If You Don’t Like the Answer, Change the Question

A recent New York Times op-ed warns that the Republican leadership will instruct the (up till now) nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to use dynamic scoring when it estimates the revenue impacts of changes to the tax code.

The House of Representatives, in fact, passed a rule last week that requires not only CBO, but the also nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation to use dynamic scoring for all “major legislation” — and to provide just one estimate, rather than the range they’ve customarily provided for large-scale economic effects.

We’ve had rumors of this radical change ever since Republicans seemed like to gain control of the Senate, as well as hold onto their House majority. Fueling them was the expectation, proved correct, that Congressman Paul Ryan, who’s a fan of dynamic scoring, would become head of the House tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

And we’ve had warnings of the consequences for even longer. Because dynamic scoring has been around for quite awhile.

How CBO and JCT score legislation might seem far removed from policies that affect poor and near-poor people in America. But it isn’t because dynamically-scored tax cuts can make prospective revenues seem greater than they’ll actually be.

Congress can then more easily make tax cuts that will drive the deficit upward — and so set the stage for spending cuts (except for defense) more severe than even those we’ve seen.

Brief explanation from a non-economist who believes she’s read enough to grasp the basics.

How CBO and JCT Score Legislation

When bills with any potential revenue impact are proposed, they’re sent to CBO for a score, i.e., estimates, over a 10-year period, of how the legislative changes will increase or reduce federal revenues. JCT gets involved when the bills are tax-related.

As the op-ed author, Professor Ed Kleinbard explains, the experts try to predict how people will respond and to fold the results of those responses into the scores.

Say, for example, some Congress members want to raise the gas tax. CBO and/or JCT would factor in the likelihood that some people would drive less. Buy more fuel-efficient cars too perhaps. And so the revenue estimates wouldn’t be as high as a straightforward addition of the extra paid at the pump if drivers kept buying as much gas as they do now.

Congressman Ryan is thus pulling the wool over our eyes when he claims that the current scoring method fails to “take into consideration behavioral changes or economic effects.” Ditto the far right-wing Heritage Foundation’s tax and policy guru, who asserts that the current method is “static.”

How Dynamic Scoring Differs

Economic models that produce dynamic scores include estimated impacts on the entire economy and the revenue consequences thereof.

In the case of tax cuts for individuals, they’d factor in broad assumptions about what people would do, e.g., work more because they could keep more of what they earned (or less for the same reason), buy and/or invest more, which could ramp up production, create jobs and, therefore, boost income tax collections.

Similar sorts of assumptions for business tax cuts.

What the models don’t do, Kleinbard says, is factor in the consequences of tax cuts that don’t trigger spending cuts or tax hikes later. Nor, he adds, do they include the negative effects on economic output that would result from less government spending.

CBO actually does sometimes estimate “feedback effects” on the overall economy. But, it says, they tend to be “small relative to the direct budgetary effects.” And, as I said above, it never offers a single macroeconomic impact estimate.

Not what the Republican tax-cutters want. As Citizens for Tax Justice says, they’re looking for something like the oft-debunked Laffer curve, which has been used to argue that tax cuts pay for themselves.

Implications of the One-Estimate Rule

All the responsible experts I’ve read emphasize the iffiness of dynamic scoring. Understandably, because as Kleinbard says, the models economist use involve a lot of assumptions about who will do what if taxes rise or fall.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has been bird-dogging the issue, points out that JCT produced eight different estimates of the dynamic effects of just-retired Congressman Dave Camp’s tax reform plan.

They ranged from $50 billion to $700 billion in additional revenues over the first 10 years — or from another perspective, a 16-fold difference between the lowest and highest estimates of the increase in the total value of goods and services produced.

And which do you suppose Camp cited? Which do you suppose Republicans tax-writers would use if presented with the options?

But under the House rule, they wouldn’t be. They’d get just one — and instead of, rather than in addition to the conventional score that’s provided the basis for revenue estimates up until now. But only when they thought it would support their plans, since they could easily evade the “major legislation” standard when it wouldn’t.

And very importantly, they wouldn’t necessarily get the explanations for dynamic scores, as they have up until now. Which means that we wouldn’t have them either.

The model that produced the estimate Camp touted assumed that Congress would prevent the deficit from soaring by cutting transfer payments, e.g., Social Security, unemployment insurance, SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

One way or the other, the dynamic scoring gambit will ultimately feed arguments for cutting social insurance, safety net benefits and/or other programs that are properly viewed as investments, e.g., in science, infrastructure, public education. Like as not, all of the above.

That, Kleinbard concludes, “is what lies inside the Trojan horse of dynamic scoring.” And it’s why we everyday citizens ought to care about what seems so arcane.

One Response to If You Don’t Like the Answer, Change the Question

  1. […] within 10 years, but wouldn’t. They seem to only because both the House and Senate relied on dynamic scoring models built on the discredited notion that tax cuts will miraculously increase […]

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