Good morning, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. I have been asked to comment on the merits of reestablishing the statutory PAYGO law. Thank you for the opportunity to testify. It is a privilege to appear before this Committee.
I am the President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Our Co-Chairs are Bill Frenzel and Leon Panetta and our Board is composed of past Directors of the Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Budget Office, and Chairs of the Federal Reserve Board and the Budget Committees. Our focus is the federal budget and related process issues. I am also the Director of the Fiscal Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank here in Washington D.C.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has a long-standing record of supporting the budget reforms in the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990. We believe that statutory PAYGO and tight caps on discretionary spending were instrumental in confronting our fiscal challenges in the 1990s and we believe they should be reinstated to help address the challenges we face today. We also support a number of other budget process reforms detailed in our report, Federal Budget Process: Recommendations for Reform, at http://www.crfb.org/pdf/2000/RecommendationforReform.pdf. We will be publishing a new options book on budget process reform in the coming months.
A clear starting point for us is that budget deficits do matter. They affect the economy, they affect budgetary flexibility, they affect future standards of living, and they affect generational equity. The Congressional Budget Office's projections show the debt held by the public growing by $450 billion over the next three years. Considering where we are in the business cycle, the amount of debt we have accumulated in past years, and the looming retirement of the baby boomers, this is an unacceptable additional burden that we should not be entering into. We should be looking at paying down the national debt, not running it up. Furthermore, we face imbalances of trillions of dollars in Social Security and Medicare, our two largest entitlement programs. We should be using every fiscal tool we can find in the tool box to help meet these challenges.
The reinstatement of PAYGOin any formis a great first step. Clearly, PAYGO will not by itself balance the budget or address our long-term fiscal challenges, but it will help to bring discipline back to the budgeting process. PAYGO puts the breaks on policies that increase the deficit and it provides hurdles Congress has to clear before enacting new mandatory spending or tax cut policies. We commend the new Congress for bringing the PAYGO principle back to budgeting, and we hope they will maintain it throughout this budget cycle. We recognize the challenge of doing so, but the stakes are high and we fear that a break in the resolve to live by the PAYGO principle will open a floodgate of debt-financed policy requests.
The concept of PAYGO represents the simple truism that budgeting is about trade-offs. PAYGO requires that Congress identify the means for offsetting the costs of new tax cuts or mandatory spending programs, thereby allowing Congress the flexibility to implement the policies it chooses along with the responsibility of paying for those policies.
Statutory PAYGO was originally introduced in the bipartisan budget agreement of 1990. It was extended in the bipartisan balanced budget agreement of 1997 and remained in effect through 2002. PAYGO was successful in large part because it represented an agreement by both parties to only advance their policy priorities in a fiscally responsible way in exchange for the other side agreeing to do the same.
Unfortunately, PAYGO was a victim of its own success, as the surpluses that it generated weakened the resolve of Congress to offset new spending and tax changes. Since the expiration of statutory PAYGO, both the House and the Senate have introduced PAYGO rules (the House just recently.) While they operate in a similar manner, statutory PAYGO and a PAYGO rule are not the same. Both forms of PAYGO stipulate that an increase in mandatory spending or a decrease in taxes must be offset by an equal decrease in mandatory spending and/or increase in taxes, so that the legislation does not increase the deficit. The differences arise in the way PAYGO is enacted, enforced, and waived. (One-sided PAYGO and post-policy PAYGO obviously differ from the statutory PAYGO of the 1990s in other significant ways as well.)
Statutory PAYGO applies the same rules to the House and Senate and is agreed to by the President. This type of PAYGO is binding, and is enforced by the Congressional Budget Office. Under statutory PAYGO, changes to tax or entitlement programs that increase the deficit trigger across-the-board sequestration in certain mandatory spending programs. Each individual bill does not have to balance, but changes have to balance out over the session. If balance is not maintained, automatic reductions to rebalance the budget are required. Though there were no sequesters in the 1990s, the threat of the blunt reductions affected policy choices and helped to control the deficit.
