Taxpayer's Tab: Congress Favors Spending Over Savings

Since 2008, ten different U.S. municipalities were forced to declare bankruptcy. One of the leading causes of these fiscal crises was inability to cover pension costs for public employees. Many states are also trying to figure out how to finance their unfunded pension obligations. Just this week, Puerto Rico managed to make a last minute payment on its bond debt and thus avoided default, but analysts are very concerned that the U.S. territory will be unable to meet future payments or cover its payroll costs.

The U.S. government is not immune to such problems. On June 19 the Director of the Congressional Budget Office warned Congress, “The long-term outlook for the federal budget has worsened dramatically over the past several years.” Without major reforms going forward, deficits and debt will rise to unsustainable levels.

On March 13, the level of publicly issued debt reached $18.1 trillion, just $25 million shy of the statutory limit. The amount has been frozen at that level for the past 15 weeks as the Department of the Treasury has implemented “extraordinary measures” in order to continue to finance its obligations. But as expenditures from the Treasury continue to exceed revenues into it, these measures will only last for so long.

At the beginning of FY 2009, the federal debt stood at $10.1 trillion. By the dawn of FY 2010, it had risen by $34.5 billion per week on average to $11.9 trillion. Since then the debts' rate of growth gradually slowed to $11.1 billion per week in FY 2013 before rising to $20.8 billion per week in 2014. The debt stood at $17.8 trillion at the beginning of the current Fiscal Year and grew by $12.2 billion per week until it was frozen at its current level. It is expected that the Treasury’s ability to employ its extraordinary measures will expire sometime this fall at which time, barring Congressional action, it will have to begin prioritizing its obligations.

While it seems that there has not been much discussion in the news about the looming debt crisis here at home, the headlines about Greece’s and Puerto Rico’s budgetary dilemmas are a stark – although perhaps unwelcomed – warning of the fiscal ramifications that could occur if the debt is allowed to continue to grow unabated.

An earlier debt crisis in 2011 was resolved by passage of the Budget Control Act which lifted the ceiling but also set in place budgetary spending caps and automatic cuts. Since then Republican leaders have generally sought to avoid budgetary brinksmanship over the debt. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, a compromise worked out between Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, the respective Budget Chairs, raised the caps and instituted additional spending reforms that, over the short term, partially offset the increase in spending. The White House has consistently argued that Congress must lift the debt ceiling because the obligations were previously promised through acts of law. In February 2014, Congress acquiesced through the Temporary Debt Limit Extension Act which did away with the limit through this past March.

While it remains to be seen how this looming impasse will be resolved, there are measures in Congress that would reduce spending. Unfortunately, they are outnumbered by bills that would increase outlays.

To date, NTU Foundation has determined cost estimates for 308 House and 176 Senate bills. It should be emphasized that this is a snapshot of estimates currently available and while there are additional savings bills remaining to be scored, there are certainly even more bills to boost the size of government. The chart above highlights the number of increase and decrease bills within each Chamber. Of all the legislation for which there are estimates so far, just 59 would reduce spending – 12 percent of the bills with estimates.

In the House, for each one of the 42 savings bills, Members authored 6 spending bills. The Senate’s ratio was higher with 9 increases for each of the 17 cut bills.

The complete list of bills with cost estimates as of July 2, 2015 is available in this spreadsheet.

Some data highlights:

  • The most expensive legislation scored in the House so far, H.R. 2332, would increase federal spending by $197 billion per year. H.R. 132, 370, and 596, all of which would repeal the Affordable Care Act, are the largest savings bills scored in that Chamber. They would all save $63.9 billion per year.

  • The range of scores in the Senate is significantly smaller than in the House. The most expensive legislation scored in the upper chamber, S. 1376, would increase federal spending by $26.2 billion per year; the least expensive, S. 203, would decrease it by $30.2 billion per year.

  • Average annual cost of the 266 increase bills in the House: $2.0 billion.

  • Average annual cost of the 42 savings bills in the House: -$8.3 billion.

  • Average annual cost of the 159 increase bills in the Senate: $837 million.

  • Average annual cost of the 17 savings bills in the Senate: -$3.6 billion.

  • The average annual cost of legislation scored in the Senate so far is $412 million per year. In the House, the average is about $603 million per year.

  • There have been far more savings bills scored in the House than in the Senate. In the House, there were 6.3 increase bills scored for every savings measure; in the Senate, there were 10.1 increases for every decrease.

  • Of the 17 savings bills scored in the Senate, 7 would cut spending by $1 billion or more per year. Meanwhile, 19 of the 42 savings scored in the House would cut the same amount.

  • The two most expensive bills in the House, H.R. 1000 and H.R. 2332, would increase federal spending by a total of $297.5 billion per year. That is more than twice the annual cost of all the increase bills scored in the Senate combined ($133 billion).

National Taxpayers Union Foundation is a nonpartisan research and educational organization dedicated to helping Americans of all ages understand how taxes, government spending, and regulations affect them. Through our timely information, analysis, and commentary, we’re empowering citizens to engage in important policy debates and hold officials accountable.

Our findings are provided for educational purposes only and are not intended to aid or hinder the passage of legislation or as a comment on any Member’s or Candidate's fitness to serve.