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The Budget Deal: And the Winners Are?

US Capitol-WinterWithin the last two days, the U.S. House and Senate have passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, a $1.1 trillion spending bill for the 2014 federal budget.

So who are the winners in this budget and spending deal?

Without question, Washington politicians are the biggest winners.  With caveats, the American people can also be considered winners.  The only real losers in this deal were the people who wanted significant increases or cuts to federal spending.  Let’s explore each group a little more closely.

Washington Politicians

Although no party or chamber got everything they wanted, everyone got enough to declare victory.  The political movers and shakers also got to burnish their bipartisanship credentials and willingness to compromise.  They also avoided another bruising government shutdown akin to the first 16 days of October.  Even though another shutdown might have inflicted more political damage to Republicans, Democrats were wise not to antagonize a restless electorate.  It’s an election year, and there’s always a risk voters will develop an anti-incumbent attitude and vote to “throw the bums out.”  At the same time, the bills passed by large enough margins that anyone wanting to cast a vote of displeasure could easily do so without scuttling the deal.  In the end, these votes were more symbolic than substantive.

The American People

We the people are winners to some extent.  Albeit four months into the current fiscal year, Congress passed its first real budget and spending bill in four years.  The government has essentially been operating on autopilot for the past four years via temporary and stopgap measures, rather than following the budgetary and appropriations process.  We also avoided another government shutdown, which ultimately doesn’t save any money and only makes many lives more difficult.  Congress also ended the across-the-board spending cuts known as Sequestration.  Although I agreed with the reduction in federal spending, the manner in which it was carried out was asinine.  Sequestration was a political maneuver which was never supposed to be implemented, but it was.  Therefore, it took some time for Congress and the President to figure out another political angle to extricate themselves from the mess they created.

As much as we are winners in this deal, we’re also losers.  In the deal to eliminate Sequestration, Congress increased short-term spending with the promise of larger cuts to future spending.  History has proven the promises of future cuts rarely materialize.  While spending may not have increased much in the short-term, the hard decisions of how to reduce spending and balance the budget have been postponed once again.  The enactment of a spending plan is good, but the process stunk.  Instead of Congress passing the requisite 12 appropriation bills for federal spending, they combined them all into one 1,582 page, must-pass bill, voted on hours after being released.  How well do you think your Representative or Senator read this 1,582 page bill?

The Advocates

Those who advocated for significant spending increases were disappointed. However, if you consider the federal spending increases over the past four years, they have already won in some respects and were unlikely to secure further increases.  The big losers were the budget hawks and those who want to dramatically pare federal spending and balance the budget.  They not only lost the battle to further cut spending, but some of the guaranteed Sequestration cuts were replaced with a promise of future cuts.  Although this deal is only for the 2014 budget, it has set the stage for the 2015 budget.  The motivations for Congress to reach this deal will drive the politics for the 2015 budget to be quite similar.  Therefore, the 2016 budget will probably be the first real opportunity for the budget hawks to make significant steps towards a balanced budget.

Win  and Lose

The 2014 budget and appropriations bills essentially maintain the status quo, which is a win for preventing major financial disruptions.  At the same time, we have lost another opportunity to make the tough decisions and address the issues which are perpetuating the overspending by the federal government and adding to the mounting federal debt.

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Sequestration: The Destruction of a Nation?

Budget CutUnless there is a last-minute deal in Washington, which no one expects to happen, the reductions in federal government spending known as sequestration will start tomorrow.   Some politicians, economists and leaders have shrugged off the cuts as having a negligible effect on the economy and government services, while others are predicting a near cataclysmic effect.

The following are just some of the claims made by President Obama and others opposed to the cuts.

  • Police, fire and other first responders will be laid off.
  • Classroom sizes will swell as teachers lose their jobs.
  • Air travel will become more dangerous when traffic controllers are let go.
  • Security lines at airports could be 4 hours long when the TSA is forced to trim its ranks.
  • Food will be dangerous to eat because the FDA will need to reduce the number of inspectors.
  • Criminals will go free because there aren’t enough federal prosecutors.
  • And my favorite…  Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards says battered women will be forced to remain with their abusers because hotlines for battered women will go unanswered.

We expect a certain amount of posturing and hyperbole in political discourse, but some of the recent statements sound like fear mongering.

