In-Depth Analysis: Despite Some New Wrapping, Obama's Budget Package Recycles Many Familiar Products
Special Coverate of the President's Fiscal Year 2014 Budget
Sixty-five days late, and more than 5 trillion dollars short -- that's how the National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) characterized yesterday's Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposal from President Obama. Even though it proposes a few new ways to slow down entitlement and other federal spending programs, the plan heaviliy relies on repackaged elements from previous budgets to fulfill its claims of making future deficits smaller than current projections.
"If the Obama Administration was out to prove its commitment to recycling, it has certainly done so with the Fiscal Year 2014 budget," said NTUF Director of Research Demian Brady. "Washington may have been abuzz over the few 'new' ideas contained in the latest package from the White House, but on closer inspection taxpayers will find many of the same old fiscal proposals that have ignited controversy in prior years."
Highlights of the NTUF analysis, providing little-known facts about the President's Fiscal Year 2014 budget, include:
- What a Difference Four Years Make. President Obama's Fiscal Year 2010 policy outline (released in May 2009) forecast that the federal budget deficit would be $512 billion this year. The current budget's projection is $973 billion, or 90 percent higher.
- Revenue Forecast: Still Inordinately Sunny. All told, the budget counts on an average annual growth rate in federal revenue of 6.8 percent over its 10-year timeline, with a whopping 12 percent jump expected in the coming year. Receipts are also projected to rise steadily as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), reaching 20.0 percent in 2023, just slightly less than in the previous budget. Revenues have only exceeded 20 percent of GDP once since World War II, and have only grown as a share of the economy over multiple years in two other postwar periods (1978-1981 and 1993-1998) prior to 2010.
The most unrealistic revenue forecast, however, comes from a plan to hike the cigarette tax by more than a dollar per pack. Revenues from tobacco have proven to be notoriously unreliable, especially as smokers quit or consumers turn to other purchasing options. If the 10-year, $78 billion revenue infusion from this proposal (which could also be affected by state tax hikes) fails to materialize, the recycled "pre-K" initiative from the President would have to be underwritten by other taxpayers.
- Spending Forecast: No Drought. "Discretionary" (i.e., regularly appropriated) spending in both the military and the non-security areas will fall in nominal terms by a total of 3 percent between now and FY 2016, after which it will begin to creep up again. Even accounting for all the President's new proposals affecting "mandatory" expenditures (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.), this portion of the budget would never decrease, in nominal or real terms. Thus, total federal spending in all categories would jump to $3.7 trillion this year, exceed $4 trillion in 2016, and shoot past $5 trillion by 2021. All told, spending would grow by an average 3.8 percent from FY 2014 through FY 2018, then by 4.9 percent from FY 2019-2023.
- Savings Forecast: Cloudy. The White House Budget would make commendable progress on scaling back bloated farm programs, including eliminating direct payments and reducing subsidies for crop insurance ($41.4 billion/10 years). The blueprint also makes worthy suggestions for restraining the Pentagon budget, such as a pause in the Army's ground combat vehicle program, better cost-sharing in the TRICARE health system, and a new round of base closures. However, it missed key opportunities to scale back Cold War-era or underperforming programs like the F-35 fighter and the Seawolf submarine. Also, like last year, the budget counts "savings" from reduced Overseas Contingency Operations as an offset to programs like infrastructure.
- Entitlements: New Costs Come to Light. Although much-touted changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), as well as additional means-testing, could slow the growth of Social Security and Medicare respectively; the costs of other programs such as "ObamaCare" are becoming clearer. This year, for the first time, the President's budget reported on the cost of the Independent Payment Advisory Board: $4.1 billion over 10 years.
- Tax Now, Worry about Spending Later. The bulk of the President's claimed $2.503 trillion in gross deficit reduction between Fiscal Years 2013 and 2023 comes from a "compromise package" offered in December 2012. Not one dime of the $202 billion in "discretionary" budget savings envisioned there would begin until Fiscal Year 2017. Those savings, in turn, would be greatly neutralized by spending increases on infrastructure and job creation for several years thereafter. However, by FY 2017, the budget will already have raised $118 billion in new revenues, not counting at least $25 billion more from cigarette and other tax hikes proposed elsewhere in the plan.
- Taxes from the Dusty Shelf. The Administration proposes a complex new scheme to impose an old standby of the Obama years, the so-called "Buffett Rule" on wealthy taxpayers. Yet, legislation enacted at the beginning of the year already raised the top tax rate, and the 2010 health care law's surtaxes on upper earners have taken effect.
Another Administration proposal seemingly oblivious to recent events is the limit on the value of itemized deductions to what they would provide in the 28 percent tax bracket. Here again, Congress and the President agreed to reimpose the personal exemption phaseout and the "Pease limit" on itemized deductions in January. Doubling-down on this policy could have especially negative consequences for charitable giving.
