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Does House Oversight Hearing on Wasteful Spending Mean Hope for Taxpayers?
Posted By: Douglas Kellogg - 01/09/14

NTU Vice President Brandon Arnold offered testimony to the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform today, making recommendations for saving taxpayer dollars and improving efficiency in government – including submitting NTU and U.S. PIRG’s bipartisan savings report, “Toward Common Ground.”

barnoldThe hearing also included U.S. PIRG’s Jamie Woo, Tom Schatz from Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute, as well as Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Tom Carper (D-DE), Ranking Member and Chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, who spoke first.

The bipartisan tone may offer some encouragement for taxpayers, who just endured a budget deal that scrapped spending caps over the next two years. All the panelists, and the Representatives who asked questions, offered pro-active proposals for dealing with wasteful federal spending. Perhaps it's just the renewing effect of a new year, but the enthusiasm and energy being focused on finally addressing the most indefensible expenditures of taxpayer money was encouraging.

Arnold urged the committee to draw from NTU and U.S. PIRG’s $523 billion in recommendations (which have a passed a bipartisan test already to simply make the report), citing examples of savings opportunities like the $1.2 billion Essential Air Service, which funds scarcely used airports, and $1.8 billion in potential savings from stopping improper Medicare payments to chiropractic services.

Arnold echoed a theme heard throughout the hearing saying, “Just one of these 65 recommendations has been enacted into law… there remains much work to be done.”

That attitude that the lack of progress in dealing with government waste was unacceptable was universal.Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) asked both panels how progress can be made toward getting something done on this front.

Beginning with “low-hanging fruit,” and working to get legislation to the floor, were popular responses echoed by many as they acknowledged the challenges ahead, and failures of recent Congress’ to keep wasteful spending contained.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa pledged to his Senate counterparts to put any legislation addressing reforms they agreed upon in the Senate Oversight Committee to a vote in the House Oversight Committee.

Arnold concluded, “Although cutting waste can limit some red ink, such efforts alone cannot solve our serious long-term debt and deficit problems. However, they can demonstrate to Americans Congress’s desire to act as a good steward of their hard-earned tax dollars.”

Whether the positive, cohesive, tone will translate into more than one of those NTU and U.S. PIRG proposals being passed by this time next year, time will tell.

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New Year's Resolution: Deficit Reduction?
Posted By: Michael Tasselmyer - 12/28/13

As the year comes to a close, undoubtedly we begin to reflect on the ups and downs of the previous year. But lawmakers in Congress may be looking back a little further than that after reading the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) latest report on the federal debt and deficit.

Last week, the non-partisan budget agency released an update to its November report, "Choices for Deficit Reduction." The report offers some sober analysis of the country's mounting debts and deficits, which are at historically high levels. The graphic below puts things into some perspective:

cbo options dec 2013

As CBO shows, not only are total outlays higher than they've been over the previous three decades, they are on pace to grow even more, and the revenues they're funded by are coming in relatively slowly. That particular trend illustrates the fact that for all the talk of a recovery, the U.S. economy still has a long way to go before things return to pre-recession levels of prosperity. As CBO explains:

"Making the task of deficit reduction more complicated is the economy's slow recovery from the severe recession. By CBO's estimate, the economy is now about 5 million jobs short of where it would be if the unemployment rate was down to its sustainable level and participation in the labor force was back up to its trend. The shortage of jobs has occurred mostly because demand for goods and services has been weak relative to the productive capacity of the economy."

But historical trends mean very little if we can't draw some conclusion for policy and outcomes going forward. CBO paints a rather harsh picture of where the current path of spending and borrowing at such high levels may lead:

"Because federal debt is already unusually high relative to GDP, further increases in that debt could be especially harmful. ... Higher debt would lead to larger interest payments; making those payments would eventually require some combination of lower noninterest spending and higher taxes. In addition, increases in debt tend to reduce national saving, leading to more borrowing from abroad and less domestic investment, which in turn reduces people's future income relative to what it would otherwise be. Also, when debt rises, lawmakers are less able to use tax and spending policies to respond to unexpected challenges, such as economic downturns or international crises. Rising debt could itself precipitate a fiscal crisis by undermining investors' confidence in the government's ability to manage the budget."

At the end of the day, deficit reduction matters a great deal, and is ultimately a matter of either reducing spending, increasing taxes significantly, or both. Lawmakers will have to make a decision about which direction to pursue when they return to Washington for 2014.