In reality, no one knows for sure what the sequestration cuts will do to the economy or government services.  There is certain to be some effect, but if the impact is anything close to what has been predicted in the past weeks, then we are in serious trouble as a nation.

Consider these facts about the sequestration cuts.

  • Total federal spending will be reduced by $85 billion this fiscal year.
  • Half of the cuts are borne by the defense department and the remaining half over the other agencies.
  • Total federal spending in Fiscal 2013 will be approximately $3.8 trillion.
  • The Fiscal 2013 budget deficit is projected to be $894 billion.
  • The sequestration cuts amount to 2.2% of all spending and would reduce the deficit by less than 10%.
  • US GDP is estimated to be over $13 trillion.
  • The sequestration cuts would account for 0.65% of annual GDP.

If 2.2% of federal spending and 0.65% of GDP sends our nation and economy spiraling out of control, the future is much worse than the grim predictions of the sequestration cuts.  Federal spending would have to decrease by 25% to balance the budget.  If a 2.2% reduction caused this kind of havoc on our society, imagine what it would be like if we had to cut spending to balance the budget.

Without question, sequestration will be painful for people directly or indirectly affected, and the across-the-board nature of the cuts probably isn’t the most effective or efficient manner to reduce government spending.  However, if the current sequestration cuts can destroy our nation, we’re already destroyed; we just don’t know it yet.

Check Please

November 1, 2012 1 comment

The Congressional Research Service  issued a report to the Senate Budget Committee outlining the federal spending for benefits to lower income people in the U.S. during Fiscal 2011 (year ending September 30, 2011).  The U.S. government spent $746 billion on programs for lower income people.  If you add in state spending, the total exceeds $1 trillion.

According to the Census Bureau, there were 16.8 million families living below the poverty level in 2011 ($23,000 for a family of 4).  By simple math, this means the federal and state government spent nearly $60,000 for each family in poverty, which is nearly three times the amount they earned during the year.

Less than 10% of the support is in the form of direct cash payments.  Of the $746 billion spent by the federal government, $318 billion is for Medicaid and prescription drug subsidies.  Approximately $66 billion is in the form of direct cash assistance and $73 billion is in the form of tax credits.  The remaining $290 billion of support is delivered through 80 different programs designed to help lower income families.

Given the choice, a number of families might choose to ask for a $17,000 in lieu of the other programs.

It might seem crazy, but do you think it’s efficient to have 84 different programs to help needy people?  Each program has its own objective and purpose, but there is a cost for employees, office space, computers, etc.   The more money spent on overhead, the less is being spent on actually helping people.

A few years ago I helped a school with a grant for an afterschool educational program.  I was surprised and dismayed to discover that over 20% of the grant money was going to be spent for a grant administrator, who would do nothing but complete reports and monitor the work of others.  Sadly, I think that grant is indicative of how many government programs and grants operate; a large chunk of the money is gobbled up in administrative costs.

I’m not against helping lower income families.  In fact, I think we have an obligation to help those who are most vulnerable and in need.  The issue is how the assistance is delivered.

It has been nearly 50 years since Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty and introduced the Great Society.  Trillions of dollars have been spent over the past 5 decades, yet the poverty rate in the U.S. is almost exactly the same as when this great endeavor began. 

Maybe we should consider eliminating a number of programs and giving more cash to those who are in need.  This seems outrageous to most conservatives, who often think people are abusing the system.  Many of us have witnessed people using their food stamps to purchase cigarettes and alcohol.  There will always be people who abuse the system, and they should be punished when possible.  I also believe the current bureaucratic morass often aids them in taking advantage of the system.

Conservatives frequently complain about people being dependent upon the system.  Part of the solution may be giving people more money, which will allow them to be more independent and self-sufficient.  However, this independence must be coupled with more responsibility for their choices.

Your willingness to embrace such an idea is probably influenced by your view of people.  Do you see them as lazy and untrustworthy, requiring a rigid bureaucracy to monitor and keep them in line, or do you trust people to be independent, make good decision and do what’s right when given the opportunity?  Personally, I would rather be trusted to do the right thing, than have some bureaucrat watching over me.  Given the choice, I would prefer to forego all the programs and simply say… “Check Please.”

