Budget Reform

Budget Reform

Research

James C. Capretta | May 24, 2016
The fundamental problem with the nation’s finances—and thus the problem our budgetary procedures should focus on solving—is the runaway expense of entitlement programs, often described as “mandatory spending.” The current budget process does not force policymakers to confront the pressure that these massive programs exert on the federal budget. The process also lacks a ready mechanism for bridging the predictable conflicts that occur between the president and Congress.
Jason J. Fichtner, Angela Kuck, Adam Michel | Mar 10, 2016
Frustration over federal budget gridlock is fueling renewed interest in reforming the congressional budget process. Timely, effective budgeting has proven increasingly elusive for both Democratic and Republican Congresses—both of which have had to rely on temporary funding measures to bridge between one fiscal year and the next. One proposal getting significant attention in Congress is a move away from an annual budget to a biennial budget.
Peter T. Calcagno, Edward López | Nov 12, 2015
A new study published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University argues that, beginning late in the 19th century, the informal rules that govern fiscal policy began to reward policymakers for increasing spending—even for increasing it beyond the capacity of federal revenues, and therefore at the cost of chronic deficits. Despite numerous legislative attempts to constrain spending over the past 40 years, these informal rules have trumped formal constraints, and the deficit problem has marched steadily on.
James C. Capretta, Joseph Antos | Oct 27, 2015
Proponents of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have frequently pointed to official cost estimates projecting that the law will reduce federal budget deficits. Much less attention has been paid to the primary reason for this favorable outlook: the law’s heavy reliance on indexing important provisions to restrain spending and increase revenue. These components of the ACA will automatically impose perpetual, across-the-board cuts on payments to certain institutional medical providers; increase premiums for lower-income households; and raise taxes on an ever-expanding segment of taxpayers.
David R. Henderson | Jun 30, 2015
Many observers think that it is impossible to cut federal government spend- ing as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But it can be done. And the evidence is hidden in plain sight: it’s called the 1990s. Between 1990 and 2000, federal spending fell from 21.85 percent of GDP to 18.22 percent, a drop of 3.6 percentage points. Most of the reduction was in defense spending after the Cold War ended. Domestic spending also fell slightly as a percentage of GDP. This drop cannot be attributed to higher economic growth in the 1990s because average growth in the 1990s was the same as growth in the previous two decades.
Laurence Kotlikoff, Adam Michel | Jun 03, 2015
The true US debt is 16 times larger than what the government reports. Closing this fiscal gap with taxes alone would require a massive, immediate, and permanent tax increase on every American family. The burden grows with each year of congressional and presidential inaction, threatening future standards of living. How would such a tax hike affect individual American households? A new study published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University details how much Americans would have to pay to actually close the true fiscal gap with tax increases.

Testimony & Comments

Maurice P. McTigue | Apr 12, 2016
Today I will comment on “wasteful and duplicative spending,” and discuss how better, more transparent budget processes are the first step, but not the solution, to controlling such spending. I would like to make three main points. First, changing the focus to the desired outcomes in the budget process is essential to controlling duplicative spending. Second, comparing the results of all activities that impact the same outcome is critical in allocating resources to the most effective activities and maximizing outcome achievement. And third, budget procedures matter when it comes to controlling spending, based on evidence from state governments and overseas.
Veronique de Rugy | Feb 02, 2016
The heated rhetoric coming in March 2017 about whether Congress should raise the debt ceiling will obscure the federal government’s real problem: an unprecedented increase in government spending and the future explosion of entitlement spending has created a fiscal imbalance today and for the years to come. No matter what Congress decides to do about the debt ceiling, the United States must implement institutional reforms that constrain government spending and return the country to a sustainable fiscal position.
Jason J. Fichtner | Sep 30, 2015
Academic research and some anecdotal evidence suggests that the current budget rule of use it or lose it is not optimal and may be encouraging wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars. The question remains: If such spending is indeed wasteful, what can be done to reduce it?
David M. Primo | Jul 28, 2015
My three-part message today is this. First, Congress should treat the budget process as a means, not an end, and enact reforms accordingly. Second, given the fiscal challenges facing the country, now is not the time for minor tweaking. Instead, now is the time to think big and craft a process that drives legislators to produce credible and sustainable fiscal policy by constraining federal spending both today and tomorrow. Third, any reform should include effective enforcement mechanisms, preferably constitutional in nature, to prevent the new process from suffering the same fate as the current one.
David M. Primo | Jul 24, 2014
Constitutional rules, unlike statutory or internal rules, are difficult to change. If written to cover the entire budget, avoid loopholes, and make waivers difficult to obtain, Constitutional rules can provide the enforcement mechanism that will help ensure that specific reforms to entitlements, defense, and other spending areas will not be undone by future Congresses.
| Dec 15, 2011
Anthony Sanders testified before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on TARP, Financial Services and Bailouts of Public and Private Programs on the role of the U.S. in addressing the European debt crisis.