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Where Could Congress Cut Spending?
Posted By: Demian Brady - 12/18/13

The Senate is expected to pass the Murray-Ryan budget compromise bill as soon as today. As we noted, the bill increases federal spending by $65 billion (75 percent of which will occur in the first two years) by raising budget caps that were agreed to just a few years ago. It also includes offsets of $78 billion over the next 10 years -- three quarters of which occur six to ten years from now. Moreover, nearly half of the savings in the bill are achieved by increasing user fees in a way comparable to a tax increase.

The major flaw of this proposal is that it increases spending now and promises to pay for it years later. By approving this bill, Congress is weakening recently-passed, self-imposed budget limits … so why should taxpayers expect that Congress they will abide to the reductions in this compromise over the long term? Some Members, including Congressman and House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), have already signaled that legislators will likely revisit the Cost-of-Living Adjustments, or COLA, slowdown for certain military retirees that was included in the compromise (savings of $1 billion over five years and $6 billion over ten). It is conceivable that similar carve outs will occur as elected officials give in to pressure for more spending.

While it is disappointing that Congress is not choosing to replace the automatic across-the-board sequester caps with an equal amount of upfront targeted spending cuts, unfortunately, it is not surprising. Historical data from BillTally, NTU Foundation's legislative tracking program, shows that Congress produces far more proposals to increase spending than ways to trim the budget. The same trend is observed in this Congress. As of December 17, we have identified 84 savings bills and 424 spending bills in the House and 40 savings bills and 254 spending bills in the Senate. 

A complete list of all the spending reductions is available as an Excel spreadsheet for download, or can be browsed online. The list also includes some savings ideas that were included as partial offsets in bills that would, on net, increase spending. 

NTUF observed that during the 112th Congress, half of all the cut bills were authored during the first six months and 75 percent by the end of the first year, becoming more scarce during the second year. We are still in the process of reviewing and scoring legislation for the current Congress, but so far, the bulk of the savings we identified were introduced during the first six months of the year.

There is certainly no shortage of places Congress could look for more spending reductions in the $3.5 trillion budget. Lots of reference sources are available: from Senator Coburn's (R-OK) Wastebook, to NTU & US PIRG's list of cuts, and the Congressional Budget Office's most recent Budget Options reports on discretionarydefense and mandatory reductions, to name just a few.

As federal spending, debt, and overreach are set to figure more prominently in policy debates and campaigns during this upcoming election year, will taxpayers see their Representatives and Senators drafting more cut proposals in 2014? Stay tuned to find out because NTUF will continue to keep a close watch on Congress throughout the New Year!

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Senator Coburn Releases 2013 Wastebook
Posted By: Nan Swift - 12/17/13

This morning the Senate voted on cloture to move forward the sequester-busting budget deal the House passed last week. The deal is proof-positive that Congress can’t keep spending in line with modest budget caps, even when those caps are The. Law.

Before Senators vote on final passage tomorrow, they should consider Senator Coburn’s (R-OK) “Wastebook 2013,” released just a few hours ago. This year’s Wastebook highlights nearly $30 billion in “questionable and lower-priority spending.” Sen. Coburn goes on to note that this is just “a small fraction of the more than $200 billion we throw away every year through fraud, waste, duplication and mismanagement.”

Some of the outrageous highlights of this year’s Wastebook include:

  • More than 100,000 federal employees being paid a salary of at least $100,000 were furloughed as non-essential. Each of these were paid $4,000 for the time off of work during the shutdown. [emphasis added]
  • $297 million on a blimp for the Army that flew once, for 90 minutes, over Lakehurst, NJ.
  • $65 million in Hurricane Sandy “Emergency” Funds spent on TV ads
  • $325,525 on a National Institute of Health study that found wives should calm down faster during arguments with their husbands

Go here to read the whole list.

Only a few months ago, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) proclaimed, “The cupboard is bare. There’s no more cuts to make.” However, as Senator Coburn’s annual Wastebook so ably demonstrates, the cupboard is far from bare.

Congress shouldn’t be resorting to accounting gimmicks and promised cuts in the future to pay for more spending now. We often say that Congress needs to make tough decisions on spending, and they do, but as the Wastebook and NTU’s own report with our friends at U.S. PIRG prove – there are still a lot of easy decisions Congress is leaving on the table.

Senator Coburn goes on to point out, “There is more than enough stupidity and incompetence in government to allow us to live well below the budget caps. What’s lacking is the common sense and courage in Washington to make those choices – and passage of fiscally-responsible spending bills – possible.”

Click here to call your Senator now and urge them to keep the caps and oppose the budget deal.

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(AUDIO) Taxpayers Get Raw Deal - Speaking of Taxpayers
Posted By: Dan Barrett - 12/16/13

NTU Foundation's Demian Brady and NTU's Brandon Arnold both offer insight on why the numbers don't add up and what to do as the bill heads to the Senate. Plus the Outrage of the Week! 