Arithmetic

A few weeks ago, former President Clinton scored political points while criticizing the economic plan of Gov. Mitt Romney.  He touted the Federal budget surpluses during the final years of his presidency.  He went on to say he was able to balance the budget by simple arithmetic.  He also invoked the simple arithmetic principle to argue that Gov. Romney’s plan didn’t add up and would result in a large tax increase on middle class Americans.

The truth is that neither Gov. Romney nor President Obama’s plans pass the arithmetic test.  A detailed analysis of their plans is far beyond the scope if this article, so I’ll briefly summarize.

The highlights of Gov. Romney’s plan:

  • Cut tax rates by 20% for individuals and lower the corporate rate to 25%
  • Have preferential rates for interest, dividends and capital gains
  • Eliminate loopholes and limit certain deductions for higher income taxpayers

The criticism of Romney’s arithmetic is there aren’t enough loopholes to close which will offset the reduced revenue from the lower tax rates.  Deductions would also have to be limited for lower income taxpayers to make the numbers work.

The main point of President Obama’s plan:

  • Increase the tax rates for people making over $250,000
  • Eliminate the preferential rate for dividends and increase the capital gains rate

These changes are estimated to raise an additional $70 billion in annual tax revenues.

The arithmetic doesn’t work for either of these plans to balance the budget.  For the 2012 budget year, the federal government overspent by $1.1 trillion, and the total national debt has exceeded $16 trillion.  Since the government spends approximately $3.5 trillion each year, it’s a monumental task to close a $1.1 trillion deficit.

The U.S. Treasury collects approximately $2.2 trillion in income tax revenue each year.  To balance the budget under the Romney plan, all current deductions would need to be cut in half to raise another $1 trillion.  Deductions would have to be limited even more if the tax rates are reduced.  The Obama plan is no better.  Even if his tax changes were implemented, he’s about $1 trillion short to balance the budget.  By simple arithmetic, the numbers don’t add up… for Romney or Obama.

We can’t tax our way out of the hole we are in.  We must cut spending in order to balance the budget.  This is not Washington semantics for cuts by reducing the rate of growth or cutting the amount you hoped to spend.  It means actually spending less than the $3.5 trillion we spent last year.

On this front, I give the edge to Gov. Romney.  You or I may not agree with his proposals or priorities, but at least he’s willing to talk about cutting federal expenditures.   He was criticized and ridiculed after the first Presidential debate for trying to kill Big Bird, because he advocated ending the federal subsidy to the Public Broadcasting Service.  He has also been willing to tackle the “third rail” of politics – Medicare and Social Security.

In contrast, I can’t think of one significant cut in federal spending proposed by President Obama.  Counting money which would have been spent for the war in Iraq but isn’t going to be spent doesn’t count in my book.  It’s like saying you cut your spending by $5,000 for the vacation you didn’t take.  Furthermore, the budget deficit for 2013 will still be over $1 trillion without any spending for Iraq.  Instead of talking about spending cuts, the President is pushing for more “investments” (aka spending) for teachers and infrastructure.  These may be good things, but it doesn’t address how to balance the budget, and taxing the rich more isn’t going to close the gap.

Politicians are very good at using sound bites and obscuring the truth.  President Clinton was right… balancing the budget is simply a matter of arithmetic.  In this case, both candidates (and most members of Congress) probably need a remedial math class.

Ignore the WARNing

The Worker Adjustment Retraining and Notification Act (WARN) is a federal law requiring an employer with more than 100 employees to provide at least 60 advance notice of any mass layoffs or plant closings.  The law is intended to alert employees and communities of upcoming layoffs, and a company can be penalized for up to 60 days of employees’ wages for failing to comply with the WARN notification.

The WARN requirements have created a serious political problem.  According to the Congressional budget deal worked out last year, defense spending will be reduced by $55 billion starting on January 2, 2013.  If the spending cuts occur many defense contractors are concerned about a significant reduction in their contracts, which could lead to massive layoffs on January 2, 2013.  In order to avoid penalties and meet the 60-day WARN notification, employers need to notify their employees before November 2, 2012, which just happens to be 4 days before Election Day… ala the political conundrum.

