Tag Archives: House Judiciary Committee

What would a business-cycle balanced budget rule look like in Illinois?

A few years ago, I testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. I’d been invited to talk about the design of a federal balanced budget amendment and much of my testimony drew on the lessons offered from state experience. Since 49 of the 50 states have such requirements, and since these requirements vary from state to state, I noted that federal lawmakers could learn from the state laboratory.

The best requirement, I argued, would have the following characteristics:

  1. Require balance over some period longer than a year. This effectively disarms the strongest argument against a balanced budget amendment: namely, that it would force belt-tightening in the middle of a recession. In contrast, if budgets need to balance over a longer time period, then Congress is free to run deficits in particular years as long as they are countered by surpluses in others.
  2. Allow Congress some time to come into compliance. You don’t have to be a Keynesian to worry that a 45 percent reduction in the deficit overnight might be a shock to the system.
  3. Minimize the gamesmanship associated with revenue estimation: Across the country, states with balanced budget requirements have to estimate revenue throughout the year (I’m a member of Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists and our responsibility is to pass judgment on the validity of these estimates). But this invites all sorts of questions: what model to use for the economy, should revenue be scored dynamically or statically, etc. One way to sidestep all of these questions is to make the requirement retrospective: require that spending this year not exceed revenue from years past.

Michigan Republican Justin Amash has proposed an amendment along these lines. It would be phased-in over 9 years and from there on out would stipulate that outlays “not exceed the average annual revenue collected in the three prior years, adjusting in proportion to changes in population and inflation.” Because it requires balance over three years rather than one, Amash calls it the “business cycle balanced budget amendment.”

Writing in Time, GMU’s Alex Tabarrok points to Sweden’s positive experience with a similar rule. And economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane also endorse such a rule in their book, Balance.

Now, some Illinois state lawmakers have put together a proposal for a state rule that appears to be largely based on this model. It requires:

Appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed the average annual revenue collected for the 3 prior years, adjusting in proportion to changes in population and inflation.

(Unlike the Amash plan, however, the Illinois plan is not phased in over a number of years. Rather, it takes effect immediately upon passage of the bill.)

To see how it might work in a state, I decided to take the Amash Amendment for a test drive, using Illinois data. The solid blue line in the figure below charts Illinois’s actual general revenue from 1990 to 2012 in billions of current dollars. The dashed blue line phases in an Amash-type “business cycle” balanced budget rule. Once fully phased-in, it would limit spending to the average revenue of the three previous years, with an adjustment for inflation and population growth.

BCBBA

Notice three things:

  1. From 1990 to 2002, and from 2004 to 2007, the rule would have kept Illinois spending in line with Illinois revenue, and would have even allowed the state to run surpluses.
  2. In lean years (like 2008) when revenue levels off, the limit actually continues to rise. That’s because it is based on a longer time trend. This means that it wouldn’t require the sort of draconian budget cuts that balanced budget critics often fear. The accumulated surpluses from previous years could also be used to soften the blow.
  3. Lastly, note the (9 percent) revenue uptick from 2011 to 2012. The amendment would prudently make legislators wait a few years before they can go out and spend that money.

Limiting Eminent Domain Authority for the States

In June 2005, the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo vs. City of New London extended the power of eminent domain by allowing governments to condemn private property and transfer it to others for private economic development. This decision sparked a great deal of controversy and its repercussions and implications have been widely studied (see for example, the work by Ed Lopez and Bruce Benson).

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved a measure that would limit government’s use of eminent domain. Specifically, the Private Property Rights Protection Act Act (H.R. 1433) would prohibit:

States and localities that receive Federal economic development funds from using eminent domain to take private property for economic development purposes. States and localities that use eminent domain for private economic development are ineligible under the bill to receive Federal economic development funds for 2 fiscal years.

When the bill was first introduced in 2011, the Honorable Trent Franks outlined its importance with the following statement:

We must restore the property rights protections that were erased from the Constitution by the Kelo decision. Fortunately, they are not permanently erased. Let us hope. John Adams wrote over 200 years ago that, ‘‘Property must be secured or liberty cannot exist.’’ As long as the specter of condemnation hangs over all property, arbitrary condemnation hanging over all property, our liberty is threatened.

There were many testimonies given throughout the hearing that pointed to the strengths and the weaknesses of H.R. 1433. Much of the economic literature suggests, however, that in general placing strong limits on eminent domain authority has substantial benefits for economic growth development, and prosperity. I think Ed Lopez, Carrie Kerekes and George Johnson (2007) sum up the importance of limiting this authority particularly well, as they write:

High taxes, excessive regulation, and loosely limited eminent domain powers are all tools of central planning and government control of the economy. Under these policies property rights are insecure, which distorts incentives for making good resource use decisions, discourages using assets as collateral for beneficial investments, and forfeits the dynamic benefits that emerge out of capitalism…Taxes, regulation, and takings through eminent domain decrease the security of property rights; therefore, these government infringements should be limited.

What Makes for a Good Balanced Budget Amendment?

Today, the U.S. House will begin debating a balanced budget amendment. This morning, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal chastised Speaker Boehner for offering a “vanilla amendment that merely calls for a balanced budget, with no spending limitations or supermajority tax requirements.” Their worry is that, “Under Mr. Boehner’s amendment, spending could rise to 25% or 30% or more of GDP, so long as the budget is balanced.”

