much faster than the exemption, which for a long time was not indexed and even now is indexed only for inflation. As a result, the relative burden on households with children rose. After I revealed this in the early 1980s, President Reagan supported an increase the exemption. To believe that the current exemption of about $4,000 is the right number, one would have to believe that a couple with no children and $52,000 of income lived an equivalent lifestyle as one with $60,000 of income and two children.
More recently, Congress and presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush expanded the child credit in lieu of increasing the dependent exemption. That the credit has been made partially refundable and extends fairly high up the income scale implies that those expansions served both goals of spending on those in need and establishing tax parity among families of different sizes. The current exemption of about $4,000 is worth $1,000 to a family that pays a marginal tax rate of 25 percent, so the current credit of $1,000 plus the exemption grants that family about $2,000 per child in total benefits.
Whatever the right balance between the social welfare and equal justice approaches, most voters judge government on whether they think they are being treated fairly. But if children are both expensive to support and reduce a household’s ability to pay taxes, and if a welfare system separately provides supports for households with low incomes, then shouldn’t adjustment for children put explicitly in the tax system apply to most or all households? It is an interesting and important question and one for which at least politics has led elected officials to answer, “Yes.”
Photo courtesy of Ken Teegardin/via Flickr Creative Commons.
What Trump’s and Buffett’s tax returns say about how the wealthy are taxedPosted: October 19, 2016 Filed under: Taxes and Budget 3 Comments »
This post originally appeared on TaxVox.
The individual income tax has never taxed the very wealthy much. Donald Trump may have claimed huge losses starting in the early 1990s, but, like other rich investors, he wouldn’t have paid much tax regardless. Despite paying some tax, Warren Buffett’s release of his 2015 tax return affirms that conclusion.
There are two major reasons: first, paying individual income taxes on capital income is largely discretionary, since investors don’t pay tax on their gains until they sell an asset. Second, taxpayers can easily leverage capital gains and other tax preferences by borrowing, deducting expenses, and taking losses at higher ordinary rates while their income is taxed at lower rates. Such tax arbitrage is, in part, what Trump did.
To be fair, some, like Buffett, live modestly relative to their means and still contribute most of what they earn to society through charity. Some pay hefty property and estate taxes and bear high regulatory burdens. And salaried professionals and others with high incomes from work, whether wealthy or not, may pay fairly high tax rates on their labor income. Still, there are many ways for the wealthy to avoid reporting high net income produced by their wealth.
The phenomenon is not new. In studies over 30 years ago, I concluded that only about one-third of net income from wealth or capital was reported on individual tax returns. Taxpayers are much more likely to report (and deduct) their expenses than their positive income. In related studies, I and others found that rich taxpayers reported 3 percent or less of their wealth as taxable income each year.
But your favorite billionaire did not get that way by earning low single-digit returns to his wealth. Buffett’s 2015 adjusted gross income (of $11.6 million) would be around one-fiftieth of 1 percent of his wealth, which in recent years has been estimated to be near to $65 billion. Yet, over the past 5 complete calendar years, Buffett’s main investment, Berkshire Hathaway, has returned an average of over 10 percent annually.
The wealthy effectively avoid paying taxes on those high returns either by never selling assets and thus never recognizing capital gains, deferring income long enough that the effective tax rate is much lower, or by timing asset sales so they offset losses, as Trump likely has been doing to use up his losses from 1995.
When you die, the accrued but unrealized gains generated over your lifetime are passed to your heirs completely untaxed, though estate tax can be paid by those who, unlike Buffett, don’t give most away to charity.
“Tax arbitrage,” the second technique, is simple in concept though complex in practice. It allows an investor to leverage special tax subsidies just as she’d arbitrage up any investment—in this case, to yield multiple tax breaks. If you buy a $10 million building with $1 million of your own money and borrow the other $9 million, you’d get 10 times the tax breaks of a person who puts up $1 million but, because she doesn’t borrow, buys only a $1 million building.
The law limits the extent to which most people can use deductions and losses from one investment to offset income from other efforts, but “active” investors are exempt from most of those restrictions. In real estate it is quite common for the active individual or partner to use the interest, depreciation, and other expenses from a new investment to generate net negative taxable income to offset positive income generated by other, often older, investments.
The main trick is simply to let enough income from all the investments accrue as capital gains. For example, take a set of properties that generate $1 million in rents and $500,000 in unrealized appreciation. If expenses are $1,200,000, net economic income would be $300,000 ($1,000,000 plus $500,000 minus $1,200,000); but net taxable income would be a negative $200,000 ($1,000,000 minus $1,200,000) since the unrealized appreciation is not taxable income.
