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Posts Tagged ‘Supercommittee’

There’s a big behind-the-scenes fight inside Republican circles about the military budget. GOP hawks are so concerned about the possibility of a sequester (automatic reductions in projected spending) that some of them are willing to capitulate to a tax hike.

Others are pursuing a more productive approach, as explained in this story. They want to cancel the defense sequester and replace the savings by restraining pay levels for federal bureaucrats.

This is an excellent idea since domestic programs are overwhelmingly to blame for America’s fiscal problems, and those programs employ hundreds of thousands of unnecessary and over-compensated bureaucrats.

Regardless of how that effort plays out, though, George Will explains in a new column that Republicans hawks can ease up on the overheated rhetoric. Simply stated, there is no risk to America’s military supremacy.

The U.S. defense budget is about 43 percent of the world’s total military spending — more than the combined defense spending of the next 17 nations, many of which are U.S. allies. Are Republicans really going to warn voters that America will be imperiled if the defense budget is cut 8 percent from projections over the next decade? In 2017, defense spending would still be more than that of the next 10 countries combined. Do Republicans think it is premature to withdraw as many as 7,000 troops from Europe two decades after the Soviet Union’s death? About 73,000 will remain, most of them in prosperous, pacific, largely unarmed and utterly unthreatened Germany. Why do so many remain? …GOP critics say that Obama’s proposed defense cuts will limit America’s ability to engage in troop-intensive nation-building. Most Americans probably say: Good. …Osama bin Laden and many other “high-value targets” are dead, the drone war is being waged more vigorously than ever, and Guantanamo is still open, so Republicans can hardly say that Obama has implemented dramatic and dangerous discontinuities regarding counterterrorism. …even with his proposed cuts, the defense budget would increase at about the rate of inflation through the next decade.

The last point is similar to something I wrote last year. Even with a sequester, defense outlays will climb by about $100 billion over the next 10 years.

And I very much agree with Will’s point about defending Germany, which is part of the broader discussion of why NATO still exists about 20 years after the Warsaw Pact dissolved.

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The left wanted to get one thing from the Supercommittee, and that was to seduce gullible Republicans into a 1990-style tax increase deal in order to enable bigger government.

But I was pleasantly surprised when GOPers failed to surrender, which means that taxpayers didn’t get raped and pillaged. But winning a battle is not the same as winning a war.

The real fight is now whether the sequester is allowed to happen. In other words, will politicians preserve the provision that will automatically slow the growth of the federal budget so that spending over the next 10 years  grows by about $2.0 trillion rather than $2.1 trillion.

This may not seem like much of an achievement, but it is a very important indicator of what will happen in the future. If we want to protect against higher taxes in the long run, we need to figure out how to restrain government spending.

At the very least, this means following Mitchell’s Golden Rule so that the private sector grows faster than government. This would slowly but surely shrink the burden of federal spending as a share of economic output, though actual spending cuts would be preferable and they would more quickly get us where we need to be.

The main obstacle to the sequester, at least on the right, is that it would slow the growth of the defense budget. According to recent calculations, the Pentagon budget would increase by only about $100 billion over the next 10 years if the sequester is implemented.

That might not be enough to keep pace with inflation, and some are wondering whether this puts America’s national security at risk. But  this chart, which was developed by Cato Institute colleagues, shows that the United States dominates global defense spending.

Not only does the United States account for 48 percent of total defense spending, our allies in Europe and the Pacific Rim account for another 24 percent of military outlays.

And even if we use an absurdly expansive definition of possible enemies (Russia, China, all of Central/South Asia, and the entire Middle East and Africa), the military expenditures by those nations and regions don’t even amount to one-fourth of the world total.

More important, the combined spending by all potential adversaries is only about one-half of what the United States is spending, and only one-third of the combined spending of the United States and our allies.

This isn’t an argument for blindly slashing the defense budget. Nor is it an argument that says a sequester is the best way to prune military spending. But it certainly suggests that some modest restraint won’t put America in danger.

Moreover, perhaps the sequester will trigger some much-needed analysis of how best to protect America’s national security.

Maybe Mark Steyn and Steve Chapman are correct and it is time to revisit our spending on NATO, an alliance that was put together to fight the Warsaw Pact, an adversary that no longer exists.

Perhaps it means we shouldn’t spend huge sums of money to defend South Korea, which is far richer and stronger than its crazy northern neighbor.

Or maybe it means that the United States shouldn’t be engaged in nation-building exercises that exacerbate anti-American sentiment in other nations.

I’m not a defense/national security expert, so I don’t pretend to know the right approach to all of these issues.

But I have some familiarity with the way things get done in Washington. Politicians, lobbyists, interest groups, and bureaucracies will all act like the world is coming to an end if budgets are not endlessly expanded. That’s just as true for the Pentagon as it is for all other parts of the federal government.

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Some people have asked why I’m so agitated about the possibility that Republicans may acquiesce to tax increases as part of the Supercommittee negotiations.

Rather than get into a lengthy discourse about the proper role of the federal government or an analysis of how the Bush-Obama spending binge worsened America’s fiscal situation, I think this chart from a previous post says it all.

