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Opinion: Fiscal Order Goes Way of the Dinosaur in Tax Debate

Latest actions show Congress isn’t serious about debt and deficits

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks at a press conference Thursday on small-business taxes. Pay-as-you-go requirements do not apply to the current tax reconciliation bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks at a press conference Thursday on small-business taxes. Pay-as-you-go requirements do not apply to the current tax reconciliation bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

There was a time when members of Congress expressed concerns over the country’s level of debt and deficits. Laws were enacted to create speed bumps and stop signs to establish fiscal discipline. That now seems like a distant memory. Exhibit A is the current tax reform effort.

The permanent pay-as-you-go law is in effect, as is the Senate’s pay-as-you-go rule. The requirement that increased federal spending or tax cuts be matched by reduced spending or revenue increases to avoid expanding the budget deficit dates to the Reagan administration.

But the most recent fiscal 2018 budget resolution explicitly vacated PAYGO requirements from applying to this year’s tax reconciliation bill. So how will the statutory PAYGO law affect Congress’ deliberations on tax legislation? Unfortunately, not much.

In 1985, Congress enacted the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law to set the country on a path to a balanced budget with annual deficit targets and across-the-board reductions, or sequesters, if the targets were not met. Discretionary spending caps were established in 1990 during the George H.W. Bush administration and the first PAYGO process was incorporated into budget law to address more directly changes in entitlement and revenue laws. PAYGO was extended in 1997 under a Republican-controlled Congress and, combined with budget legislation that year, resulted in balanced federal budgets for the first time in decades.

The PAYGO statutory law expired in 2002 and was not reinstated until 2010 under President Barack Obama. During the eight-year interim period, the Senate continued with its PAYGO rule that had been in place since 1993. That rule requires at least 60 votes on legislation that increases direct spending or reduces revenues, or any combination of the two, and adds to the federal deficit over six- and 11-year periods. Importantly, unlike the statutory PAYGO law, failure to comply with the Senate rule does not automatically lead to spending cuts. (It’s a speed bump.)

In addition to the Senate PAYGO rule, the House adopted its own cut-as-you-go rule in the 112th Congress that prioritized spending cuts over revenue increases to offset new spending programs. However, CUTGO would not have slowed House passage of its tax bill and the Senate PAYGO rule conveniently does not apply to its tax bill.

While statutory PAYGO is permanent law, its impact will not be determined until 15 days after the current Congress adjourns its first session. The Office of Management and Budget would then be required to tally up all spending and revenue bills enacted in the first session. Assuming a tax bill becomes law before the first session adjourns — say by Christmas — we should know the impact of PAYGO by mid-January.

We can nonetheless make a good guess today. The reported Senate tax bill would increase the deficit by $38 billion this year and by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years, according to estimates by the Joint Committee on Taxation last month. While the House-passed bill would increase the current year deficit by $117 billion, it would have a comparable impact over 10 years. Based on the procedures outlined in the PAYGO law, a sequester of “nonexempt” mandatory spending programs totaling $140 billion would be required to take place immediately.

But what nonexempt programs would see an immediate reduction? In the barnyard of mandatory spending programs, some are more equal than others. Of the nearly $2.8 trillion spending on such programs, only a small subset would be subject to reductions. The list of exempt programs is long, beginning with Social Security and disability programs, veterans’ programs, civilian and military retirement benefits, Pell Grants, refundable tax credits, and all low-income assistance programs including Medicaid, SNAP, CHIP and child nutrition programs.

While the Medicare program is not exempt, the law limits its reduction to 4 percent, or $28 billion in 2018. What’s left after that? Not much. In fact, the remaining nonexempt programs will not total the $112 billion required to be cut after Medicare.

Would the president’s PAYGO sequester then eliminate all farm price support programs just as planting season begins, terminate the Crime Victims Fund and eliminate all the Affordable Housing Program subsidies? Unlikely. Even if ordered, Congress would quickly, in a bipartisan vote, stop the cuts. Indeed, history reveals the law has never really been enforced, with $5.6 trillion in PAYGO-ordered cuts being waived by Congress.

So, a crude tool designed to prod Congress to face up to its fiscal responsibilities now goes the way of the dinosaur. If one thinks the current Congress and administration are truly concerned about the level of debt they are placing on future generations, think again.

G. William Hoagland is a BPC senior vice president, helping direct and manage fiscal, health, and economic policy analyses. He previously served as vice president of public policy for CIGNA Corporation, staff director at the Senate Budget Committee, and director of budget and appropriations in the office of former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance.

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