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A Primer for Understanding Obama's Budget

April 9, 2013 in Economics

By William Poole

William Poole

President Obama will release his overdue budget on Wednesday. It will doubtless project a reduction in the federal budget deficit—a projection that journalists, commentators and policy makers should ignore. To do otherwise is to be complicit in fraud. Strong statement? Not really.

For 50 years or so the federal government has deliberately and to an increasing extent misstated probable future budget deficits. Democrats and Republicans are guilty. The White House is guilty. And so is Congress. Private firms that deliberately misrepresent their financial statements in this fashion would be guilty of a crime.

The magnitude of the misrepresentation is breathtaking. For one example, the bitterly contested “fiscal cliff” legislation (the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012) raised the top income tax rate to 39.6%. However, the Congressional Budget Office’s latest (early February) deficit projection for 2013-22 is now $4.6 trillion higher than the baseline deficit it projected in mid-2012. After the tax increase, how can that be?

Easy. Congress requires the CBO to present its baseline budget projections on the basis of “current law.” Congress then manipulates current law to understate probable future outlays beyond the present year, and to overstate probable future revenues. These manipulations change CBO baseline budget projections based on current law. Voilà, actual deficits exceed projections, and the previous budget projections are rendered meaningless.

Congress and the White House routinely hide the impact on the deficit of their proposals and laws.”

Congress can misrepresent the effects of any given piece of legislation in complex ways. It does not do so by entering, say, $800 million when the correct number is $900 million. Instead, Congress enacts certain tax and spending measures as “temporary” when it has no intention of allowing the provision to lapse; or it assumes legislative provisions in current law that would cut spending will be made, when Congress knows they never will.

Fortunately, some years ago the CBO began to present “alternative scenario” budget projections, in which differences from current-law projections are explained in detail. In its early February update, one example is that the 25% cut in physician Medicare reimbursements scheduled for next Jan. 1 will not occur. That adjustment increases the projected deficit in 2023 by $16 billion, and cumulatively by $138 billion from 2014-23. Congress has overridden the scheduled cut in physician reimbursements every year since 2003, in a legislative provision known as the “doc fix.”

Another item in CBO’s February “alternative” budget …read more
Source: OP-EDS

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