September 2, 2014
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 A Publication of The Federal Budget Group LLC, Charles S. Konigsberg, President

Washington's best source for nonpartisan, expert analysis of taxes, spending and fiscal policy

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LATEST FISCAL NEWS & ANALYSIS

July 22, 2014: CBO releases Analysis of the President's FY 2015 Bugdet. CBO also releases, "What are some key policy choices posed by the prospect of rising federal debt?"

July 15, 2014: CBO releases new long-term budget outlook. Main findings: "Between 2009 and 2012, the federal government recorded the largest budget deficits relative to the size of the economy since 1946, causing its debt to soar. The total amount of federal debt held by the public is now equivalent to about 74 percent of the economy’s annual output, or gross domestic product (GDP)—a higher percentage than at any point in U.S. history except a brief period around World War II and almost twice the percentage at the end of 2008.

If current laws remained generally unchanged in the future, federal debt held by the public would decline slightly relative to GDP over the next few years, CBO projects. After that, however, growing budget deficits would push debt back to and above its current high level. Twenty-five years from now, in 2039, federal debt held by the public would exceed 100 percent of GDP, CBO projects. Moreover, debt would be on an upward path relative to the size of the economy, a trend that could not be sustained indefinitely."

July 11, 2014: President transmits Mid-Session Review to Congress, updating his FY 2015 budget request.

April 14, 2014: CBO releases updated 10-year budget projections: "CBO has updated the baseline budget projections that it released earlier in the year. CBO now estimates that if the current laws that govern federal taxes and spending do not change, the budget deficit in fiscal year 2014 will be $492 billion. Relative to the size of the economy, that deficit—at 2.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—will be nearly a third less than the $680 billion shortfall in fiscal year 2013, which was equal to 4.1 percent of GDP. This will be the fifth consecutive year in which the deficit has declined as a share of GDP since peaking at 9.8 percent in 2009"

March 4, 2014: President transmits FY 2015 Budget to Congress.

February 12, 2014: Senate passed the “clean” debt ceiling bill, 55-43, clearing the measure for the President’s signature. 

February 11, 2014: House passed on a largely party-line vote a “clean” debt ceiling bill, 221-201, clearing for Senate action a measure that permits the U.S. Treasury to continue borrowing through March 15, 2015 and avoiding any possibility of U.S. default for another year.The additional borrowing is required to cover annual deficits, which are the amount by which Congress’ spending commitments in a fiscal year exceed incoming tax revenues. (See additional background, at the top of this page.) 

February 4, 2014: CBO releases its annual report, the Budget and Economic Outlook.

January 17, 2014: President signs HR 3547, omnibus appropriations for FY 2014.

January 16, 2014: Senate passes HR 3547, by a vote of 72-26, an omnibus (catch-all) appropriations measure for FY 2014 that funds all agencies of government within the total spending levels agreed to in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.

January 15, 2014: House passes HR 3547, an omnibus (catch-all) appropriations measure for FY 2014 that funds all agencies of government within the total spending levels agreed to in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.

--FY 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Summary


--Omnibus: Legislative Text and Joint Explanatory Statement (Report Language)

December 19, 2013: Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says in a letter to Congress that the debt ceiling must be raised no later than early March.

December 18, 2013: Senate passes the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 64-36.

December 12, 2013: Before adjourning for the year, Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, with the Senate passing the measure 64-36 and the House approving it 332-94. The deal, although not addressing long-term entitlement issues, makes some limited progress by:

(1) establishing total appropriations levels for 2014 and 2015 enabling congressional appropriators to draft funding measures for departments and agencies before temporary funding runs out January 15, 2014; 

Summary of Omnibus Appropriations measure that passed House on January 15, 2014and Senate on January 16, 2914

(2) avoiding automatic spending cuts for 2014 that would have kicked in absent an agreement -- with the costs of the canceled cuts offset by increasing airport security and PBGC fees for private pension plans, extending customs user fees, extending Medicare and other mandatory spending cuts two more years beyond 2021, increasing new federal employee retirement contributions, trimming cost of living adjustments for military retirees under age 62, and adopting various anti-fraud and other provisions; and

(3) passing a 3-month “doc fix” to avoid major cuts in Medicare physician payments. 

November 21, 2013: CBO releases its annual analysis of long-term defense spending and concludes that current defense spending plans "significantly exceed the limits on budget authority established by the automatic enforcement provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011...for all remaining years subject to those limits (2014 through 2021). To close that gap, which CBO estimates will average between about $60 billion and about $90 billion per year, DoD would have to make sharp cuts to the size of its forces, the development and purchase of weapons, the extent of its operations and training, or some combination of the three."

November 18 - 21, 2013: Senate Finance Committee releases discussion drafts on reform of business taxes:

Baucus Proposal on Cost Recovery, Tax Accounting   JCT Technical Explanation

Baucus Proposal on Tax Administration       JCT Technical Explanation

Baucus Proposals for International Tax Reform          JCT Technical Explanation

November 13, 2013: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released their updated deficit reduction options book laying out 103 ways Congress and the Administration could cut spending or raise revenues to reduce projected deficits.

