Comparing Congressional Budget Plans


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The bottom line on the revenue proposals in the three budget plans in Congress today can be stated simply: The Congressional Progressive Caucus’s plan (for which CTJ provided some estimates) is sensible. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan is absurd, and Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray’s plan is in the middle.

As our new report explains, Paul Ryan promises a specific set of tax cuts but promises to maintain current law revenue levels, meaning some unspecified reduction or elimination of tax expenditures must take place. Our report explains that the richest Americans would see a net tax decrease under this plan even if they must give up all the tax expenditures that Ryan has put on the table. And if the richest Americans pay less, then obviously someone else must pay more, in order to meet Ryan’s goal of revenue-neutrality.

The other two budget plans at least recognize the need for more revenue. Some have suggested that Ryan is softening his stance on revenue because he accepts the overall revenue level projected under current law, which is more than he accepted in the past. But the current law revenue level is entirely inadequate and untenable.

Here’s why. Ryan’s plan notes that under current law, federal revenue will equal 19.1 percent of GDP (19.1 percent of the overall economy) in 2023, and observers have noted that this is more than his previous budgets would have allowed. But this level of revenue would not have balanced the budget even during the Reagan administration, when federal spending ranged from 21.3 percent to 23.5 percent of GDP.

Chairman Murray’s plan would raise revenue by $975 billion over a decade, so that federal revenue will equal 19.8 percent of GDP in 2023. The plan from the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) would raise revenue by $5.7 trillion, so that revenue will reach 21.8 percent in 2023. In other words, only the Progressives would come close to funding the type of spending that Reagan presided over.

It’s helpful to think about a given budget plan’s projected revenue as a percentage of GDP for the purpose of comparison, but one should not overstate the usefulness of this number. Chairman Ryan has often talked as though the goal of the budget process is hitting a certain percentage, rather than fairly raising enough revenue to pay for the public investments that actually build the middle-class and the country.

Most Americans probably don’t care what revenue is as a percentage of GDP as long as the revenue collected is enough to adequately fund the schools they send their kids to, maintain the highways they drive to work on, and keep their health care costs from bankrupting them.

Ryan’s budget clearly slashes funding for anything that would address any of those issues. That’s what happens if you balance the budget in a decade without raising any revenue.

The Murray Plan

There are many good things to say about Senator Murray’s plan, in that it calls for badly needed tax increases and better-designed spending cuts to replace the sequestration (the scheduled cuts of over $1.2 trillion over the decade).

The Murray plan also makes the case for more revenue, explaining that the projected current law revenue is lower, as a percentage of GDP, than it was during the last five times the budget was balanced (going all the way back to 1969). It also explains that the level of revenue it envisions is still less than was proposed in the Simpson-Bowles plan and the other plans that lawmakers calling themselves “centrists” claim to admire.

But the Murray plan does not specify what tax increases or spending cuts would be acceptable. The plan says it would raise revenue by “closing loopholes and cutting wasteful spending in the tax code that benefits the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations,” which is certainly moving in the right direction for those of us who believe that the overall tax system is not asking very much from wealthy individuals or from corporations.

The Murray budget plan would use the reconciliation process (the process that avoids filibusters in the Senate) to pass legislation raising the promised $975 billion, and it does specify that the progressivity of the tax code must be maintained. But the plan does not specify what the tax increases would be. The plan explains how tax expenditures like deductions and exclusions benefit the rich, but fails to mention the most regressive tax expenditure of all, the preferential rate for capitals gains and dividends. The plan explains how corporations avoid taxes through offshore tax havens, but does not suggest fixing the problem by ending the rule allowing U.S. corporations to “defer” their offshore taxes, and does not even suggest rejecting proposals for a “territorial” system that would exacerbate the problem.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) Plan

The CPC plan addresses all of these issues, repealing the enormously regressive capital gains tax preference and closing several loopholes used to avoid taxes on capital gains, repealing “deferral” and explicitly rejecting a territorial system, introducing new tax brackets for high-income individuals and many very specific proposals that have been championed by Citizens for Tax Justice. No one will agree with every provision in the CPC budget plan, but it is certainly a plan for people who want to have substantive discussions about what Congress should actually do.

The plan’s list of tax provisions range from huge (raising over a trillion dollars by ending far more of the Bush tax cuts than were allowed to expire under the fiscal cliff deal) to small (ending the Facebook stock options loophole) to very small (eliminating write-offs for corporate jets).

Even supporters of Murray’s plan should find the CPC plan useful because it provides a list of proposals that can be used to fill in some of the blank spots in the Murray plan.

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