How Not to Cut the Deficit

Congress returned from the Independence Day break on Monday. They will leave again on Friday, and won’t return until after Labor Day. From The Hill:

Congress is poised to leave Washington…without passing funding to combat the Zika virus or completing work on spending bills to avoid a government shutdown.

One bill that might get passed is the re-authorization for Federal Aviation Administration programs that expire on Friday. Since Congress likes to fly, most think they will pass an extension that will last through September 2017.

If you’ve taken a flight this summer, you’ve likely been tied up in long TSA security lines. But you may not have focused on the real reason: Funding for the TSA has been sliced by 8.5% over the past five years, leading to a 5.5% drop in the number of screeners.

Yet, in the same period, the number of air travelers has increased by more than 15%. And those business wizards in Congress should be forced to tell the rest of us how a labor-intensive business can successfully process increasing numbers of customers with a smaller work force.

Steven Rattner in the NYT:

This year, discretionary spending — which encompasses airport security, infrastructure, education, research and development and much more — will be lower than it was in 2005. (Adjusted for inflation.

The discretionary portion of the federal budget, including education, research, infrastructure and other programs, has been falling, while spending on mandatory programs (including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) has been going up. Rattner reports that total government spending is up by 23% since 2005, while mandatory spending is up 45% in the same period, and discretionary spending is down 3%.

Here are some examples:

  • Since 2003, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have seen their funding fall by 23%, forcing an 8% reduction in grants to researchers even as grant applications were rising by 50%.
  • In the past 10 years, spending on all education has fallen by 11% percent.
  • Since 2010, the IRS’s budget has been slashed by about 18%, even as the IRS was given new duties in connection with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The result: The enforcement staff has shrunk by 23%, leading to a similar reduction in the number of audits. Fewer audits have meant additional uncollected taxes, estimated at $14 billion over the past two years. And almost a million pieces of unanswered correspondence from taxpayers need responses.
  • The EPA’s budget has been cut by an enormous 27% — about $3 billion since 2010. As a result, the agency had to eliminate more than 2,000 workers, bringing its staffing to the lowest level since 1989.

Last fall, a bi-partisan group added $80 billion in new discretionary spending over the next two years. Then, Congress doubled the cost of the deal by giving more money to the military and to Medicare, taking the deal to $154 billion while paying for about half the tab with legitimate savings.

A few months later, Congress retroactively extended a raft of expired tax provisions — without even a pretense of paying for them.

As a result of Congress’s fudging, the projected 2017 deficit rose to $561 billion, from the $416 billion that was estimated just six months earlier.

We shouldn’t expect that Congress will make any big decisions involving taxes or spending in an election year. But at the least Republicans need to stop using the appropriations tool to take aim at agencies such as the IRS and the EPA, whose missions they reject.

In the case of the TSA, Republicans want it privatized. Not because privatizing will save any money or make the TSA more effective, but to help a few of their corporate sponsors have another feed at the government trough. Republicans want to see schools, prisons, and the postal service privatized. The people who are employed by these private, profit-making companies will not be paid as well, and will not receive benefits they have today.

This is what you get when you believe that government should be “run like a business.” Certainly, we need a more efficient, better managed bureaucracy, but the deficit-cutting value of their fix is peanuts compared with the simple act of generating revenue.

You know, that would be raising taxes sufficient to pay for the critical tasks we require of the government.

The GOP would like you to think that Donald Trump represents a threat to Republican tax and deficit-cutting orthodoxy. To the extent Trump has revealed his thinking on tax policy, it looks consistent with the Republican Party. Trump’s grand accomplishment is to create an alliance between the true economic interests of the Republican Party and that segment of the American electorate largely marginalized and displaced by the actions of that same elite.

Welcome to the Republican paradise.

 

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