Republicans are considering a surrender on taxes because they are afraid that a deadlock will lead to a sequester, which would mean automatic budget savings. And the sequester, according to these politicians, would “cut” the budget too severely.

But as the chart illustrates, that is utter nonsense.

There are only budget cuts if you use dishonest Washington budget math, which magically turns spending increases into spending cuts simply because the burden of government isn’t expanding even faster.

If we use honest math, we can see what this debate is really about. Should we raise taxes so that government spending can grow by more than $2 trillion over the next 10 years?

Or should we have a sequester so that the burden of federal spending climbs by “only” $2 trillion?

The fact that this is even an issue tells us a lot about whether the GOP has purged itself of the big-government virus of the Bush years.

A few Republicans say that a sellout on tax hikes is necessary to protect the defense budget from being gutted, but this post shows that defense spending will climb by about $100 billion over the next 10 years under a sequester. And that doesn’t even count all the supplemental funding bills that doubtlessly will be enacted.

In other words, anyone who says we need to raise taxes instead of taking a sequester is really saying that we need to expand the burden of government spending.

So even though Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge are two of my heroes, now you know why I don’t consider myself a Republican.

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Yesterday, I unloaded on supposed conservatives who are toying with a tax increase to enable more government spending.

Why would they take that route in the “Supercommittee” deliberations, I wondered, when they can deliver a guaranteed victory for taxpayers by holding firm and allowing a sequester to occur, which would automatically slow the growth of federal spending?

Many of the beltway elites seem to think a sequester would be catastrophic, leading to “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts.

This is nonsense. As I’ve already explained, a sequester simply means that spending climbs by $2 trillion between now and 2021 rather than climbing by $2.1 trillion (see this chart).

If that’s “savage” and “draconian,” then I suppose we should hospitalize 300-pounders for anorexia when they trim their toenails.

The Wall Street Journal’s editors are equally dismissive of the anti-sequester hysteria among the politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and special interest groups. Here’s some of what they had to say.

…the sequester does have the virtue of imposing reductions in spending that Congress rarely agrees to on its own. …This would yield $68 billion in savings in 2013, and more savings in future years by ratcheting down the baseline level of spending. …Total domestic discretionary spending doubled to $614 billion in 2010 from $298 billion in 2000. Even if there were a 10-year $1.2 trillion “cut,” total discretionary spending would still rise by $83 billion by 2021 because those cuts are calculated from inflated “current services” projections. …If the super committee choice is between a tax increase that would hurt the economy or letting the sequester strike in 2013, go with the sequester.

And in a column on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, former Senator Phil Gramm, along with a Capitol Hill budget expert, Mike Solon, echoed these sentiments. Here are some key passages.

As markets and the media conclude that the congressional super committee on deficit reduction is likely to fail, public attention is increasingly focused on the “draconian” across-the-board cuts that will ensue. …Across-the-board cuts are clearly inferior to rationally setting priorities, but they’d be far from debilitating. Spending has grown so fast in the last five years that even if the cuts are triggered, total spending in 2013 would still be a whopping $3,582 billion—32% more than projected by the Congressional Budget Office in January 2007. Even after adjusting for inflation, real nondefense discretionary spending would be up $41 billion, or 7.6%, and real defense discretionary spending would be up $77 billion, or 13%. …The super committee should write a good plan now if it can do so, but it should not take a bad deal that could hurt the economy and further Hellenize America’s debt crisis. The committee members should bear in mind that help is just an election away.

Gramm and Solon also explain that it will be very easy to modify a sequester after the 2012 election, so pro-defense hawks should not be fearful of a sequester – which was the point I made in an earlier post.

For all intents and purposes, the Supercommittee fight is a battle to see whether the GOP has shed the corrupt big-spending mentality of the Bush years. This should be an easy choice for a party that believes in limited government. The fact that we’re even having this discussion is not an encouraging sigh.

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What would you do if you saw somebody standing at the top of a skyscraper, about to jump? Would you avert your eyes in horror? Would you watch in dismay as they plummeted to the ground?

These are similar to the thoughts that are going through my mind as I watch Republicans begin the process of capitulating to a tax increase as part of the Supercommittee process.

Indeed, this is one of those moments when I desperately wish I was wrong. I warned back in August that the Supercommittee was a tax increase trap. Republicans have this lemming-like instinct to jump off the cliff, even though they get taken to the cleaners every time they agree to real tax increases and get make-believe spending cuts in exchange.

Here’s a depressing paragraph from a recent Washington Post story.

Tensions have mounted in recent days as two of the GOP’s most fervent anti-tax stalwarts on Capitol Hill — Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) — have lobbied party colleagues behind the scenes to forgo their old allegiances and even break campaign promises by embracing hundreds of billions of dollars in tax hikes.

What makes this potential sellout so disturbing is that every dollar of tax increases will enable another dollar of wasteful spending.

Here’s what George Will wrote in his latest column about the GOP’s foolish naiveté.