November 12, 2013: NDD United releases Faces of Austerity: How Budget Cuts Have Made Us Sicker, Poorer, and Less Secure.

November 11, 2013: Private and public research universities release a report citing the negative impact of sequestration on research in the U.S.

October 31, 2013: In a rare, joint letter Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky) and Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md), of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, respectively, asked the leaders of the ongoing budget conference to settle on a top line appropriations number for 2014 before Thanksgiving, but certainly no later than December 2d. The two chairs said, "we believe that if an agreement on a discretionary spending number can be reached early, it will allow for more thoughtful and responsible spending decisions." Text of Appropriations Letter However, the House and Senate budget plans for FY 2014 are far apart -- $91 billion -- on their funding levels for 2014.

October 24, 2013: Asked about potential entitlement reforms in the budget resolution negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Nevada Radio Station KNPR, "That is not going to happen this time. There is not going to be a grand bargain. What we need to do is...work together to come up with something to get out of this senseless sequestration...."

Nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office report finds less budget savings than previously estimated from raising the Medicare eligibility age.

October 23, 2013: Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee sent a letter to the budget conferees calling for repeal of the automatic sequester cuts on defense spending -- which are currently in place for each year through 2021.

October 18, 2013: Early October 18th, President Obama signed into law a measure that: (1) ends the federal shutdown and pulls the nation back from the brink of default; (2) temporarily funds the federal government through January 15, 2014 at the sequester-reduced levels in effect at the end of FY 2013; and (3) temporarily suspends the debt ceiling through February 7, 2014 (although Treasury's cash management tools could push the debt ceiling into March 2014); and (4) provides retroactive back pay for federal workers furloughed during the shutdown. On the evening of October 17th, the Senate-brokered measure passed 81-18 and the House approved it 285-144.  Senate Appropriations Committee Summary

As part of the agreement, congressional leaders also agreed to convene a long-delayed House-Senate budget resolution conference in the hopes of agreeing on total appropriations levels for 2014 and 2015, and developing a package of entitlement and tax reforms in order to stabilize long-term U.S. debt. However, Budget Alert has low expectations for the conference as explained above.

October 5, 2013: New York Times reports that the strategy to force the de-funding of Obamacare by shutting down the government was months in the planning.

October 3, 2013: Treasury Dept. released a report warning, "a default would be unprecedented and has the potential to be catastrophic: credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, and U.S. interest rates could skyrocket, potentially resulting in a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse."

October 1, 2013: Government Shutdown.--With no appropriations having passed Congress for FY 2014 due to disagreements over funding levels, the government shutdown Monday at midnight due to the absence of a temporary funding measure (known as a CR or "continuing resolution").

President Obama has asked for a "clean" CR (without any amendments) but House Republicans have insisted on including amendments to de-fund or delay Obamacare.

September 28, 2013: Saturday night the House sent to the Senate a CR (HJRes 59) that would fund the government through November 15th but delay ObamaCare for a year -- a measure the Senate is certain to reject on Monday, with the government heading towards a midnight Monday shutdown.

September 26, 2013: Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf said in a September 26, 2013 letter that “eliminating the automatic spending reductions specified in the Budget Control Act beginning in fiscal year 2014 would increase real gross domestic product (or GDP adjusted for inflation) by 0.5 percent and increase fulltime-equivalent employment by 600,000 relative to the amounts under current law.”   Eliminating the sequester, at least for the next couple years (it is currently slated to occur automatically in each year through 2021) is a key priority of Senate Democrats in the appropriations impasse that has held up FY 2014 spending bills. The major demand on the Republican side in the spending bill impasse has been de-funding or delaying Obamacare.

September 25, 2013: Congressional Budget Office releases a report on the debt ceiling estimating that "depending on the amount and timing of cash flows, the Treasury might be unable to fully pay its obligations anytime from October 22 on. Which of the government’s various financial obligations would be paid and which would not be paid is unclear."

September 23, 2013: Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) released a joint letter to Senate Democrats making the case for a clean debt limit bill.

September 18, 2013: As reported by BNA, Treasury Secretary Lew said, "we're happy to do comprehensive tax reform with a revenue target that's part of a fiscal frame. We're happy to work on business tax reform that uses the one-time saving to help build the foundation for economic growth in this country," referring to an earlier proposal made by the Administration.

September 17, 2013:

OMB releases memorandum directing agency and department heads to plan for a possible government shutdown.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releases The 2013 Long-Term Budget Outlook. Key findings and projections: "Between 2009 and 2012, the federal government recorded the largest budget deficits relative to the size of the economy since 1946, causing federal debt to soar. Federal debt held by the public is now about 73 percent of the economy’s annual output, or gross domestic product (GDP). That percentage is higher than at any point in U.S. history except a brief period around World War II, and it is twice the percentage at the end of 2007. If current laws generally remained in place, federal debt held by the public would decline slightly relative to GDP over the next several years, CBO projects. After that, however, growing deficits would ultimately push debt back above its current high level. CBO projects that federal debt held by the public would reach 100 percent of GDP in 2038....Moreover, debt would be on an upward path relative to the size of the economy, a trend that could not be sustained indefinitely.....