PAYGO rules lack the force and the breadth of statutory PAYGO. The rules apply individually to each chamber and do not bind the other. They establish parliamentary points of order that must be raised by a Member to take effect. To suspend them, only the chamber to which they apply must approve. The rules in each House and Senate can be quite different. Currently, the PAYGO rules in the House and Senate differ in the time periods to which they apply. The Senate also allows offsets to be carried over from one bill to another, while the House does not. And for PAYGO to be waived in the House, the Rules Committee must make and pass a specific rule exempting the piece of legislation at issue from PAYGO requirements; in the Senate, 60 Senators must vote to exempt the bill and overturn the point of ordera release lever that we greatly fear will be used all too regularly.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget encourages a strengthening of PAYGO in any way that would help make the principles more consistent, transparent, and effective. This includes, but is not restricted to reintroducing statutory PAYGO. It is helpful to have identical restrictions operating in both the House and Senate. The two Chambers should not have to spend their time negotiating PAYGO differences at the expense of working on key budget issues such as determining national priorities and finding responsible ways to enact and oversee related policies. To keep Congress and the White House from operating on different tracks, it is also useful to have a statute to which both Congress and the President have agreed. Statutory PAYGO also has the advantage of being self-enforcing. There are always ways to get around the law, many of which were employed in the past, but statutory PAYGO makes the restriction harder to bypass. The threat of a sequester certainly makes Congress think twice about failing to offset the costs of new policies.
Statutory PAYGO is desirable because of its consistency between both chambers and the White House, the default mechanisms that it utilizes, and the added difficulty of ignoring the law. At the same time, there are important improvements that could and should be made to the design of PAYGO.
Recently, there has been a good deal of disagreement over whether PAYGO should apply to both spending and taxes or just spending. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has strongly supported dual-sided PAYGO in the past and continues to believe that a balanced form of PAYGO is a critical component of ensuring budget discipline. It is necessary to apply PAYGO to both sides of the budgettaxes and spendingotherwise there will be stronger incentives than there already are to run spending programs through the tax code in order to avoid the requirement of offsetting the costs. One merely needs to look at the moth-eaten tax base to see that spending by means of the tax code is already overused.1 Furthermore, the lack of balance in a one-sided PAYGO system stymies the widespread political buy-in from both parties that is needed to make PAYGO an enduring and effective instrument of fiscal discipline.
It is critical that opportunities to end-run PAYGO be eliminated or at least reduced to the extent they can be. The longer a rule exists, the smarter those who want to break it get at finding ways to do so. PAYGO is no exception. With regards to timing, many tax cut and spending proposals have relatively modest costs within the shorter-term budget windows covered by PAYGO rules, but have much larger long-term costs, which are not subject to limits. We recently saw an example where one tax cut was paid for by another due to timing anomalies. Allowing legislation with permanent costs to be offset by temporary savings that later turn into permanent costs clearly defeats the purpose of the principle. PAYGO should be structured to cover long-term costs as well as those that are more immediate. Now more than ever, given the long-term budget challenges we face, altering the rule so that long-run costs are covered is an important improvement.
On the flip side, some proposals with near-term costs could be justified on the basis that they will produce long-term savings. Some types of Social Security individual accounts that are paired with long-term savings, for instance, could be fiscally responsible, though they would not comply with the current versions of PAYGO. Addressing these complex timing issues involves several difficult questions about how to measure long-term costs and savings of legislation, the increasing uncertainty of cost estimates over time, and how to balance the relative certainty of near-term costs with the less certain prospects for long-term savings. We do not have all the answers to these important questions but we firmly believe that they need to be studied in order to improve PAYGO and close the loopholes that most seriously weaken it.
Balance Between Spending and Taxes
Some argue that PAYGO is biased against tax cuts because the presumption is that entitlement programs will continueeven if they are set to expirebut that tax cuts will expire as planned, and must then be offset if they are extended. The opposite side of this coin, however, is that entitlement programs are scored as though they will continue, making the original costs higher, while tax cuts can be made to look cheaper by truncating the policy time frame and assuming the savings associated with expiration. The major tax cuts created in 2001 and 2003 are expiring (and will have to be paid for if they are extended under PAYGO) because they were passed in a way that used a sunset provision to limit their original cost estimates.