Although only 21 of the 242 Republicans in the House and eight of 47 Republicans in the Senate were on Capitol Hill in 1990, everyone there should remember the results of that year’s budget agreement, wherein President George H.W. Bush jettisoned his “no new taxes” pledge: Taxes increased. So did spending. And the deficit. Economic growth decreased.

So why are Republicans thinking of repeating this mistake? Well, there’s no good answer, but the most commonly cited reason is that they have been misled into thinking that the alternative result – automatic “budget cuts” known as sequestration – is too harsh.

This is an absurd line of reasoning, in part because it is blatantly inaccurate. The supposed “budget cuts” are only reductions if one uses dishonest Washington budget math. For those who rely on real-world numbers, total spending will climb significantly even if the sequester occurs.

Here is a chart that was part of an excellent article by Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center. It shows that spending – including defense spending – will increase regardless of what happens.

The only issue is whether members of the Stupid Party agree to a tax hike so that the burden of federal spending can climb even faster.

The Washington elites want a deal so they can transfer more money to Washington. For American taxpayers, however, the only good conclusion is a Supercommittee deadlock, followed by a sequester.

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Commenting on Supercommittee deliberations last month, I asked whether Republicans will choose the real budgetary savings of a sequester or surrender to a tax hike.

Well, it appears that the GOP likes being known as the Stupid Party and is seriously considering a plan to increase the net tax burden on the American people – even though some of us have warned from the beginning that the left would use the Supercommittee process as an opportunity to trick gullible Republicans into a tax increase.

Here’s the relevant section of an editorial by Steve Moore in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

…raising rates and raising revenues are different. Eliminating loopholes in exchange for making the Bush tax cuts permanent after 2013 is on the table—and by broadening the tax base, this could bring in tens of billions of new revenues each year. Says Mr. Hensarling: “Republicans want more revenues. We want more revenues by growing the economy; we’re not happy with revenues at 14% of GDP, but we don’t want to do it by raising rates.” One positive development on taxes taking shape is a deal that could include limiting tax deductions, perhaps by capping write-offs on charities, state and local taxes, and mortgage interest payments as a percentage of each tax filer’s gross income.

I’m a bit disappointed that Steve thinks restricting deductions is a “positive development.” I’m a big fan of getting rid of all preferences and distortions in the tax code, but that should only happen if all the revenue is used to finance lower tax rates, not to finance big government.

But that’s a secondary issue.

Republicans have complete power to achieve a victory in this battle. All that’s needed is for them to say no to a tax hike. That will lead to a Supercommittee stalemate, which will then lead to automatic budget savings known as sequestration.

Failure to take that option – particularly when the alternative is a tax hike – is breathtakingly misguided.

Especially when the historical evidence is overwhelming that any new tax revenue will be used to make government even bigger. Heck, the cartoon in this post is a disturbingly accurate description of what’s happening.

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I have sometimes wondered whether it is accurate to say that Republicans are the “Stupid Party.”

We’ll soon know the answer to that question. As part of the debt limit agreement, the politicians agreed to set up a “Supercommittee” comprised of six Republicans and six Democrats that was responsible for producing at least $1.2 trillion of supposed deficit reduction.

But the Democrats appointed a group of hardcore leftists to the Supercommittee, which means that it is virtually impossible to get the necessary seven votes for a good agreement. Indeed, the more relevant question is whether one or more of the Republicans surrenders to a big tax hike.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. The law says that there will be automatic spending reductions if the Supercommittee does not reach an agreement. The political establishment in Washington thinks that this outcome – known as sequestration – would be horrible.

They tell as that a sequester would mean “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts. The only “responsible” approach, we are told, is to go along with a tax increase.

This is hogwash. The automatic spending cuts are only “cuts” using Washington’s dishonest budget math. Here’s a chart showing how much spending will grow over the next 10 years, and the relatively tiny reduction in budgetary growth that will be caused if there is a sequester.

We’ve actually been down this path before. There was a small sequester back in the mid-1980s, shortly after the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law was enacted. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but the sequestration helped restrain the growth of spending and helped bring about a record amount of deficit reduction in 1987.

There was a similar (unsuccessful) fight in 1989. Here’s what then-Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon wrote in 1989.

…the sequester has become the focus of partisan debate . Each side accuses the other of being responsible for “deep and arbitrary” budget cuts . Some legislators say we should do whatever it takes to cancel the sequester, even if it means higher taxes. While a sequester is certainly not the ideal way to resolve this year’s budget dispute, there are reasons to believe that the fiscal discipline of a sequester is the medicine we need to cure the budget process. For all its drawbacks, a sequester is real deficit reduction . Instead of budget gimmicks, accounting tricks, phony cuts, and “revenue enhancements,” a sequester would reduce spending levels by a fixed percentage in eligible spending programs . In other words, unlike most deficit reduction packages, sequestration would actually reduce the deficit.

The only argument against a sequester, at least among conservatives, is that a sequester would impose too much of a burden on the defense budget. But I’ve already explained in this post that the defense budget will climb by about $100 billion under sequestration.

I don’t know whether Republicans are the stupid party, but I know they will be very stupid if they don’t take the sequester and declare victory.

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