The Dueling Proposals Are More Alike Than Their Authors Let On
Here’s a surprise: The budget proposed by President Barack Obama and the one by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan aren’t as far apart as you might think. Clear away the obvious—Ryan’s budget includes more deficit reduction, larger tax cuts, and higher defense spending; Obama offers somewhat less deficit reduction, less defense spending, higher taxes on the rich—and the 10-year numbers tell an interesting story. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the 2022 deficit under Obama’s plan would be about 3 percent of gross domestic product, down from about 8.1 percent this year. Ryan would bring the deficit to 1.25 percent of GDP by 2023.
Obama would bump tax revenue to 19.8 percent of GDP, up from 15.5 percent now, mostly by letting the Bush tax cuts expire on upper-income households. Ryan would extend all the Bush tax cuts and reduce the number of tax brackets from six to two—25 percent and 10 percent. Still, revenue under his plan would rise to 18.75 percent of the economy, more than the historical average of 18 percent.
Both budgets rebalance spending on health care. Obama, through his health-care reform law, establishes state-based exchanges. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, would ditch the Affordable Care Act but set up exchanges in which health plans compete for the business of Medicare-eligible seniors, who get a premium subsidy. It’s not hard to see the compromise: competitive exchanges under which health plans market themselves to one and all, with the government setting minimum coverage standards and offering subsidies to the poor, disabled, and elderly.
Obama and Ryan would also rebalance spending away from the rich and toward lower-income earners. Obama uses his “Buffett Rule,” which would push up tax rates on households with incomes of more than $1 million. Ryan would recover some of the $10 trillion in lost revenue over the next decade (the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts and lowering the top tax bracket to 25 percent) by cutting tax breaks for the wealthy. He would mostly target so-called tax expenditures, the popular deductions taken for mortgage interest, charitable contributions, and state and local taxes.
Ryan has declined to provide specifics, but in an April 10 meeting with the Bloomberg View editorial board, he said he would “income-adjust” entitlement programs and “circumscribe” tax expenditures for the wealthy. In plain English, that translates to means-testing Medicare and Social Security so the rich lose some benefits and the poor get more. It also means not letting the wealthy take full advantage of tax breaks such as the mortgage-interest deduction.
It’s an idea he and Obama already agree on. For years, Obama has sought to limit the benefit of tax expenditures for the wealthy to the value that those breaks have for people in the 28 percent tax bracket. Lawmakers in both parties have never given the concept, modest as it is, serious consideration. They should.
Ryan’s blueprint, which has the strong support of GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, is roughly in line with the plan proposed by the co-chairmen of Obama’s deficit-reduction commission, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, and the one developed by Alice Rivlin, a budget director under President Bill Clinton. Both proposed to lower the top individual income tax rate from 35 percent. The outlier is Obama, who would push the top federal bracket to about 40 percent.
That’s not to say Ryan’s budget is without defects. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 62 percent of his cuts would come from programs for low-income Americans (too much) and 37 percent of the tax benefits would go to those earning more than $1 million (also too much). The Tax Policy Center found that reducing tax expenditures (not including investment income such as capital gains and dividends) almost in half would generate just $2.6 trillion over a decade, far less than the $10 trillion Ryan needs. The study also found that middle-income taxpayers would be hit slightly harder than those in the top 1 percent. Clearly, Ryan has more work to do.
Obama’s budget is also flawed. The president claims he would achieve $4.3 trillion in savings through 2021, slightly more than the Simpson-Bowles commission’s $4 trillion—the national benchmark. But he counts $1.6 trillion of already enacted savings; $740 billion from the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and $830 billion from letting the Bush tax cuts expire for upper-income taxpayers. Simpson-Bowles didn’t rely on such gimmies to get to $4 trillion. Clearly, Obama also has more work to do.
Recent news stories reveal that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) got about 80 percent of the way toward a grand deficit-cutting bargain in last summer’s secret negotiations. The last 20 percent shouldn’t be insurmountable. It could be a blend of Obama’s and Ryan’s plans to limit tax expenditures for the rich. If they taxed capital gains and dividends as ordinary income, they could pull in trillions more in revenue over the decade. Lowering the top tax rate, perhaps to 30 percent, could produce more revenue than it would lose because the rich pay, on average, substantially less than that now.
A new bargain could include means-testing entitlements as Ryan proposes. And it should include competitive insurance exchanges for seniors, like those for uninsured individuals and small businesses under Obama’s health-care law.
Compromises like these would let Republicans claim they lowered overall tax rates and spending on entitlements. Democrats would be able to say they preserved Medicare and social programs for the poor. Americans would get less debt and an end to the incessant pettifoggery over federal budgets. Who’s not for that?