On March 31, the Brookings Heritage Fiscal Seminar, a joint project of the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution, issued a paper at an event at the National Press Club. The paper sported 16 co-authors, with the most prominent conservative being Heritage Foundation Vice-President for Domestic Policy Stuart Butler. Other prominent co-authors included former CBO Directors Alice Rivlin, Robert Reischauer, and Rudolph Penner, Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, Progressive Policy Institute President Will Marshall, and Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. The event was co-sponsored by Heritage and Brookings, with Stuart Butler as co-organizer.
The paper was entitled “Taking Back Our Fiscal Future.” Its 16 co-authors “have been meeting informally for over a year, under the auspices of the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation.”
The paper begins by defining the problem to be addressed as “Unsustainable deficits in the federal budget” that “threaten the health and vigor of the American economy.” It also states upfront, “The first step toward establishing budget responsibility is to reform the budget decision process so that the major drivers of escalating deficits — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — are no longer on autopilot.” (Emphasis added.)
But from a conservative and free market perspective, future deficits are not the real fiscal problem facing the country. From this perspective, a budget with Federal spending at 15% of GDP, and a deficit of 3% of GDP, is far preferable to a balanced budget with Federal spending at 35% of GDP. To conservatives, the real problem is runaway big government and massive federal spending growth.
Current official U.S. government projections show that without fundamental reforms, federal spending will soar over the next three decades from 20% of GDP today, where it has been relatively stable for over 50 years now, to close to 40% of GDP. The major drivers of this spending explosion are precisely the major entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
If anything even close to that happens, limited government conservatives will have been completely routed. Add in state and local spending, and total government spending in America will be over 50% of GDP. America’s highly successful heritage of free market capitalism will then have been replaced by Swedish socialism (which even the Swedes don’t believe in anymore).
Whether the problem is defined as massive future Federal deficits, or massive, future runaway Federal spending, makes a fundamental difference. If the problem is future deficits, then the solution is finding a politically feasible combination of tax increases and benefit cuts, which is the actual goal of the authors of the Heritage-Brookings paper. But if the problem is runaway federal spending, then tax increases are not part of the solution. Tax increases would just support more federal spending, and so are part of the problem. The solution is to promote fundamental reforms that would restructure these programs from the bottom up to create new, modernized programs that would actually serve the public far better than the current, outdated, 19th-century structures, while costing the government only a fraction of the cost of the current programs.p> An Automatic Tax Increase Trigger br> The co-authors of “Taking Back Our Fiscal Future” agree that the first step in countering the looming deficit explosion that concerns them is budget process reform. They recommend that “Congress and the president enact explicit long term budgets for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security….” These entitlement budgets would be reviewed every five years. But the key budget reform recommendation is as follows: br> /p>
The rules for the five-year review must include a trigger or action forcing device that requires explicit decisions when projected spending exceeds budgeted amounts. The trigger might involve automatic benefit cuts or revenue increases (including premium increases) that could only be overridden by an explicit vote or enactment of alternative policies that would achieve budget outcomes similar to the automatic adjustments. Alternatively, the trigger process could require that a commission make recommendations for closing the gap to the president and Congress on which an up or down vote must be held.br> The paper then goes on to discuss various tax increase options. These include raising the payroll tax rate, or increasing the earnings subject to the payroll tax. Another option mentioned is “replacing or supplementing the payroll tax with a broad-based energy levy or other earmarked tax that would raise revenues.” Still another option mentioned is to increase the taxation of Social Security benefits.
The paper also discusses benefit cut options that may also be included in any overall solution. Among these are delaying the retirement age, changing the basic benefit formula to reduce future promised Social Security benefits, means testing, and, under Medicare and Medicaid, reducing even more the fees paid to doctors and hospitals, increasing deductibles and co-payments, and raising premiums paid by retirees.