Finally, the budget resurrects punitive tax rules on "carried interest" income, and with it a great deal of controversy over how it would impact risk-taking fund managers and their investors.
- Taxes from the Grave. January's "fiscal cliff" deal made permanent an inflation-indexed $5 million exemption to the federal estate tax, along with a rate hike to 40 percent. Beginning in FY 2019, the budget would unearth a policy last seen in 2009, by boosting the rate yet again to 45 percent and cutting the exemption to $3.5 million. This amounts to an additional five-year tax bite of nearly $72 billion. The Administration also calls for resurrecting the older, higher Unemployment Insurance surtax rate that expired in 2011.
- Taxes from Out of Nowhere. Even as the Administration proposes savings on the spending side by changing the way inflation would be measured for Social Security benefits, it would boost tax burdens simultaneously by applying the new chained CPI benchmark to the deduction, exemption, and bracket thresholds that are adjusted each year. Inflation would trigger outright tax hikes in other situations -- the reduced death tax exemption mentioned previously would shrink in value even further over time because it would not be indexed to any cost of living measurement. Meanwhile, the Administration would attempt to raise nearly $11 billion more over a decade by allowing tax penalty amounts to grow with inflation. The cigarette tax would also be pegged to a new automatic-increase mechanism.
- "User Fees" and "Rebates" That Aren’t. Although touted as a method to make the charges on airline tickets "more accurately reflect the costs of aviation security," the Administration's plan to raise nearly $26 billion by boosting the "Passenger Security Fee" to a minimum of $7.50 each way would divert about 70 percent of the new revenues to the general fund. Even without this tax hike, an airline ticket can carry a government tax and fee load of over 20 percent.
Meanwhile, the budget's $134 billion in provisions to "align Medicare drug payment policies with Medicaid policies" and "accelerate manufacturer drug rebates" are actually classified as offsetting receipts. An even more accurate description would be forced exactions from pharmaceutical makers to the federal government, which will not end up directly in the pockets of Medicare or Medicaid beneficiaries. The impact of these policies, which have the same effect as taxes, is to raise costs on other consumers as well as starve companies of resources they need to develop new drugs.
- Taxpayer "Relief" That Isn't. As in the past, many of the Administration's tax credit proposals are "refundable," meaning that an individual or company can get more money back than they originally paid in tax. The Treasury counts this portion of the fiscal impact as an outlay rather than foregone revenue. According to NTUF, the eight refundable credit proposals in the budget would, on net, boost federal spending by $100.2 billion over 10 years, more than doubling the expenditures for refundability in current law.
- Tax System "Reform" That Doesn't. The Administration has established a placeholder for budget neutral business tax reform to help fulfill its vision of "a tax system that is fair, simple, and efficient." Although previous White House blueprints have sensibly called for reductions in the corporate rate, this budget, like its predecessors, would impose discriminatory burdens on job-creating industries like oil and gas by stripping them of provisions available to other sectors. As previous NTUF analyses have repeatedly noted, boosting these firms' tax liabilities could have many negative effects, including higher energy prices, fewer employment opportunities, and, ironically, lower tax receipts of other types due to reduced economic activity. At the same time, the budget would create or enhance carve-outs for green energy and advanced alternative vehicles.
- A Left Turn from the Senate's Plan? The tax and spending blueprint reported by the Senate Budget Committee last month projected cumulative deficits over 10 years of $5.198 trillion; the President's plan calls for $5.271 trillion in total deficits. In Fiscal Year 2023, gross federal debt would be $1.012 trillion higher under the White House budget than under the Senate Budget Committee's framework.
- Budget "Savings" -- Familiar Proposals, Familiar Controversies. The budget overview lists 215 "cuts, consolidations, and savings" proposals amounting to more than $25 billion in 2014. A total of 159 specific items pertain to "discretionary" programs, 119 of which (worth $8.3 billion) were in last year's budget as well. Among the "mandatory" program recommendations, nine would reduce spending while 12 would increase revenues.
- Debt Service Costs -- Still Skyrocketing. Even though the budget claims "debt service" savings of hundreds of billions of dollars, between FY 2012 and FY 2023 net interest paid by the federal government will more than triple: from $223 billion to $776 billion.
- Next Growth Industry -- the Treasury. Full-time equivalent employment at the Department of the Treasury is expected to increase by 5.2 percent between FY 2013 and FY 2014. This is the largest jump among all federal departments listed, twice as high as the next agency (Veterans Affairs).
"Taxpayers who were expecting to read a bold, new playbook for tackling future deficits are likelier to find many rewritten chapters instead," Brady concluded. "While there certainly are additional steps forward to entitlement reform, the White House's budget, much like the resolutions passed in the House and Senate, is a product of politics as well as policy."
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