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The latest budget deal in Congress seems to indicate that anti-government, anti-tax lawmakers will not force a costly shutdown of the federal government in 2014 as they did in 2013, although they still threaten to cause the U.S. to default on its debt obligations if some yet-undefined demands are not met. In today’s dysfunctional Congress, that’s considered a great achievement. Congress could have replaced all of the harmful sequestration of federal spending for next year and the year after by closing the tax loopholes used by corporations to shift jobs and profits offshore, as recently proposed by Reps. Lloyd Doggett and Rosa DeLauro. Sadly, the deal negotiated by Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan does none of that.
Deal Replaces Some Sequestration, Further Reduces the Deficit
On Wednesday the U.S. Senate approved the Murray-Ryan budget deal, which was negotiated by Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and approved last week by the House. It would undo $63 billion of the $219 billion sequestration cuts scheduled to occur in 2014 and 2015 under the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the deal President Obama and Congressional Republicans came to in one of the previous hostage-taking episodes).
Most mainstream economists believe that governments should not cut spending when their economies are still climbing out of recessions, but that’s pretty much exactly what Congress did by approving the 2011 law resulting in sequestration of about $109 billion each year for a decade.
The Murray-Ryan deal would reduce that by $45 billion next year and by $18 billion in the following year. While the deal replaces $63 billion of sequestration, the total savings in the deal add up to $85 billion, which means the deal technically reduces the deficit compared to doing nothing. But about $28 billion of the savings come from simply extending some of the sequestration cuts longer than they were originally intended to be in effect (extending them into 2022 and 2023). This enables Rep. Ryan to claim that the deal further reduces the deficit. But this has no real policy rationale except for those who believe that shrinking government is good in itself, regardless of the impacts.
Any major budget deal approved during a recession ought to provide an increase in unemployment insurance, which is the sort of government spending that puts money in the hands of the people most likely to spend it right away, thus enabling local businesses to retain or create jobs. But under the Murray-Ryan deal, the extended unemployment benefits that were enacted to address the recession would run out (at the end of this month for many people). As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, in the past Congress has not allowed these benefits to run out until the rate of long-term unemployment was much lower than it is today.
Tax Loopholes Left Untouched, but Revenue Raised through Fees
The Murray-Ryan deal does not close a single tax loophole for corporations or individuals. A bill recently introduced by Reps. Lloyd Doggett and Rosa DeLauro demonstrates exactly how this could be done. The DeLauro-Doggett bill basically borrows the loophole-closing provisions from Senator Carl Levin’s Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act and uses the revenue savings to replace sequestration for two years.
To take just one of many examples of how it would work, the DeLauro-Doggett bill would close the loophole allowing corporations to take deductions each year for interest payments related to the costs of offshore business even though the profits from that offshore business will not be taxable until the corporation brings them to the U.S. years or even decades later. This reform is estimated to raise around $50 billion over a decade. Another provision would reform the “check-the-box” rules that allow corporations to tell different governments different things about the nature of their subsidiaries and whether or not their profits have been taxed in one country or another, resulting in profits that are taxed nowhere. This reform is estimated to raise $80 billion over a decade.
These two reform options appear on a list of potential loophole-closing measures released by Senator Murray’s committee (as well as in the DeLauro-Doggett legislation). The committee’s list also included others that Citizens for Tax Justice has championed, like closing the carried interest loophole to raise $17 billion over a decade, closing the John Edwards/Newt Gingrich loophole (for S corporations) to raise $12 billion, closing the Facebook stock option loophole to raise as much as $50 billion, and several others. (Many of the reforms on the budget committee list are explained in this CTJ report.)
Instead of closing tax loopholes, the Murray-Ryan deal raises revenue through fee increases that are not technically tax increases but would probably feel like tax increases to the people experiencing them. For example, fees on airline tickets that pay for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would increase to $5.60 per ticket, raising $12.6 billion over a decade. The premiums paid by companies for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (to guarantee employee’s pension benefits) would increase, raising $7.9 billion over a decade. Another provision would increase federal employee pension contributions, raising $6 billion over a decade. These are just a few examples.
These measures do raise revenue, but it would seem more straightforward to remove the loopholes that complicate the main taxes we rely on to fund public investments and that eat away significantly at the amounts of revenue they can raise. Members of Congress can only run for so long before facing the need for tax reform.