We believe the treatment of taxes and entitlements should be equalized. The most straightforward approach would be to build the costs of major tax and entitlement legislation into the baseline. This would mean that extending the policies would not "cost" anything or require future offsets, but it would be more costly to create the policy in the first place and would require long-term offsets even if the policy were slated to sunset. Including the costs of extending all policies that are likely to be reauthorized presents a more accurate picture of the fiscal future. A related issue is whether there is a way to require that if a policy ends up costing more than is originally projected, the additional costs would have to be offset. We think this would be desirable for both tax and spending policies.
Our policy position on PAYGO as an organization is unrelated to our personal positions about extending the tax cuts. Our Board is divided on this question: some would make permanent most or all of the tax cuts, others would extend only a few or none of them. But as a group, we believe that tax cuts should not be exempt from fiscal controls. It is worth pointing out that for those who would like to control the growth of government spendingas many of our Board Members would, offsetting tax cuts with spending reductions should be seen as a desirable policy, not a problematic one.
If statutory PAYGO is reinstated, there are a number of improvements that should be made. We should broaden the sequestration base. Too many programs have been made exempt. Since the exempt programs are generally the most popular, this defangs sequestration and it increases the severity of the cuts that would have to be applied to the remaining programs. Also, when statutory PAYGO was in place, Congress regularly intervened in order to prevent sequesters. By passing legislation, it removed the balances on the scorecard in 1999 and every year thereafter that the law was in effect.2 It should be made more difficult to suspend sequestration or wipe the scorecard clean to circumvent PAYGO. Additionally, Congress tried to use directed scorekeeping to circumvent the law by directing OMB to score legislation so that it did not affect the PAYGO scorecard. Though these attempts were not successful, in the future, directed scorekeeping should not be permitted.
Another avoidance tool Congress used was to stretch the definition of "emergency spending" to include things that certainly were not, as a means of avoiding PAYGO restrictions. This abuse coincided with the general eruption of the use of the emergency designation to circumvent budget rules. Congress needs to tighten up and enforce the definition of emergency spending to keep this blatant abuses from happening in the future. Finally, to improve transparency, we should require that separate votes be taken to exempt legislation from PAYGO requirements.
We are in a worse fiscal position then we were in when PAYGO was first enacted. The deficit as a share of GDP is not as problematic, but the long-term problems are far worseexacerbated in large part by policies enacted while PAYGO was not in placeand the retirement of the baby boomers is much closer. An important question is whether PAYGO could be strengthened so that it does not just keep things from getting worse, but rather is designed to encourage, and when necessary, force action to improve the fiscal situation. This could take many forms, but one I will propose is that when the deficit and/or unfunded liability numbers reach a certain point as a share of GDP, perhaps a "Super PAYGO" that would require new costs to both be offset and paired with some level of deficit or unfunded liability reduction, would kick in.
The bottom line is that PAYGO in any form is only as good as the commitment legislators have to following it. Congress should not pass PAYGO requirements, declare victory, and then spend its time attempting to bypass the intent of the principle. Too often process is used as a replacement for the hard choices when it is really only one step of many. Process will never on its own be able to do the heavy lifting of rebalancing the budget.
Nonetheless, PAYGO has a number of desirable benefits. It is based on the common sense principle that we should pay for what we spend. This is something the public believes and Congress should support. PAYGO has a bipartisan pedigreeit was the product of a bipartisan agreement in 1990, was included in the Democratic budget in 1993, and the Republican budget in 1995, and was extended in 1997 with the support of both parties. It allows Congress the flexibility to pass the legislation it wants as long as the costs are offset, enforcing the notion that budgeting is, and should be, about tradeoffs between national priorities. The statutory form of PAYGO is stronger and, given its solid track record and the need for fiscal discipline, it should be reinstated, albeit with some technical changes to make it more effective and balanced. The rules established by the Budget Enforcement Act made a significant contribution to bringing the deficits under control in the 1990s and we urge Congress to move forward with legislation reinstating these statutory budget rules. We applaud Congress for returning to a pay-as-you-go era and we look forward to working with all of you to strengthen the requirements, as well as the underlying commitment to this important principle.
1. See "Closing the $700 Billion Tax Loophole," by Maya MacGuineas in Ten Big Ideas for a New America
2. The first three waivers were passed in Conference Reports for omnibus appropriations while the fourth was passed as a freestanding bill.