So, hey!–It’s 11/11/11, and we’re down to not much more than 11 days (ok, darn–it’s technically 12) until the Nov. 23 deadline for the “super committee” to come up with proposals that would achieve $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction–or as close to that while hopefully going over as possible. The confusion on the goal is because the conditions for the triggered automatic cuts and debt limit increases differ depending on whether $1.5 trillion, $1.2 trillion, or less than $1.2 trillion in deficit-reducing policies are actually enacted by December 23. The graphic above is a Concord Coalition slide from one of our chart talks; it is designed to help explain the goals and triggers of the super committee, although it isn’t as readable as a photo image here as it is as a huge powerpoint chart up on a big screen–sorry.
On Halloween Day I published a column in (subscription-only) Tax Notes, called “Tricks and Treats Handed to the Supercommittee.” We reprinted the column on Concord’s (free) website this week, and it can be found here. I already quoted from my conclusion earlier–that the super committee could and should propose a set of budget rules and instructions that would force the standing committees to come up with tax reform that would achieve the current-law baseline level of revenues. To encourage bipartisan agreement on raising that much (”go big”) revenue relative to the “business as usual” policy extended baseline where expiring tax cuts get continually extended and deficit financed, the super committee could even dictate that a certain specific minimum percentage (up to 100%) of the added revenue raised be achieved by reducing tax expenditures as opposed to raising marginal tax rates.
I repeated this message in smaller space last weekend in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, summarizing it this way:
The supercommittee could require that the tax-writing and budget committees come up with a combination of budget rules and tax reforms that would achieve the current-law baseline level of revenues.
There are many different policy paths to this same budgetary outcome:
“Do nothing” (let the Bush tax cuts expire as scheduled at the end of 2012), “do it big” (broaden the tax base by reducing tax expenditures and lowering tax rates), and “do it to the rich” (raising tax rates on millionaires and/or large corporations).
Each approach has different relative advantages regarding their economic effects and political attractiveness. We could do any combination of the approaches and all would be encouraged in practice with a commitment to strict, no-exceptions, pay-as-you-go rules - both on new or extended tax cuts and as well as spending increases.
Coupled with the spending-cuts-only approach taken in the first round of deficit reduction that arose from the debt-limit debate, the second-round supercommittee recommendation of sticking to current-law revenue levels would get us the big and balanced approach we need to set us on the path toward true fiscal sustainability and a strong economy in the decades to come.
Yet one of the first reader-commenters on the Milwaukee JS site wrote this:
No mention of revenue. Apparently she feels all taxes should be eliminated…So a “cuts only” approach is “balanced”? Yep, she does want to eliminate taxes altogether. How could one interpret her comments differently? We already have the lowest tax rates since the 1950’s.
I kid you not! I advocate a second-round revenue-only approach, and it gets interpreted as precisely the opposite!
Is this not proof that the whole expiring tax cuts, current-law vs. policy extended (”business as usual”) baseline issues have gotten us all–not just the general public, but policymakers and the super committee included–terribly confused?
Some Republicans have urged in their letters to the super committee that this is why expiring tax cuts should never be allowed to actually expire! I argue the opposite: that this is exactly why expiring tax cuts must be forced to expire–or at least not be extended without paying for them.
Perhaps we can use the confusion to our advantage. The super committee could require the budget and tax-writing committees to get to some level of revenues anywhere between the $1.5 trillion goal (which is relative to the policy extended, business-as-usual baseline) and something that would better qualify as “going big.” Anything less than the full difference between the two revenue baselines would still be something that relative to current law is a tax cut. What Republican could argue against a super committee policy that would dictate tax reform that must literally (under the letter of the law) reduce revenues?
The super committee has not the time nor the expertise to reform the tax system in (12) days. But they have the capability and the authority to require the tax writing committees, with the help of the budget committee police, to reform the tax system in big and helpful ways over the next few years. This can happen with tougher budget rules that are determined now and will have to be in place and enforced at the next expiration of the Bush tax cuts–so it won’t just be (bad) “business as usual” the next time around.