"Budget deficits would gradually rise again....mainly because of increasing interest costs and growing spending for Social Security and the government’s major health care programs (Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies to be provided through health insurance exchanges)....The pressures of an aging population, rising health care costs, and an expansion of federal subsidies for health insurance would cause spending for some of the largest federal programs to increase relative to GDP. By 2023, CBO projects, the budget deficit would grow to almost 3½ percent of GDP under current law, and federal debt held by the public would equal 71 percent of GDP and would be on an upward trajectory.

"How long the nation could sustain such growth in federal debt is impossible to predict with any confidence. At some point, investors would begin to doubt the government’s willingness or ability to pay U.S. debt obligations, making it more difficult or more expensive for the government to borrow money. Moreover, even before that point was reached, the high and rising amount of debt that CBO projects under the extended baseline would have significant negative consequences for both the economy and the federal budget:

  • Increased borrowing by the federal government would eventually reduce private investment in productive capital...
  • Federal spending on interest payments would rise...
  • The government would have less flexibility to use tax and spending policies to respond to unexpected challenges, such as economic downturns or wars.
  • The risk of a fiscal crisis—in which investors demanded very high interest rates to finance the government’s borrowing needs—would increase."

September 12, 2013: Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Doug Elmendorf says that although "the federal budget deficit has fallen faster than we expected a few years ago....the debt remains relatively high and is on an upward trajectory in the second half of the coming decade....The fundamental federal budgetary challenge has hardly been addressed: The largest federal programs are becoming much more expansive because of the retirement of the baby boomers and the rising costs of health care, so we need to cut back on those programs, increase the tax revenue to pay for them, or take some combination of those actions." Link to Elmendorf's slide presentation, "The Deficit is Down but the Fundamental Challenge Remains."

September 10. 2013: House Appropriations Chairman Rogers (R-Ky) released a draft fiscal 2014 continuing resolution reflecting an annual level of $986 billion -- roughly the same as the current 2013 "sequestered" spending level.

August 29, 2013: Washington Post releases the first-ever detailed look at the U.S. intelligence budget.

August 26, 2013: Treasury Secretary Lew, in a letter to Speaker Boehner, said that measures to avoid breaching the debt ceiling are now projected to run out in mid-October -- sooner than the earlier projections of November.

Meanwhile, the gridlock continues: White House press secretary Jay Carney reiterated,"We will not negotiate with Republicans in Congress over Congress' responsibility to pay the bills that Congress has racked up, period." However, that evening, Speaker Boehner reiterated his intention to use the debt ceiling to gain political leverage and demand "cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit." Link to NYTimes article

In a nutshell, Democrats don't want to a repeat of 2011 when they offered up a 10-year sequester in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, while House Republicans are planning for a reprise of 2011 by demanding entitlement cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit.

August 21, 2013: With impending mark-ups this fall of tax reform legislation, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget began a series analyzing the $1.3 trillion of tax expenditures (credits, deductions, exclusions and other preferences). Link here.

August 20, 2013: The required OMB Sequestration Update Report to the President and Congress for FY 2014 was released. No surprises.

Enactment of the House-passed defense bill would trigger $48 billion in automatic across-the-board cuts since the House chose to ignore the statutory defense cap for 2014 and instead shifts nearly all the defense cuts onto non-defense programs.

Similarly, enactment of the defense bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee would trigger $54 billion in across-the-board defense cuts because the appropriators chose to "assume" that a bipartisan budget deal would be enacted to entirely eliminate the automatic cuts.

The House-proposed non-defense spending bills would not trigger any across-the-board cuts because the House proposes non-defense levels that are even further below the levels required by the Budget Control Act (in order to absorb all of the defense cuts.)

However, the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed non-defense levels that would trigger $34 billion in across-the-board spending cuts because the Senate appropriators chose to assume enactment of a new budget deal that does away with the reduced spending caps required by the 2011 Budget Agreement.

August 13, 2013: Chief judges of 87 district courts in the U.S. send a letter to Congress "to express our grave concern over the impact the flat funding of the last few years, followed by sequestration, is having on the Judiciary's ability to carry out its...responsibilities....(Funding reductions) have forced us to slash our operations to the bone...." The judges noted serious concerns about putting public safety at risk due to reductions in law enforcement officers, as well as security at courthouses and funding for public defenders. The judges concluded that "another round of cuts would be devastating."

August 8, 2013: Congressional Quarterly reports the President will again exercise his authority to exempt military personnel from automatic across-the-board spending cuts (sequestration) in FY 2014. The across-the-board cuts will occur if Congress and the Administration cannot find an alternative approach to comply with the required $55 billion in defense spending cuts for FY 2014 mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. With all military personnel exempted, the percentage reduction in all non-personnel defense accounts (such as operations and maintenance, and weapons) will have to be significantly higher. The President made the same exemption in FY 2013.