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This Backloaded Budget Deal Is Bad News for Taxpayers
Posted By: Brandon Arnold - 12/12/13

After spending some additional time reviewing the budget deal, it keeps looking worse and worse for taxpayers.  The deal’s architects are trumpeting the notion that it will reduce the deficit by $23 billion over ten years.  This is technically true.  But the bill is so incredibly backloaded that it will actually increase the deficit by approximately $26 billion over an eight-year window.

It’s not until the last two years of the deal that things begin to improve. That’s because the largest piece of deficit reduction, $28 billion, comes from merely extending into 2022 and 2023 the mandatory spending caps established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 – the same bill that created the “sequester” many lawmakers have been eager to ditch.  If you pull out that provision, you’re left with a bill that would increase the deficit by about $5 billion. 

Taxpayers should be very concerned about the ability of Congress to keep long-term spending reductions on the books. But we can all be certain that in the near term, the $63 billion in spending hikes scheduled for 2014 and 2015 will take place.

And there’s the rub when it comes to this bill. Taxpayers are being asked to trade today’s spending hikes for tomorrow’s spending cuts. The deal’s proponents promise us that the cuts will occur because they will be part of the law.  But the sequester they are trying to undo is part of the law, too. If Congress can’t be trusted to stick to current law and abide by the sequester’s spending caps, how can it be trusted to pare back spending nine or ten years from now?

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(AUDIO) “Common Ground” Report Finds $500 Billion in Savings Everyone Should Support - Speaking of Taxpayers, Dec. 5
Posted By: Dan Barrett - 12/11/13

NTU and USPIRG have released a new "Toward Common Ground" report with over $500 billion in savings proposals people from both sides of the aisle can support. Plus, a special chat with our fall interns, Tara Riggs and Curtis Kalin, and the Outrage of the Week! 

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Ryan-Murray Budget Compromise Set to Increase Spending
Posted By: Demian Brady - 12/11/13

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its cost estimate for the provisions of the Ryan-Murray budget compromise, known as the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. As was widely reported, the House's and Senate's budget leaders crafted their compromise around reducing the discretionary spending limits set in place under the bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011. These cuts, automatically enforced across-the-board through a process known as sequestration, were effective and helped rein in the budget: not since the 1950s had federal spending dropped in two consecutive years. The numbers reported by the CBO show that this budget compromise would weaken the fiscal discipline that Congress and the President agreed to just a few years ago.

The Ryan-Murray compromise would lift the budget caps by nearly $45 billion in FY 2014 and $19 billion in FY 2015. The new spending resulting from gutting the caps would be spread over the next six years, but the bulk would occur in the first two years: $26.3 billion (42 percent) in the first year and $21.6 billion (35 percent) in the second year. At an annualized rate, spending would increase by an average of $12.4 billion through the first five years.

A part of this new spending would be offset through various changes in direct spending. Unfortunately, on an annualized rate, the spending cuts will not keep pace with the increases. While nearly 75 percent of the new spending occurs up front, nearly 75 percent of these savings occur after the first five-year budget window. The proposals would reduce spending by $19.5 billion through the first five years and by an additional $58.8 billion over the next five years. At an annualized rate, the changes to direct spending programs would save $3.9 billion a year through the first five years.

While many of the direct spending changes would enact some real reforms, such as increasing the amounts that new federal employees and members of the military will contribute towards their pensions (a savings of $1 billion over five years and $6 billion over 10 years), or reducing fraudulent payments to inmates ($33 million over five years and $80 million over 10 years), a large portion of the savings would result from increases in user fees and premiums.

The Ryan-Murray plan would increase aviation security fees, extend customs user fees by two years (currently set to expire in 2021), establish a new user fee for beneficiaries of conservation planning technical assistance, and would increase premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Combined, these four proposals account for $8.8 billion in savings through five years -- 45 percent of the total savings reported by the CBO.

On net, the Ryan-Murray plan would increase spending by $42.3 billion over the next five years, and, on paper, would eventually lead to spending cuts of $16 billion through 10 years. But if Congress can't even abide by the modest discipline it imposed on itself just a few years ago, it would be foolish to believe in the durability of these long-term, promised cuts.

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Spotlight On Sequestration
Posted By: Michael Tasselmyer - 12/04/13

In addition to three new and notable bills we've recently scored, NTUF is dedicating a portion of this week's edition of The Taxpayer's Tab to an issue that could play a pivotal role in the ongoing budget discussions: sequestration.

The automatic, across-the-board cuts went into effect earlier this year, and have impacted a wide range of government agencies and programs. The budget committee that's been tasked with finding common ground between House and Senate budget proposals is already facing pushback from lawmakers who want the sequester repealed or replaced.