On Monday, the Department of Labor (DOL) mailed a letter to state agencies stating it would be “inappropriate” for employers to send out WARN layoff notifications in anticipation of the defense spending cuts.  This immediately raised many eyebrows as to whether or not the DOL’s letter was politically motivated.   Suspicions were heightened, because the Department of Labor previously issued guidance to employers saying it could not give WARN advice regarding specific situations.

Three primary concerns come to mind regarding this matter.

Undue Political Influence

It’s hard to get away from politics in an election year.  Every decision is interpreted through a political prism, and it’s hard to divorce politics from the process.   Decisions like this one are made by high-ranking political appointees, and their jobs and influence are dependent upon whether or not their boss retains his job.  Thus, it can be near impossible to think politics won’t influence the decision makers.  However, it seems like elected and appointed officials are predisposed to make most of their decisions based on what’s best for their career and pocketbook, instead of what’s best for the country.  We can’t honestly know the motivation of the DOL personnel involved in this decision, but choosing to provide guidance on an issue they previously refused, certainly raises questions.

Meaningless Laws

The primary rationale for the DOL’s conclusion for employers to refrain from sending out WARN notices was the uncertainty of whether or not the cuts would remain in effect. The DOL essentially acknowledged this law was a sham in the first place and was passed for political expediency.  Irrespective of whether Congress ever intended for the cuts take effect, are the spending cuts the law or not??  According to the legislation on the books, the cuts will occur unless a new law is passed to restore the spending.  As a citizen, you’re penalized for disobeying a law or regulation, so why do politicians and government bureaucrats get to decide which laws they enforce or follow?

Ineffective Government

As a nation we are probably more divided than any time in history since the Civil War, yet the problems we face are immense.  The sluggish economy and $16 trillion debt are enormous problems.  Rather than having serious discussions and working towards creative solutions, our leaders are more focused on partisan brinkmanship and political machinations.  If history repeats itself, the defense spending cuts will probably never happen.  Rather than face a disgruntled electorate and risk losing an election, our leaders will forge some “compromise” which maintains the status quo and allows both sides to declare victory.  Meanwhile, nothing is resolved and the country plunges further into debt each day, and our leaders are able to pass laws that are never intended to go into effect to maintain the charade of getting something accomplished.

The DOL’s guidance for employers to ignore the WARN notices should set off a much larger warning.  Aside from the political ramifications, it’s a dangerous place for politicians and bureaucrats to selectively choose which laws to follow and enforce.  We’re either a nation of laws or not.  If not… then God help us.  Lawless nations and those which allow its leaders to use the laws to reward their friends and punish their enemies are always destructive to the people at large.

A New Record

On Wednesday, the United States of America established a new record, although it may not be one we want to boast about.  As of the close of business on Wednesday, the U.S. total debt exceeded $15 trillion.

This bad news gets worse… don’t expect the debt increase to stop or slow down anytime soon.  We’re already two months into the current budget year without an approved budget (that’s a different matter).   However, the 2012 Budget proposals put forth so far expect to add at least another $1 trillion to the debt, which is approximately $3 billion per day.

Interestingly enough, there was very little media coverage regarding this matter.  There was more coverage about Occupy Wall Street, the Supercommittee and the Penn State scandal than our debt breaking the $15 trillion barrier.  After all the acrimony earlier this year about raising the debt ceiling, it might not be considered important news.

Here are a few details about our national debt which might interest you.

  • The U.S. population is approximately 310 million people, which means there is approximately $48,000 of debt for every man, woman and child.
  • The debt is divided into two broad categories; intragovernmental debt and debt held by the public.  The intragovernmental debt is $4.7 trillion and the debt held by the public is $10.3 trillion.
  • The intragovernmental debt is essentially money owed to the Social Security system. When politicians refer to the Social Security Trust Fund, this is what they mean.  Its debt the government owes itself.
  • Even though it may be considered an independent government agency, the U.S. Federal Reserve is now the largest stakeholder of the debt held by the public.  The Fed currently holds $1.665 trillion of U.S. Treasury Securities.
  • China is the second largest holder of debt, with $1.148 trillion.
  • As a result of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing, its stake in U.S. debt obligations increased by over $850 billion over the past year.