August 6, 2013: CBO releases sequester update report which states, in part, "With the automatic reductions in the caps mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (and modified by the American Taxpayer Relief Act), the overall limit on discretionary budget authority will be $967 billion in 2014.

August 1, 2013: A vote to move forward with the Senate's version of the Transportation-HUD bill fell 6 votes short of the required 60 votes to avoid a filibuster, as Senate Republican leaders rejected any attempt to back away from the deep budget cuts required by the 2014 sequester. The frustrated chair of the Transportation-HUD subcommittee, Senator Patty Murray, said Republicans "have so forcefully fought for the tea party agenda, arguing that there is not one good dime spent at the federal level, that they don't know how to get off that and move to compromise."

July 31, 2013: In a significant development which may force the beginning of serious budget negotiations in September, House Republican leaders were forced to pull the FY 2014 Transportation-HUD spending bill off the House Floor when it became apparent they lacked the votes for passage.

This reflects a deep rift within House Republican ranks between: (1) those who support the shifting of all 2014 automatic sequester cuts from defense programs onto non-defense programs; and (2) Members of the Appropriations Committee led by Chairman Harold Rogers, R-KY, who believe the cuts are too severe and want to negotiate a broader budget plan to replace the 2014 sequester.

In his statement, Chairman Rogers said: “The Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development funding bill that was pulled from floor consideration today was the first major attempt by the House to consider and pass an Appropriations bill that funds domestic programs under the austere level delineated under the Budget Control Act and the House budget resolution....Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: sequestration – and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts – must be brought to an end. And, it is also clear that the higher funding levels advocated by the Senate are also simply not achievable in this Congress.... Spending reductions in mandatory and entitlement programs, which are the drivers of our deficits and debt, are the most effective way to enact meaningful change in the trajectory of federal spending. The House, Senate and White House must come together as soon as possible on a comprehensive compromise that repeals sequestration, takes the nation off this lurching path from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, reduces our deficits and debt, and provides a realistic topline discretionary spending level to fund the government in a responsible – and attainable – way.” (emphasis added) Link to Chairman Rogers' full statement

House Ways & Means Chairman Camp announced plans to markup a tax reform bill in October, reports Politico.

Joint Committee on Taxation study estimates that eliminating the AMT and reducing top individual and corporate income tax rates to 25 percent -- as proposed in the House-passed budget resolution --would cut revenues (and increase deficits) by $5 trillion unless offset by eliminating $5 trillion of deductions, credits and other tax preferences.
Link to estimates on individual rates
.
Link to estimates on corporate rates.

July 30, 2013: Obama’s plan to link corporate tax reform, jobs spending quickly rejected by GOP. White House fact sheet.

July 25, 2013: CBO analysis projects that canceling automatic "sequester" cuts for the rest of this year and next year would add almost a million jobs.

As reported by Bloomberg/BNA, Senate Majority Leader Reid says that legislation to rewrite the tax code should raise at least $975 billion in revenue.

June 20, 2013: Senate Appropriations Committee Democrats and 5 committee Republicans voted to urge that a budget resolution House-Senate conference move forward. According to Congressional Quarterly, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) says he first wants to reach agreement with Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) on a framework for compromise before launching negotiations. Murray wants to proceed without a framework.

March 21, 2013: Boehner backs away from a debt ceiling fight in May but says the sequester will remain in place unless Democrats agree to entitlement reform and a balanced budget. As reported by Congressional Quarterly, Speaker John Boehner said the May expiration of the temporary debt ceiling increase might provide "some" leverage to Republicans to force spending cuts, "but I'm not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government." He added, "We've made clear that to get rid of the sequester, we need cuts and reforms that will put us on a path to balance the budget over 10 years. The president is clear that he's not going to address our entitlement crisis unless we're willing to raise taxes. I think the tax issue's been resolved. So at this point in time, I don't know how we go forward."

March 21, 2013: Congress completes action on a funding bill for the remainder of FY 2013, averting a government shutdown. Click on FY'13-'14 button, above, for latest news

March 21, 2013: House adopts H.Con.Res. 25, the FY 2014 budget resolution (H.Con.Res. 25), although the spending framework -- which requires Senate concurrence -- is vastly different from the Senate Democratic plan. The vote was party line except for 10 GOP "no" votes. The plan would repeal the scheduled FY 2014 sequester cuts to the defense budget and shift them to non-defense discretionary programs. This would constitute a third major round of cuts in non-defense discretionary programs -- the first imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act in the form of annual spending caps through 2021; the second imposed by budget sequestration, which automatically cuts $109 billion per year in each year through 2021; and the third imposed by shifting the FY 2014 defense sequester to non-defense programs. The budget plan also calls for repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax reform. House Republican summary

May 14, 2013: CBO releases new projections for 2013 -2023 projecting that the budget deficit "will shrink this year to $642 billion, the smallest shortfall since 2008. Relative to the size of the economy, the deficit this year—at 4.0 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—will be less than half as large as the shortfall in 2009, which was 10.1 percent of GDP. Because revenues, under current law, are projected to rise more rapidly than spending in the next two years, deficits in CBO’s baseline projections continue to shrink, falling to 2.1 percent of GDP by 2015."

