House Jobs/Tax Bill Spells Trouble

May 30, 2010

As many of you probably know by now, the House passed the latest version of the jobs/tax cut extender bill just before it broke for the Memorial Day recess.

The Senate had already packed up. So, once again, jobless workers dependent on expanded unemployment benefits will, at least temporarily, be without checks.

But that’s hardly¬† the worst of it. The bill that passed had suffered several surgical excisions to satisfy the requisite number of deficit-obsessed Blue Dog Democrats.

First, a month was lopped off the UI benefit and COBRA health insurance subsidy extensions. Blue Dogs still hung back. So the COBRA subsidy extension was dropped altogether, along with the extension of the enhanced federal match for state Medicaid programs (FMAP).

I don’t know whether I’m more angry, frustrated or alarmed.

I’m angry about the values the package reflects. The price tag on the bill didn’t have to be reduced by tossing out the COBRA subsidy and FMAP extensions. Lead Democrats could have pared back those tax break extensions–if what Blue Dogs wanted was a smaller bill.

Do we really care more about helping NASCAR race tracks, restaurants and rum producers or about making sure that jobless workers and their families can afford health insurance? Didn’t we just go through the agonies of health care reform to make benefits affordable for more low-income people?

I’m frustrated because anyone concerned about the short-term deficit ought to know that it results from depressed tax revenues as well as spending, including the financing of two costly wars.

The American Institute for Economic Research reports that April 2010 federal tax collections were the lowest for which it could find monthly data. Individual income tax revenues down 44% since just last year. Corporate income taxes down 64%.

It doesn’t take an advanced degree in economics to know that unemployed people typically don’t owe much, if any income tax. Also that they cut back on spending, thus depressing business revenues. They apply for benefits, including entitlements like food stamps. Up goes federal spending.

So how does the House leadership placate some of the deficit hawks? It takes out of the bill further urgently-needed fiscal aid to the states.

Virtually every state has already cut way back on spending to balance its budget. The cuts have imposed pressures on local governments, which were already struggling with their own budget shortfalls. So they’ve reduced spending too–or soon will.

In March, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that state and local governments have eliminated 192,000 public sectors jobs since last August. They’ve also undoubtedly cut spending on contracts for goods and services. More job losses there.

We’ll see still more job losses in the months to come–an estimated 275,000 in education alone. The ripple effect of these could result in the loss of an additional 82,000 jobs.

But job losses thus far have been somewhat mitigated by FMAP, which has helped states cope with their rising Medicaid rolls and freed up funds for other core programs.

Without an extension, FMAP will expire at the end of the year–halfway through most states’ fiscal years. Both the House and Senate earlier passed FMAP extensions to carry states through their entire fiscal years. So many states budgeted on the assumption they’d have the funds.

Now, as the CBPP’s President says, Congress “may pull the rug out from under them.” As many as 900,000 more jobs are at risk.

Set aside for a moment the human costs–something clearly not top-of-mind for a number of House members. Does saving $24 billion on a six-month FMAP extension make any sense from a deficit control perspective? Sure looks like penny wise, pound foolish to me.

I’m alarmed because the House bill seems a foretaste of things to come. The Senate, after all, needs 60 votes to pass even what got through the House. Over there, the top-ranking Republican on the Budget Committee has already said that we must stop extending unemployment benefits “right now.”

Consider too that emergency funding to avert the impending teacher layoffs has stalled–maybe died–because neither the House nor the Senate sponsor could round up the votes.

What more can we expect as Congress dives into the Fiscal Year 2011 budget? I shudder to think.


Will Deficit Reduction Trump Investments In Economic Recovery?

May 19, 2010

It seems that conservatives have scored a big win. They’ve got the federal deficit in the bull’s eye. The debt we’re supposedly leaving to our children has become the unimpeachable reason for curtailing, if not altogether ditching, further investments to cushion the impacts of this prolonged recession and jump-start growth in the labor market.

Consider that Congress still hasn’t extended the expanded unemployment benefits and COBRA subsidies created by the economic recovery act beyond early June.

Nor has it acted on the looming crises resulting from the shortfalls in state and local budgets. The House is scheduled to vote on an extension of the enhanced federal match for state Medicaid programs tomorrow, but the outcome is uncertain because Members are queasy about the cost. This¬† is also the case with key provisions in Congressman George Miller’s Local Jobs for America bill.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that at least 45 states and the District of Columbia have cut back spending in core areas like public health, elementary and secondary education and services for elderly and disabled people.

Virtually all these will cause further job losses–not only in the programs themselves, but in businesses that supply the programs with goods and services. Thirty states and the District have also instituted hiring freezes and/or layoffs in their own workforces.

All these and a host of other cuts will feed a vicious cycle. More unemployed people exerting pressures on the safety net, spending less and, of course, paying less in taxes. Perhaps, in fact, eligible for more in refundable tax credits than they pay into the states’ coffers. Retailers buying less from their suppliers, and all of them paying less in taxes too.

But, we’re told, the federal government has to address the rising deficit and related level of federal debt. No doubt about that. If we just keep on keepin’ on, spending will outpace revenues, even after the economy fully recovers.

So we’ll borrow more. The Congressional Budget Office says that the ratio of federal debt to the nation’s gross domestic product (the total value of all goods and services produced) will rise from somewhat below 60% during the coming decade to 79% by 2035. Looking ahead to 2050, CBPP projects a debt level in excess of 300% of GDP.

The consensus view is that sustained high levels of government borrowing drive up inflation and interest rates, making borrowing more expensive for individuals and businesses, as well as the government itself. And revenues that could otherwise be spent on domestic investments must be diverted to paying interest on the debt.

Economic growth slows. And ultimately, some say, investors will lose confidence and shift their funds out of investments based on the U.S. dollar. Today Greece. Tomorrow America.

But that tomorrow is a hypothetical long way off. Right now, we’ve got a jobs crisis and a lot of collateral damage. So it’s very disturbing to see concerns about the long-term, structural deficit override concerns about the here and now.

In February, Lawrence Mishel, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, and David Walker, CEO of the fiscally-conservative Peterson Foundation, co-authored an answer to the President’s quandary on the deficit. Address jobs now and the deficit later, they said.

CBPP seems to come from the same place. It recommends that Congress allow the 2001/3 tax cuts for high-income filers to expire and, in the short term, use the revenues generated to fund policies that will stimulate economic growth and job creation.

But any proposed tax increases, even those that would affect only the top 2% of the wealthiest households, stir up a maelstrom of opposition–as, in fact, has the President’s entire Fiscal Year 2011 budget, notwithstanding its selective freeze on discretionary domestic spending.

Perhaps the President’s new fiscal commission will come up with a balanced plan to control the long-term deficit. But the need for that shouldn’t be used to block spending needed now to keep the devastating impacts of this recession from getting worse.


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