September 15, 2016

Restoring More Discretion to the Federal Budget

C. Eugene Steuerle

Institute Fellow and the Richard B. Fisher Chair, Urban Institute

Rudolph G. Penner

Institute Fellow, Urban Institute
Summary

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.

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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.