However, CBO goes on to underscore that the nation still faces a long-term debt crisis: "Budget shortfalls are projected to increase later in the coming decade, reaching 3.5 percent of GDP in 2023, because of the pressures of an aging population, rising health care costs, an expansion of federal subsidies for health insurance, and growing interest payments on federal debt....by 2023, if current laws remain in place, debt will equal 74 percent of GDP and continue to be on an upward path"

March 1, 2013: As reported by Congressional Quarterly the President has dismissed the option of using the funding bill for the remainder of 2013 as a vehicle to un-wind the sequester. According to CQ, the President said he would not veto a stopgap funding bill that complies with the 2013 discretionary spending caps, as further reduced by the sequester.“If we stick to that deal, then I will be supportive of us sticking to that deal,” Obama said at a White House news conference. The cuts under sequester, he said, “are additional cuts on top of that, and by law, until Congress takes the sequester away, we’d have to abide by those additional cuts, but there’s no reason why we should have another crisis by shutting the government down in addition to these arbitrary spending cuts,” Obama said. “If the bill that arrives on my desk is reflective of the commitments that we previously made, then obviously I would sign it,” he added.

March 1, 2013: OMB sequestration report to Congress. President's sequester order.

FY '13 Sequester Facts:

  • The "fiscal cliff agreement" in January of 2013 postponed the start of the FY 2013 automatic spending reductions until March 1, 2013 and canceled the first two months of spending cuts reducing the cuts from $109 billion to $85 billion.

  • $85 billion in budget authority (aka "appropriations") were canceled on March 1, 2013 (click here for the sequester report). However, as noted by the Congressional Budget Office, this will result in a lesser amount of outlay reductions for FY 2013 ($42 billion) -- with the remainder occurring after the current fiscal year.

  • Impact of sequester: CBO estimated that the sequester will cut GDP growth by 0.6 percentage and job growth by 750,000 full-time jobs during this calendar year.

  • Of the $85 billion, half is from defense discretionary spending and half from non-defense spending. Of the non-defense cuts, about $29 billion is from nondefense discretionary programs, $10 billion is from Medicare, and $4 billion is from other mandatory spending. (Source: Table 1.2, CBO annual report.)

  • Some of the government's largest programs are exempt from the cuts including Social Security, Medicaid, veterans programs and some low income programs including food stamps (SNAP). Medicare, though not fully exempt, is limited to a 2 percent cut in payments to providers. The President also exercised statutory authority to exempt military personnel.

  • There is very little flexibility in FY 2013 on how the cuts are administered because the law requires that a uniform percentage reduction be applied across-the-board to all "programs, projects and activities." Congress has recently allowed flexibility in some limited circumstances, for example, air traffic controllers.

  • However, there is flexibility on when the cuts are applied, although as a result of the sequester budget officers have less money to operate their programs through the end of the fiscal year. Consequently, the longer they wait to furlough employees and reduce operations and services, the deeper the cuts will need to be to fulfill their agency missions through September 30 (the end of the fiscal year).

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February 28, 2013: Senate failed to pass both Democratic and Republican alternatives to the $85 billion March 1 sequester. The Democratic bill would have replaced the cuts with a combination of a minimum 30% tax on millionaires and cuts to defense and farm programs. The Republican bill would have given the President some flexibility to re-target the $85 billion in cuts instead of the current across-the-board formulation.

February 28, 2013: Five myths about the sequester (Norm Ornstein of AEI and Thomas Mann of Brookings

February 26, 2013: Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress the sequester would place a significant burden on the economy. He urged Congress to replace the cuts with more gradual long-term deficit reduction. "To address both the near- and longer-term issues, the Congress and the administration should consider replacing the sharp, front-loaded spending cuts required by the sequestration with policies that reduce the federal deficit more gradually in the near term but more substantially in the longer run."

February 22, 2013: White House releases state-by-state impact of sequestration spending cuts.

February 20, 2013: Pentagon letter informing Congress of potential furloughs.

February 14, 2013: Senate appropriations committee releases agency letters summarizing the projected impacts of sequestration on government operations and services.

February 13, 2013: House Appropriations Committee Democrats release sequester projections.

February 11, 2013: A new broadbased coalition of healthcare, education, housing and other groups focused on the impact of sequestration sends a letter to Congress, signed by more than 3000 organizations, calling for "a balanced approach to deficit reduciton that does not include further cuts to discretionary programs." The letter points out that the sequestration levels required by the Budget Control Act of 2011 will result in nondefense discretionary levels falling to 2.5% of GDP by 2021, "the lowest level in at least 50 years."

February 7, 2013: CRS releases report on the debt ceiling, scheduled to expire in mid-May.