Research Summaries & Toolkits

Veronique de Rugy, Jason J. Fichtner | Oct 10, 2013
As federal government borrowing is set to exceed yet another debt limit, most are quick to recall—and wish to avoid a repeat of—the 2011 debt-limit showdown. If current rhetoric is any indication, it appears many of the last debate’s lessons have been forgotten. Regrettably, it seems many of the debate’s facts have been forgotten as well.
| Sep 24, 2013
The Mercatus State Policy Guide is intended to summarize and condense the best research available on the most relevant topics. It’s a starting point for discussion, not a comprehensive overview of economic policy. Each statement is supported by academic research, with links provided in the endnotes. Mercatus scholars are available to further explain the results of their studies. We hope the guide will prove to be a valuable tool in your economic policy research.
| Jul 23, 2013
The Mercatus Policy Guide is intended to summarize and condense the best research available on the most pressing topics. It serves as a starting point for discussion, not a comprehensive overview of economic policy. Anyone who wants to go deeper into these studies should consult the references listed at the back. Mercatus scholars are available to further explain the results of their studies. We hope the guide will prove to be a valuable tool in your evaluation of economic policy.
Veronique de Rugy, Jason J. Fichtner, Charles Blahous, Matthew Mitchell | Mar 15, 2013
Despite years without a federal budget, trillion-dollar deficits, and ad hoc, crisis-driven fiscal and economic policies that failed to deal with the looming entitlement crisis, leaders on both sides in Washington are now touting seemingly miraculous progress toward a “fix” to our budgetary woes.
| Feb 13, 2012
This policy brief takes a look at the president's FY2013 budget proposal and emphasizes the need for fundamental reform in the areas of spending, taxes, and the budget process.
Veronique de Rugy, Jason J. Fichtner, Matthew Mitchell | Sep 12, 2011
This toolkit provides members and their staffs with tools to help them evaluate spending bills and start the process of reducing government spending.

Expert Commentary

Feb 04, 2016

The statutory limit on how much debt the federal government can accumulate is back in the news, but this time it's not because Washington is close to breaching it. That's not a present concern thanks to the year-end bipartisan spending spree that included a suspension of the debt limit until March 2017.
Jan 14, 2016

Perhaps the largest and most obvious flaw with biennial budgeting is that it would invariably lead to more supplemental spending, which is already a problem with annual budgeting. Whether it's a new war, a natural disaster or even a down economy, policymakers are never shy about finding an excuse to pass a supplemental spending bill. Unfortunately, supplemental spending bills end up becoming vehicles for extraneous spending and are generally rammed through without sufficient deliberation or oversight. Biennial budgeting would only exacerbate the problem.
Dec 24, 2015

As troubling as monkeys running on treadmills — in hamster balls — and hipsters being paid to party may be, we have problems that are exponentially more worrisome. It doesn't mean that we should tolerate the $3 million paid by the Department of Homeland Security to the owners of party buses, including one described as a "nightclub on wheels." It means that we should demand that lawmakers finally start to take the more serious problems seriously.
Nov 11, 2015

