Last night, the Senate passed legislation sent over from the House to avoid a deep cut to physician payments through a 12-month “Doc Fix.” Later this week they will likely pass a bill restoring and extending emergency unemployment benefits. These proposals have two things in common. First, they both would cost money and add to the deficit. And second, their proponents claim they would not add to the deficit, and they use data from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office to support this claim.
How do you spend more without adding to the deficit on paper? Budget gimmicks, that's how.
Under current law, “pay as you go” rules require legislators to find $1 in savings for every $1 in new spending (or cut taxes) over 10 years. This rule is meant to control the debt and prevent frivolous new tax and spending plans. But budget gimmicks offer an escape hatch for policymakers to evade the rule. My organization, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, released a chartbook explaining many of these gimmicks. Here’s how they work:
Using the Magic Window to Hide Spending
The Congressional Budget Office relies on a 10-year budget window, meaning they currently project costs and savings through fiscal year 2024. In order to make it appear as if a proposal saves money, lawmakers will sometimes enact changes that require or allow individuals or business to pay taxes or premiums now, instead of paying them later. These proposals show up as savings within the budget window, while costs are hidden in later years.
Policymakers used this trick in the fiscal-cliff deal at the beginning of 2013, raising revenue by allowing people to shift to Roth retirement accounts where they pay taxes on their income before putting it into a retirement account but receive a tax break when they withdraw their money many years later.
This gimmick is also used to pay for $6 billion of unemployment benefits in the Senate bill currently under consideration. In this case, a provision called “pension smoothing” allows companies to contribute less to their employee pensions now and instead pay more into their pensions later. As a result, corporate taxable income goes up in the first seven years, raising $19 billion. But then it falls as companies make up for lower contributions later on, resulting in no real increase in government revenue over the long-run.
Shifting Savings Inside the Budget Window
The use of the 10-year budget window allows for some even more egregious timing shifts than those described above. Policymakers can literally identify revenue or spending cuts meant to occur in the 11th year and move them to year 10.
In the past, lawmakers have revised the dates corporations are required to make quarterly tax payments by a few days in order to bring that revenue “inside the budget window.” But recently, they learned a new trick.
Under current law, a mandatory sequestration imposes a two percent annual cut to Medicare providers through calendar year 2024. But savings in the second half of the calendar year don’t appear in the budget until fiscal year 2025.To pay for $5 billion of the recently-passed “Doc Fix,” policymakers doubled the provider cut from 2 percent to 4 percent in the first half of 2024, but cut it to 0% in the second half.