February 5, 2013: CBO annual report projects low growth in 2013 of just 1.4%, due in part to automatic cuts scheduled to take effect on March 1, 2013. CBO's overall projection: "Economic growth will remain slow this year, CBO anticipates, as gradual improvement in many of the forces that drive the economy is offset by the effects of budgetary changes that are scheduled to occur under current law (the automatic cuts described above). After this year, economic growth will speed up, CBO projects, causing the unemployment rate to decline and inflation and interest rates to eventually rise from their current low levels. Nevertheless, the unemployment rate is expected to remain above 7½ percent through next year; if that happens, 2014 will be the sixth consecutive year with unemployment exceeding 7½ percent of the labor force—the longest such period in the past 70 years."

February 4, 2013: The President signed on Monday, February 4, 2013 a short-term suspension of the debt ceiling – but only through May 18, 2013.  The short-term measure, crafted by the House, is aimed at pressuring the Senate to pass a Budget Resolution this spring that addresses entitlement reform. Because the measure is short-term, the nation will again face the threat of default in May(similar to the summer of 2011).

January 23, 2013: House passed debt legislation (HR 325) that would suspend the debt limit through May 18, 2013 and would delay paying Members of Congress if either chamber fails to pass a Budget Resolution (general budget plan for FY 2014, which begins October 1.). The no-budget / no-pay provision is very likely unconstitutional because the the 27th Amendment to the Constitution provides that "no law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened." However, that issue is unlikely to ever be adjudicated since the Senate is likely to pass a Budget Resolution this April -- for the first time since 2009. (Go to FY'13-'14 page for more news on the budget.)

In the meantime, a February battle over the debt ceiling appears to have been averted, although the nation still faces automatic across-the-board budget cuts on March 1 and a potential government shutdown at the end of March due to the expiration of funding authority on March 27. In addition, the new May deadline for the debt ceiling is not far behind. Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on what they believe spending levels should be for the remainder of FY '13 and FY '14.

January 17, 2013: In the wake of assertions by some fiscal conservatives that simple "prioritization" of government payments could enable Treasury to operate after the debt ceiling is reached, a bipartisan analysis concludes that (1) choosing to pay some and not other commitments would be of "questionable legality and may not even be practical"; and (2) delaying each day's millions of disbursements until sufficient revenues come in would quickly result in intolerable payment delays: Feb. 15 military pay and unemployment benefits would be delayed 5 days; Feb. 20 Social Security payments would be delayed 5 days; Feb. 25 food stamp payments would be delayed to March 5; March 1 Social Security and veterans benefit payments would be delayed to March 15, with each delay getting longer.

January 14, 2013: President Obama appears to rule out a deal trading more spending cuts for increasing the debt ceiling. Congressional Quarterly reports that "President Barack Obama set a hard line on Monday against negotiations over raising the federal borrowing limits, saying if the debt ceiling is not raised Social Security checks and veterans’ benefits payments 'will be delayed' and that federal obligations such as payments to troops may be threatened ....Obama told House Republicans he will not treat 'the full faith and credit of the United States' as a bargaining chip in deficit reduction talks. Republicans, he said, 'will not collect a ransom for not crashing the economy.'" On January 12, 2013 the White House ruled out using the "trillion dollar platinum coin" loophole to avoid exceeding the debt ceiling.

January 11, 2013: Letter from Senate Democratic leaders urge President to take any lawful steps to avoid a the debt ceiling being used as political leverage.

January 10, 2013: Debt ceiling will likely need to be addressed in the latter half of February. Debt ceiling FAQs from Jeanne Sahadi

January 9, 2013: A new report from the nonpartisan congressional research service concludes that even after the fiscal cliff deal, half of the contractionary effects remain due to expiration of the payroll tax cuts, higher taxes on high-income individuals, tax increases enacted as part of health reform, the remaining automatic budget cuts now scheduled for March 1, 2013 and other effects. The combined effects could contract economic growth by 2 percent.

January 4, 2013: Nonpartisan congressional research service summary of the fiscal cliff deal.

January 2, 2013: President Obama signed into law the "American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012" (ATRA) which, in general permanently extended the Bush tax cuts for most taxpayers, allowed expiration of the payroll tax cut, delayed automatic spending cuts "sequestration" for two months, and extended expiring unemployment insurance for one year.

How does budget sequestration work?
OMB Sequester Report (09.14.12)
;
Budget Control Act of 2011: Effects on Spending and the Deficit

Budget “Sequestration” and Selected Program Exemptions and Special Rules


CRS summary of the fiscal cliff agreement

Highlights of the January 1, 2013 Fiscal Cliff Agreement:

  • Makes permanent the Bush tax rates for income up to 400k for individuals and 450k for joint filers

  • Above that threshold the tax rate increases from 35% to 39.6%

  • Above that threshold tax rates for capital gains and dividends increase from 15% to 20%

  • Reinstates limits on the personal exemption and itemized deductions on income above 250k/300k

  • Extends the current estate tax exemption amount, but raises the rate to 40%

  • "Tax extender" provisions extended through 2013

  • Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) permanently fixed (i.e. indexed to inflation)

  • Avoids the "SGR" automatic cuts (27%) in Medicare physician pay for another year

  • Extends through 2013 long-term unemployment benefits

  • Extends through FY 2013 most federal farm programs and policies, including dairy prices, in order to prevent a spike in milk prices

  • Delays automatic spending cuts to March 1, 2013 and reduces the required $109 billion acorss-the board cuts in defense and nondefense spending ("sequestration") from $109 billion to $85 billion. (It also delays until March 27 a separate $11 billion sequester of defense spending scheduled to occur because current defense spending exceeds the statutory cap set in 2011.)