I may be a bit cynical, but unfortunately I don’t think there is much hope Congress will act to stem the flow of red ink in the near term.  They battled a few months ago and agreed the debt will rise to over $16 trillion by the end of 2012, so I don’t expect much to happen on the political front.  The lack of media coverage is an indication of the lack of interest by Congress in this dubious milestone.

On the bright side, one thing that’s preventing us from being crushed by our own debt is that nearly one-third of the $15 trillion of Treasuries is effectively being held by the federal government (i.e., Social Security and the Federal Reserve).  Thus, our real debt to investors is effectively $10 trillion.  Not a good situation, but better than $15 trillion.

At the same time, it’s not a healthy position for the government to hold so much of its own debt.  Congress may have played fast and loose with the Social Security funds, but the day has arrived when the Social Security payments exceed the taxes collected.  It’s going to put more strain on the budget, and the real cash flow of the federal government, as Social Security starts cashing out its intragovernmental loans.

It’s also not great for the Federal Reserve to continually increase its Treasury holdings.  As I and others have previously written, the Federal Reserve essentially printed money to buy up a huge chunk of government debt issued over the past 12 months.  Quantitative easing may have some economic benefits, but there are tremendous long-term risks from this strategy.

Americans like to break records, and we just broke another one.  Unfortunately, it’s an honor we could have done without.  The real question is what are we going to do to stop the hemorrhaging and get our fiscal house in order?  We just set a new record, and it’s only a matter of months before we break the $16 trillion mark.

Details of the Debt Deal

After weeks of political wrangling, Congress and President Obama enacted the Budget Control Act of 2011.  The legislation provides for an immediate increase the debt ceiling of $400 billion, averting a potential default by the U.S. government.  Avoiding default is probably the one thing most Americans are pleased with in this bill.

The debt deal is long on political rhetoric and short on details.  While many of our political leaders are touting the success of this legislation as a significant step towards dealing with the fiscal challenges of our country, there is little discussion of what is actually going to happen.  Beyond deferring the most significant spending cuts to a Joint Select Committee (JSC) composed of 12 Congressional leaders, evenly divided by house and party, there are few details of how the actual spending cuts are going to be achieved.

The Congressional Budget Office scored the spending cuts to be $2.1 trillion between 2012 through 2021. Of this amount $917 billion is supposed to be guaranteed in exchange for allowing the Treasury to sell another $900 billion in bonds.  The remaining $1.2 trillion is supposed to be determined by the JSC.  At this point, no one knows what is going to be cut to achieve any savings.

From what has been released, the bill calls for $21 billion of spending cuts in Fiscal 2012 and $42 in 2013.  Not surprisingly, the substantial cuts happen far in the future, which means there is always the chance the cuts won’t happen.  For those of us who believe government spending is on an unsustainable path, this is not very encouraging.  Here are a couple of things to consider.

President Obama’s 2012 Budget  proposal calls for $2.6 trillion in revenue and $3.7 trillion of spending; resulting in a $1.1 trillion deficit.  The House passed a budget with $2.5 trillion in revenue and $3.5 trillion of spending; racking up a $1 trillion deficit.  According to the debt deal, spending will be trimmed by a measly $22 billion.  This is about 0.6% of all federal  spending for the coming year.

Talking in trillions and billions can seem rather esoteric, so think in these terms.  Assume you make $50,000 this year.  If you managed your finances like the federal government, you would spend over $70,000, borrowing the difference.  If you cut your spending like Congress and the President have proposed, you would only trim your spending by $420 for the next year.  That’s right… just a mere $8 per week, even though you’re overspending by $20,000.  Given those parameters, would you say you were serious about changing your spending habits by cutting $8 per week?

Many politicians and commentators are calling this a historic piece of legislation.  They refer to it as a down payment on our debt and an important first step.  This may be true, but it’s an indication of how difficult it is for Congress to cut federal spending.   If they can barely manage to trim $22 billion, how are they going to come anywhere near close to $1 trillion?  It would take over $1 trillion of additional cuts and/or revenues to balance the budget, before we can even begin to pay down the debt.

The debt deal further illustrates the Congressional propensity to defer hard decisions.  Effectively, it will be a future Congress and potentially a different President, who will have to make the hard decisions to cut spending and balance the budget.  Given the history and culture of Congress, it’s no wonder the debt deal is long on politics and promises and short on specifics and spending cuts.