Real estate owners enjoy other tax benefits as well. They can sell a property without declaring the capital gain by swapping the asset for another piece of real estate—a practice known as a “like-kind” exchange. Often, when a property changes hands it ends up being depreciated more than once.
At the end of the day, tweaks to the individual income tax system, including higher tax rates, are unlikely to increase dramatically the taxes paid by the very wealthy. Instead, policymakers need to think more broadly about how estate, property, corporate, and individual income taxes fit together and how to reduce the use of tax arbitrage to game the system.
Photo courtesy of Stuart Isett/via Flickr Creative Commons.
Restoring More Discretion to the Federal BudgetPosted: September 15, 2016 Filed under: Aging, Economic Growth and Productivity, Taxes and Budget 1 Comment »
By: C. Eugene Steuerle and Rudolph G. Penner
The nation must change how it makes budget decisions. Permanent entitlement and tax subsidy programs, particularly those that grow automatically, dominate federal spending. Their growth, often set in motion by lawmakers long since dead or retired, is not scrutinized with the same attention as the discretionary programs Congress must vote on each year to be maintained, as well as grow. The result? A predetermined, inflexible federal budget that does not reflect our country’s needs.
Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the three largest entitlement programs, accounted for $1.9 trillion, or about half, of federal spending in 2015. More important, they will absorb more than all the increase in tax revenues our growing economy will provide over the next decade and beyond. This astounding growth, combined with political unwillingness to collect enough taxes to pay for current government spending, translates to accelerating increases in budget deficits and national debt.
Congress can take steps to draw more attention to long-term sustainability when making budget choices. One possible reason such growth remains unchecked is that much of the budget process currently focuses at most on total spending and revenues over the next 10 years. This leads to game-playing when policymakers decide to increase government largess: Costs can be hidden outside the budget window, or costly “pay-fors” can be postponed for a later Congress to deal with.
Reforms focused on a 10-year window are similarly myopic and inadequate. To protect existing beneficiaries when enacting reform, typically only a small portion of the deficit reduction shows up in the first decade; the most impact is made on future beneficiaries, not current ones. A longer time horizon also makes reforms more palatable politically; it shifts the focus from threatening today’s retirees to allowing younger households to garner greater resources during their working years in exchange for less relative growth in government retirement benefits.
Better presentations of the budget priorities set by the president and Congress is crucial for reform. Current budget documents do not give a very clear picture of how much growth in spending is predetermined versus newly legislated. Nor do they reflect the relationship among real growth in taxes, tax subsidies, and spending programs.
What would such an improved portrayal show? Near-term problems in how our money is spent, not just long-term ones related to growing debt. Today’s current law, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, implies $1.281 trillion more inflation-adjusted dollars will be spent in 2026 than in 2016: $845 billion from revenue increases and $436 billion from deficit increases. Of these dollars, 33 percent will be devoted to Social Security and 37 percent to health programs, mostly Medicare and Medicaid. A further 27 percent will be devoted to larger interest costs related to debt increases.
What does this leave for everything else? Essentially nothing. About 1 percent of the $1.281 trillion would be spent for defense and 4 percent for other mandatory spending, most of which is for non-health entitlements. Domestic programs that must be funded every year will be cut slightly in real dollars while declining substantially as a share of national income. Only much larger deficits at an unsustainable level prevent further hits on these programs.
Entitlements should be reviewed more frequently, and periodic votes of Congress should determine most of their growth. Permanent tax subsidies need similar scrutiny and limits placed on their automatic growth. In good times, tax rates must be high enough to avoid pushing today’s costs onto tomorrow.
Automatic triggers that activate if economic and demographic developments turn out worse than expected are one way to slow benefit growth or increase revenues. Sweden, Canada, Japan, and Germany use triggers in their Social Security programs; U.S. policymakers can learn from them. Of course, triggers work best when they reinforce sustainable programs. If required adjustments are too politically painful, Congress will simply override them, as it did for many years with updates to physician payment rates in Medicare.
We must grant future voters and those they elect more flexibility to allocate budget resources. Improving the way Congress budgets can enable government to better respond to changing needs, set new national priorities, and get off a disastrous fiscal path.
— C. Eugene Steuerle is an Institute fellow and the Richard B. Fisher chair at the Urban Institute. Rudolph G. Penner is an Institute fellow at the Urban Institute. They are the coauthors of “Options to Restore More Discretion to the Federal Budget,” a joint publication by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Urban Institute.
A version of this post originally appeared on Economics21.
Photo by 401(K) 2012 via Flickr Creative Commons.