  • Does this stabilize the nation's economy? No, it does not. It partially avoids an immediate fiscal crisis that could have pushed the nation into recession during the first half of 2013, and even there, immediate risks to the economic recovery remain with automatic cuts scheduled for March, a potential debt ceiling crisis, and the payroll tax cut having expired.

  • For the long-term, the U.S. debt remains unsustainable. To be sure, significant progress was made in 2011 by placing caps on defense and nondefense discretionary spending, saving about $1 trillion over 10 years. In addition, the January 1st fiscal cliff deal will raise about $600 billion over 10 years in new revenues by allowing rates to rise on incomes above 400k/450k. However, the largest portion of the budget -- entitlement spending -- remains unaddressed.

    The rapid growth of Medicare and Medicaid due to fast-rising healthcare costs and the aging of the population remains largely unaddressed.

    In addition, annual cash deficits of the Social Security program will rapidly increase due to the aging of the population and the program's solvency is therefore at risk.

    And reforms to other "mandatory spending" such as farm programs and federal retirement programs remain addressed.

    All of these areas -- Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, other mandatory spending, as well as tax expenditures -- need to be addressed in order to stabilize the long-term debt and ensure long-term economic stability and growth. Proposals to reform each of these areas are laid out in the two major deficit reduction plans: Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin.

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December 21, 2012: President Obama proposes a stop-gap measure that would extend current tax rates for income up to $250,000, an extension of expiring unemployment benefits, and a delay in the sequester (automatic spending cuts.

December negotiations: Link to Comparison of Obama and Boehner Proposals

November 30, 2012: Washington Post reports that House Speaker Boehner sees fiscal cliff talks at "stalemate."

November 28, 2012: The Tax Policy Center has created a new Tax Calculator that lets users examine the effects of four potential outcomes of negotiations over the upcoming fiscal cliff.

Norquist backing away from "the pledge" may signal less pressure on Republicans to stand firm on tax rates.

November 26, 2012: The White House released a report Nov. 26 finding that real gross domestic product could decline by 1.4 percentage points if tax rates on the middle class return next year to their pre-Bush-era levels.

November 23, 2012: Business groups call for raising debt ceiling as part of fiscal cliff fix.

November 21, 2012: Senators Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) propose a "plan" to avoid the fiscal cliff, although the plan still lacks critical details, such as the composition of automatic spending cuts and tax increases that would go into effect in the event Congress fails to enact deficit reduction legislation in 2013. Other plans to avoid the fiscal cliff include one proposed by the Bipartisan Policy Center, although it similarly avoids details on a fiscal "backstop" if Congress fails to act.

November 20, 2012: Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke again warned policymakers to avoid "a sudden and severe contraction in fiscal policy early next year."

Tax Policy Center estimates raising the $250,000 threshold to $500,000 would cost $7 billion in revenue losses; and raising the threshold to $1 million would cost $14 billion in revenue losses.

November 17, 2012: AP reports Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may be taking off the table a key proposal in fiscal cliff talks. The proposal would adopt a more accurate method (according to economists) of calculating cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for Social Security and a host of other federal programs. The adjustment would take into account that consumers find less expensive alternatives when prices rise. Some have proposed that making this technical change in COLAs could be a relatively noncontroversial "downpayment" on deficit reduction as part of a fiscal cliff deal. However, AP reports Reid saying the following: "I've made it very clear. I've told anyone that will listen, including everyone in the White House, including the president, that I am not going to be part of having Social Security as part of these talks relating to this deficit." Whether Reid's statement covers the technical adjustment to Social Security COLA calculations is not yet clear.

November 16, 2012: CNN Money reports that the Treasury Department will face a difficult choice on tax withholding if the nation goes over the fiscal cliff on January 1, 2013. Also, as reported by the Fiscal Times, a Goldman Sachs analysis speculates there may still be a $218 billion hit on the economy even if there's a "fiscal cliff deal," due to expiration of the payroll tax cut, expiration of upper income tax cuts, health reform tax increases, and expiration of emergency unemployment benefits.

November 13, 2012: In a letter on Fiscal Cliff preparations, IRS warns Congress of higher tax bills and filing delays for millions of taxpayers due to expiration of AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) patch.

Post-Pew poll shows deep public anxiety over the fiscal cliff, with GOP more likely to be blamed.