One need not be intricately familiar with the tale of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" to appreciate that the federal budget process has similarly become an alternate reality replete with sketchy characters, peril and the absurd. In the latest trip down the Beltway rabbit hole, a Republican-led Congress relied on Democratic votes to produce a two-year budget agreement that removed the limit on Uncle Sam's credit card and increased spending now in exchange for offsetting spending cuts and revenue increases that will mostly occur 10 years from now. Well, that's if future Congresses stick to the offsets.
Nov 04, 2015

ACA proponents, often pointing to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates, argued that the law would reduce the number of uninsured people by about 30 million while producing federal budget savings. Five years later, low exchange enrollment suggests that far more people than projected will remain uninsured. New Mercatus research by James Capretta and Joe Antos shows that the projected federal budgetary savings result from provisions that are unlikely to be economically or politically sustainable.
Oct 28, 2015

The claim of deficit reduction rests on a shaky foundation. It depends entirely on the uninterrupted implementation of four carefully constructed "indexing" provisions. These provisions, which make annual adjustments to key spending and tax parameters of the law (or specify that such adjustments will not be made), were written with the clear intention of making the ACA look better financially as time passed. Our new study, published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, shows that these budgetary manipulations are no more likely to survive mounting political pressure than did income-tax "bracket creep" in the 1970s or across-the-board cuts in Medicare physician fees over the past 15 years.

Charts

A recent article from Politico looked at the growth in unauthorized appropriations as a share of total discretionary spending. Each year the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releases a report listing programs that have maintained funding despite their authorization expiring. The latest CBO report finds that “lawmakers appropriated about $310 billion for fiscal year 2016 for programs and activities whose authorizations of appropriations have expired.” That’s equal to about 26 percent of total appropriations.

Experts

Charles Blahous is the director of the Spending and Budget Initiative, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and has served as a public trustee for Social Security and Medicare. He specializes in domestic economic policy and retirement security (with an emphasis on Social Security), as well as federal fiscal policy, entitlements, demographic change, and health-care reform.
Antony Davies is associate professor of economics at Duquesne University, Mercatus Affiliated Senior Scholar, and Strata Research Fellow. Davies has authored over 150 op-eds for, among others, the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Forbes, Investors Business Daily, and New York Daily News.
Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist. Her primary research interests include the U.S. economy, the federal budget, homeland security, taxation, tax competition, and financial privacy. Her popular weekly charts, published by the Mercatus Center, address economic issues ranging from lessons on creating sustainable economic growth to the implications of government tax and fiscal policies. She has testified numerous times in front of Congress on the effects of fiscal stimulus, debt and deficits, and regulation on the economy.
Jason J. Fichtner is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. His research focuses on Social Security, federal tax policy, federal budget policy, retirement security, and policy proposals to increase saving and investment.
Matthew Mitchell is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he is the director of the Project for the Study of American Capitalism. He is also an adjunct professor of economics at Mason. In his writing and research, he specializes in economic freedom and economic growth, public-choice economics, and the economics of government favoritism toward particular businesses.

Podcasts

Veronique de Rugy | December 03, 2015
Veronique de Rugy explains the wasteful spending of the Department of Agriculture and makes a case for why it should be abolished on WINA radio

Recent Events

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University invites you to join Dr. Jerry Ellig, Dr. Jason Fichtner, and Dr. Patrick McLaughlin for a Regulation University to discuss how the budget and regulatory process operate in isolation to each other, and reform options that could improve both systems.

Media Clippings

Sarah Arnett | Jan 17, 2014
The Mercatus Center cited at Philly.com.
Veronique de Rugy | Oct 08, 2013
Veronique de Rugy cited at USA Today.
Eileen Norcross, Matthew Mitchell, | Jul 23, 2013
Detroit reports an unfunded pension liability of $634 million, but using more accurate accounting methods it's closer to $3.5 billion.
Vincent H. Smith | Jul 17, 2013
Farming, it turns out, is not so risky after all. Smith reports that the annual failure rate for farms is only 0.5 percent, compared to 7 percent for other businesses.
Veronique de Rugy | Jul 16, 2013
Mercatus Center Economist Veronique de Rugy found, “Between fiscal years 2007 and 2010, annual wind subsidies grew from $476 million to nearly $5 billion.”…
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