Diary

How Obama's Budget Plays With Numbers to Claim Higher Deficit Reduction

Obama’s budget for FY2016 claimed $1.8 trillion in deficit savings over a ten year period, 2016-2025. He used PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) rules to determine this figure, which basically means paring tax increases and spending reductions on one side to pay for new spending programs and tax credits on the other side, with anything left over going to the deficit.

However, his numbers for overall deficit reduction appear to be overstated, according to an analysis by the Committee For a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), by “using a baseline which effectively ignores the costs of extending or repealing certain policies and assuming a large increase in spending in the future to claim savings from extending spending limits after 2021.”

The Chicago Sun-Times did a decent summary of the CRFB report. Essentially, Obama makes a series of assumptions about future budget items to achieve his number for deficit reduction ($1.8 trillion), so that it comes close to the amount of tax hikes in the budget ($2 trillion), making it somewhat politically palatable — at least for his side. Here are the major points:

MANDATORY AUTOMATIC CUTS

In the budget table summarizing the $1.8 trillion in deficit cuts, there’s a line that adds back funds to replace the automatic, across-the-board cuts to a variety of mandatory programs, including a 2 percentage point cut in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients.

That’s a major assumption on Obama’s part about the fate of the automatic cuts, part of the deal he struck with Congress in August 2011.

Cost: $185 billion over 10 years.

MEDICARE FEES

There’s a proposal to permanently fix a flawed Medicare formula that threatens doctors with an even bigger 21 percent fee cut. Lawmakers typically “patch” the formula for a year or two but hope for a long-term solution this year.

Cost: $108 billion.

REFUNDABLE TAX CREDITS

A set of refundable tax credits — tax refunds that go out to low-income people who don’t owe federal income tax — expire in 2017. So does a maximum $2,500 tax credit for the cost of college. Obama’s budget simply assumes they get extended.

Cost: $166 billion.

INFLATED SPENDING BASELINE

This one’s tricky and requires background. Under budget rules, official scorekeepers at the Congressional Budget Office are supposed to set an arbitrary baseline for annual agency budgets passed by Congress each year that rises each year with inflation at a relatively generous pace.

The 2011 Budget Control Act slashed this spending increase by $900 billion by setting spending “caps” well below this baseline. Well, the caps are lifted after 2021, but Obama’s 10-year budget covers four more years. The White House assumes the baseline would jump to inflated levels that pretend the 2011 law never happened. Then it claims huge savings when cutting them back in 2022-25 to more realistic levels.

Questionable savings: about $310 billion.

DEBT SERVICE

Additional debt would have to be issued to cover the above policies, and interest costs on that debt are considerable. Cost: about $105 billion

GRAND TOTAL: $874 BILLION

In summary, Obama’s budget claims $1.809 trillion in deficit savings. Take away $874 billion accruing from accounting tricks and there’s about $935 billion left.”

There you have it. $935 billion is vastly different than $1.8 trillion — essentially saving only half of what Obama claims. For those who want to get into the nitty-gritty, you can read the full CRFB analysis here.

The government is always playing around with numbers and accounting tricks. Here are past examples of fuzzy math for Social Security gimmicks, Obamacare deficit scoring, and boosting Obamacare enrollment numbers. So this latest one is anything but surprising.