There have been several attempts in the 113th Congress to repeal the cuts that are scheduled to go into effect in 2014. For reference, a brief outline of those bills:

  • H.R. 505: Rep. Keith Ellison's (D-MI) Balancing Act would repeal the sequester cuts in their entirety and replace them with tax increases for corporations and individuals. It would also increase investment in infrastructure projects and job training, and restrict certain types of military spending.
  • H.R. 699: Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced the Stop the Sequester Job Loss Now Act in February. In addition to repealing the 2013 cuts and modifying several provisions in the tax code, Rep. Van Hollen's bill sought to reduce 2014 budget cuts by $27.5 billion.
  • H.R. 849: Under Adam Smith's (D-WA) Sequestration Relief Act of 2013, sequester cuts would be repealed and partially offset by a reduction in discretionary spending caps.
  • H.R. 857: The Protect Troops at War Act, introduced by Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA), would eliminate 2013 and 2014 sequester cuts to the Department of Defense.
  • H.R. 900: Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the Cancel the Sequester Act of 2013, which, as the name implies, would outright repeal all scheduled sequester cuts.
  • H.R. 2060: Rep. Van Hollen also introduced this bill, which would repeal (rather than reduce) the 2014 sequester and lower discretionary defense spending limits.
  • S. 388: Senator Barbara Mikulski's (D-MD) American Family Economic Protection Act of 2013 would reduce 2014 sequestration cuts, adjust tax rates for wealthy individuals, and eliminate certain direct payments to agricultural producers.

Most of the legislation discussed above varies significantly in scope and specificity, which makes a blanket cost estimate for any attempt at 2014 sequester repeal difficult to formulate. However, NTUF arrived at a score using the $109.3 billion total 2014 sequester level and the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of how outlays would be affected in the case of a 2013 repeal. By analyzing CBO's projected yearly outlay effects as a percentage of that year's total authorizations, we estimated that if the 2014 sequester were repealed entirely, federal spending would increase by $105.6 billion over four years, or $26.4 billion annually. Note that our estimate is preliminary and subject to revision should new information become available.

Whether sequester cuts are maintained, repealed, reduced, or replaced by some combination of tax hikes and other spending reductions, the implications for taxpayers could be significant.

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Taxpayer Money for Anti-Taxpayer Propaganda
Posted By: Brandon Arnold - 12/03/13

Should the federal government waste your tax dollars on biased research?  You know the answer. And, recent work by a pair of free-market organizations shows Washington’s doing just that … again.

See for instance this article by Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. She notes that National Institutes of Health have issued a five-year grant totaling over $3 million to an organization to examine the effect of the recent privatization of alcohol sales in Washington State. While at first blush, this might seem like a legitimate examination of an important subject, Michelle uncovers the truth:

The organization that received the grant and its scientists have a long history of producing anti-alcohol-biased research. Dr. William Kerr, the lead on the project, has written and spoken many times in the past about his firm stance against the privatization of alcohol sales which he believes directly results in increased drinking and costs to the state. He received funding from the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, an organization with the sole purpose of defending control state systems, to produce a study warning states of the dangers of privatization. In all likelihood, the conclusion of this forthcoming study will communicate a similar attitude.

 This is particularly troubling given that several other states, most notably Pennsylvania, are examining changes to their alcohol laws. Such efforts to expand consumer choice and create jobs could very well be blocked by flawed, taxpayer-funded “research.” That would mean taxpayers would be shortchanged both by the inappropriate expenditure of funds to pay for the grant, but even more significantly by stymieing pro-consumer changes to outdated laws.

Perhaps just as troubling is a study funded by the Small Business Administration (SBA) to tout an Internet sales tax bill, which has garnered much attention on Capitol Hill this year. Big retailers have spent millions of dollars on lobbying and PR efforts in support of the so-called “Marketplace Fairness Act;” however, as Andrew Moylan of the R Street Institute points out:

In service of the PR campaign for President Obama’s and Senator Dick Durbin’s favorite Internet sales tax law, the SBA decided to fork over $80,000 of taxpayer money to…(drumroll please)…the very people who have been writing studies in favor of the Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA)!

Here again, the use of taxpayer dollars is offensive in its own right, but even worse is the fact that public funds are being used to promote blatantly anti-taxpayer legislation. My colleagues, Pete Sepp and Doug Kellogg accurately dubbed the SBA study the “Outrage of the Week” in a recent podcast.  The federal government should stop funding biased research. Doing so would represent a small step toward deficit reduction and a  much bigger one toward fairer, more responsible governance.

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