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Issue Brief

Federal IQ Test: 12 “No-Brainer” Bills Congress Should Pass for Taxpayers
NTU Issue Brief #182

August 11, 2011
By Douglas Kellogg
By Pete Sepp

The 112th Congress has had a tumultuous first seven months, capped off by an epic debt ceiling debate that will guarantee … well, another debt ceiling debate when the latest $2.4 trillion check eventually runs out. In so doing, Congress has left behind a great deal of unfinished business whose quick resolution could help to improve America’s cloudy fiscal forecast. In hopes of providing at least a start to this process, the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union has identified 12 specific pieces of legislation that ought to be “no-brainers” for any legislator focused on fighting for the American people’s financial future.

Every year we hear rhetoric from Washington politicians about finding common ground, ending “waste, fraud, & abuse,” cutting ineffective programs, and streamlining government. Many citizens will see their Representative or Senator tout a bill they have introduced that would implement a seemingly obvious reform, never to hear of it again.

The following list – by no means exhaustive – is a collection of reforms that should have bipartisan appeal due to their obvious and practical nature. Only politicians concerned about a small special interest, or completely uncommitted to improving government, could stand against these “no brainers.”

Congress Members returning from summer recess looking for budgetary savings, and just plain smarter government, should work to push these helpful bills over the finish line…

1. The REFUND Act (H.R. 1358/S. 1009), introduced by Representative Denny Rehberg (R-MT) in the House, and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in the Senate, is perhaps the king on the ‘no-brainers’ in light of our massive debt. The bill would allow states that refuse federal funding to redirect that money to pay down the national debt, rather than allow it to be redistributed to other, less fiscally prudent states. This would short circuit the “use-it-or-lose-it” approach to accepting and spending federal grant money that has been a major contributor to Washington’s overspending problem.

2. The Free Sugar Act (S. 685, H.R. 1385/1739), spearheaded by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Representative Robert Dold (R-IL), would remove the absurd system of tariffs, quotas, and other federal support that artificially inflates U.S. sugar prices. Concerned consumers have grown weary of the disturbingly ubiquitous, and unfairly subsidized high-fructose corn syrup, making now the perfect time for government to stop preventing sugar from returning to the marketplace.

3. The DATA Act (H.R. 2126/S. 1222), sponsored by Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), would greatly increase government transparency by building on the success of the website which puts federal grant, contract, and other information at the fingertips of any concerned citizen. There is currently no standard for financial data collection, significantly hampering the usability of current transparency portals. The DATA Act would remedy that, and also counter waste, fraud, and abuse by streamlining databases across agencies. Though imperfect, this bill constitutes a big step towards greater transparency.

4. The Taxpayer Receipt Act (S.437/H.R. 1527), the product of Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL), would give taxpayers a receipt showing how their taxes are being spent. The detailed electronic or paper accounting would show how much the government is borrowing in their name, as well as break down where their money goes into categories like Medicare, Social Security, national defense, net interest on the federal debt, education, and federal employee benefits.

5. The Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act (H.R. 1891), authored by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), is a bill that definitely lives up to its name. Far from taking “the meat axe approach” that alarmists always use to defend the education-spending status quo, Hunter’s bill is a thoughtful attempt to clear the decks of federal school programs that no longer make sense. These include many that have been defunded but not de-authorized, have been cited for poor performance or duplication, or have even been consolidated or eliminated in President Obama’s own Fiscal Year 2012 budget. With this kind of balanced approach, lawmakers who care about taxpayers, the effectiveness of federal education policy, or both, can back this legislation.

6. The Fiscal Responsibility and Retirement Security Act (H.R. 1173/S. 720), from House Members Charles Boustany (R-LA), Phil Gingrey (R-GA), and Senator John Thune (R-SD), would put an end to the controversial Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act that was passed as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) called the CLASS Act “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing that Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” The CLASS Act is an entitlement that provides a cash benefit for the purchase of nonmedical services, yet a primary reason for its adoption was to help obscure the overall cost of the healthcare reform bill to which it was attached. It did so through a five-year vesting period where “premiums” would be collected but no benefits would be paid out. Once CLASS benefits actually kick in, the program could quickly become a vacuum for federal dollars, something we can ill-afford with our massive debt.

7. The Decrease Spending Now Act (H.R. 1111/S. 726) is the work of Representative Tom Price (R-GA), and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). This bill is a very straightforward deficit reduction measure that would rescind unobligated federal funds and use them to pay down the deficit. An Office of Management and Budget report found an estimated $703 billion in previously obligated but never-expended resources sitting in department coffers. These unspent resources do not have some dependent constituency subject to immediate hardship should they not be spent, making passage of this bill a much saner alternative to raising taxes on overburdened Americans.

8. The Eminent Domain Tax Relief Act (H.R. 2327) introduced by Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA), would rescue Americans targeted by eminent domain seizures from having to pay federal capital gains taxes on the often-dubiously calculated “fair market value” they receive for their property. Losing one’s property to government without benefitting from the time and choices inherent in a truly private sale is bad enough; being taxed over the transaction adds much more than mere insult to the injury.

9. The Congressional Integrity and Pension Forfeiture Act (S. 1261/H.R. 2162) initiated by Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), with subsequent House legislation introduced by Robert Dold (R-IL), would greatly expand the number of felonies that would be grounds for stripping Members of Congress of their pensions (to a total of 20 criminal offenses). NTU’s own figures show that at least 16 living, former Members of Congress convicted of serious (at or approaching felony-level) charges are eligible for pensions with a combined yearly value of roughly $800,000. Considering the recent outrage over less-than-criminal antics, it is shocking and disconcerting to taxpayers to find out they currently fund pensions for felonious Congressmen. If we can’t save federal dollars in this area, how can the American people expect larger budget reform?

10. The Congressional Retirement Age Act of 2011 (S. 742/H.R. 2397) sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) would link the eligibility age of defined-benefit pensions for Members of Congress to the retirement age for Social Security - the House companion was subsequently introduced by Representative Bobby Schilling (R-IL). As Congress begins to consider changes to the Social Security retirement age, this step is a ‘no-brainer’ that will show they are willing to lead by example. Additionally, it would find savings for taxpayers who are subsidizing retirement plans for Congress that can be much nicer than their own.

11. The FAST Act (S. 1275). Senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) have introduced the “Medicare and Medicaid Fighting Fraud and Abuse to Save Taxpayers’ Dollars Act,” which is a welcome attempt to reduce the massive problem of Medicare fraud. The bill would institute new checks and balances to greatly increase the prospect of preventing improper Medicare payments before they happen, rather than simply identifying them after the fact. Whether our representatives in Washington are in favor of saving public dollars, or ensuring a program works properly for its intended beneficiaries, the FAST Act is something they can get behind. 

12. “The Byrd Committee” (H. Res. 307), introduced by Rep. Charlie Bass (R-NH), would recreate the Committee on the Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures. Also known as the “Byrd Committee” (namesake of the late Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, not Robert Byrd of West Virginia), this body proved highly successful at rooting out waste, inefficiencies, and duplications. Reconstituting such an entity within Congress’s committee structure, and requiring expedited legislative consideration of its recommendations, gives Members of both parties who pay lip service to government efficiency a chance to regularly back up their words with votes.

Clearly there are many other pieces of legislation – some controversial, others far less so – that could improve the plight of taxpayers if they were enacted. Perhaps by tackling these 12 “no-brainers” first, Members of Congress will rediscover that old principle of “mind over matter” and give better thought to the entitlement, tax, and budget-process reforms that will put our nation on a more sustainable fiscal path.