This is a misplaced worry. Right now, Congress is able to vote benefits for current voters while putting about 45 percent of the tab on non-voters (our posterity). It doesn’t take a complicated economic model to see that this arrangement systematically biases spending upward. And any amendment that requires current voters to pay for current spending will diminish that bias. As I told the House Judiciary Committee last month, in states where balanced budget requirements are stricter, spending is lower.

Moreover, the editors’ preferred amendment—one that includes some sort of spending limitation—is actually unlikely to achieve its goal. Last year, I examined the operation of various spending limits, using data from 49 states covering 30 years (I wrote about my research in an OpEd in the Journal). I found that those tax and expenditure limits “that limit budgets to some share of income had no statistically significant impact on either state-only spending or on combined state and local spending.” It may be that when states bind themselves with such limits, they make sure that the limit is set so high that it fails to actually constrain.

As far as supermajority requirements for tax increases are concerned, research does suggest that these can limit spending. I guess it is a political call as to whether such a requirement should be tied to a balanced budget amendment. In my view, a balanced budget amendment requires strong bipartisan support for it to be effective. But I don’t do politics.

I do agree with the editors in one regard. There is no need to settle for a “vanilla amendment.” There are many different varieties of balanced budget amendments and some of these have much stronger features than others. In my view, the most-effective amendments are those that:

  1. Require balance over some period longer than a year. This effectively disarms the strongest argument against a balanced budget amendment: namely, that it would force belt-tightening in the middle of a recession. In contrast, if budgets need to balance over a longer time period, then Congress is free to run deficits in particular years as long as they are countered by surpluses in others.
  2. Allow Congress some time to come into compliance. You don’t have to be a Keynesian to worry that a 45 percent reduction in the deficit overnight might be a shock to the system.
  3. Minimize the gamesmanship associated with revenue estimation: Across the country, states with balanced budget requirements have to estimate revenue throughout the year (I’m a member of Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists and our responsibility is to pass judgment on the validity of these estimates). But this invites all sorts of questions: what model to use for the economy, should revenue be scored dynamically or statically, etc. One way to sidestep all of these questions is to make the requirement retrospective: require that spending this year not exceed revenue from years past.

There are amendments that have these characteristics. For example, H.J. Res. 81 (which now has 54 cosponsors), has all three.

In other news, the amazing Cord Blomquist has managed to get my testimony on the YouTubes:

An Unbalanced Budget: Fiscal Pollution

Yesterday I appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to talk about a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The other witnesses were Former Governor and Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, Former CBO Director and current president of the American Action Forum, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Professor Philip Joyce of the University of Maryland.

I began by pointing out the enormity of the problem: CBO projects that absent policy change, the nation’s debt will be 90 percent of GDP in just seven years. This is an important figure because research suggests that when national debt levels get much above this point, their growth rates tend to slow. In the median case, they slow by 1 percentage point and in the mean case, their growth rates are cut in half.

This may not sound like much, but to put it in perspective, I used the following chart.

What would current national income be if—in 1975—the U.S. had accumulated the sort of debt that we are about to accumulate and the nation’s growth rate had slowed by 1 percentage point? This is indicated by the dashed line in the middle. Today’s GDP would be about 1/3rd smaller than it actually is. And what would national income be if we had grown at half our actual pace? This is indicated in the bottom line. Today’s income would be 45 percent smaller than it actually is. To get a feel for this magnitude, notice the blip in the top right corner of the actual GDP line. That is the Great Recession that began in 2008. As I told the Judiciary Committee:

The most calamitous economic contraction in decades pales in comparison to the lost income associated with persistently anemic economic growth from too much debt.

In my view, the nation’s fiscal problems owe much to the incentives that politicians face. Around 1:27:45 I make this point:

The basic problem here is one of externalities. This is a problem that is familiar to environmental economists.  If a factory…in the process
of making a product for consumers, is allowed to bilge smoke into the air, that’s an externality. And they will make too much of the product unless it is internalized. So here, what’s happening is that this current generation is allowed to externalize the costs of government onto the next generation….The costs of reform, the costs of avoiding this kind of economic contraction that we are staring at will be borne by people like me, the median voter. But the costs of the status quo will be borne by my daughter. She cannot vote. Until we can internalize that externality, I think we are going to continue to make the wrong choice because none of you have the incentive to make the right choice. It’s not your fault; you are all good people, you are servants of the public and you are listening to what your constituents and your median voters are saying. But the incentives that they offer you are not right.

A balanced budget amendment, by internalizing this externality, would correct these misaligned incentives. Simply put, it would “make each generation that benefits from government services pay for the costs of producing them.”

The video is here (my testimony begins at 54:30). Here is my written statement.

Unfortunately, despite the ardent wishes of my 7th grade civics teacher, these sorts of hearings are not, primarily, about weighing the evidence and changing minds. Instead, they have much more to do with scoring political points and solidifying already-hardened positions. Nevertheless, I found that most of the Congress-people who disagreed with me were polite. And I hope that this leads to opportunities for more fruitful exchanges down the line.