November 8, 2012: In an updated report on the economic consequences of the fiscal cliff, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concludes "if all of that fiscal tightening occurs, real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) will drop by 0.5 percent in 2013...in the first half of the year.... That contraction of the economy will cause employment to decline and the unemployment rate to rise to 9.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013."

However, CBO reminds us that if the fiscal cliff is removed without substituting a broader debt reduction deal, "a continued surge in federal debt during the rest of this decade and beyond would raise the risk of a fiscal crisis in which the government would lose the ability to borrow money at affordable interest rates...."

October 25, 2012: The "Campaign to Fix the Debt" rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on October 25. According to Congressional Quarterly, "several of the business leaders who spoke Thursday...said uncertainty caused by the so-called fiscal cliff and the rising $16 trillion debt is holding back economic growth and hiring."

October 23, 2012: Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reports that the fiscal cliff has now overtaken Europe's debt crisis as the number one concern for investors.

October 22, 2012: In the final presidential debate of 2012, while responding to Governor Romney's comments on defense cuts, President Obama said, "first of all, the sequester is not something that I've proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen. The budget that we are talking about is not reducing our military spending. It is maintaining it." Transcript

President Obama was speaking about his FY 2013 budget proposal. By way of background, defense outlays in 2001 were $306 billion in 2001; doubled to $612 billion by 2008 due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and during the President's term were: $657 billion in 2009, $689 billion in 2010, $700 billion in 2011, and 709 billion in 2012.

Proposed defense levels for 2013 through 2021 were generally agreed to by both political parties in last year's Budget Control Act which placed caps on defense (and non-defense) spending for each year through 2021. The $487 billion in defense cuts often referred to are the 10-year budget savings attributable to those bipartisan spending caps adopted in the 2011 law. (Those budget savings are measured against what defense spending would be if it were adjusted each year for inflation.)

The defense "sequester" refers to additional cuts in defense spending of $55 billion per year (in spending authority) through 2021 that will take effect on January 2, 2013, unless Congress acts to avoid the fiscal cliff (automatic spending cuts and tax increases).

As a percentage of GDP, defense has increased from 3.0% in 2001, to 4.3% in 2008, and currently stands at 4.5%.

October 18, 2012: CEO's from major financial institutions wrote to Congress and the President urging them to "work together to reach a bipartisan agreement to avoid the approaching fiscal cliff," saying the "consequences of inaction ...would be very grave."

October 18, 2012: Washington Post reports that President Obama is prepared to veto legislation that avoids the fiscal cliff unless it allows the Bush tax cuts for high income taxpayers to expire. Also, Ezra Klein blogs that the White House plan is to "push Republicans off the fiscal cliff."

October 9, 2012: In a 15-page letter to his congressional colleagues, Rep. Norm Dicks, Ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee detailed the severe impact of automatic budget cuts on public safety, health care, transportation and defense. He also estimates automatic defense cuts of 11.3% -- 1.9% higher than recent OMB estimates.

October 2, 2012: Nonpartisan Tax Policy Center (TPC) analysis calculates that unless Congress and the Administration avoid the fiscal cliff, "nearly 90 percent of Americans would pay more tax, primarily because the temporary cut in Social Security taxes and many of the 2001/2003 tax cuts would expire. Low-income households would pay more due to expiration of tax credits in the 2009 stimulus. High-income households would be hit hard by higher tax rates on ordinary income, capital gains, and dividends and by the new health reform taxes. And marginal tax rates would rise, potentially affecting economic decisions." Dividing taxpayers into 5 groups, by income, the TPC estimates that:

--Taxpayers in the bottom 20% would see their taxes rise by 3.7%.
--Taxpayers in the 2d "quintile" would see their taxes rise by 4.1%
--Taxpayers in the middle "quintile" would see their taxes rise by 3.8%
--Taxpayers in the 4th "quintile" would see their taxes rise by 4.2%
--Taxpayers in the top 20% would see their taxes rise by 5.8%.

Sept. 28, 2012: OMB tells agencies to "continue normal spending and operations" as the new fiscal year begins on October 1, 2012. The memo from the White House to department heads says "the administration continues to urge Congress to pass a balanced package of deficit reduction that would replace the potential sequestration on January 2, 2013....If necessary (these instructions) will be amended to address that sequestration."

Sept. 24, 2012: Bipartisan Group of Senators warn of the dire consequences of a sequester.

Sept. 20, 2012: Congressional Research Service releases an updated report on the macroeconomic consequences of the fiscal cliff.

Sept. 18, 2012: Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad tells CNN he is working with 7 other Senators ("Gang of Eight") to develop a package for the November-December lame duck session that would: (1) delay the fiscal cliff by 6 months; (2) establish a detailed "framework" -- based on the Simpson Bowles plan -- for $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years with congressional committees to fill in the details next year; and (3) make a "downpayment" on deficit reduction to take place immediately. Whether this approach can overcome the ongoing gridlock over tax rates is unclear.

Sept. 14, 2012: White House released a report detailing the automatic "sequester" cuts scheduled to take effect on January 2, 2013. No major surprises because the cuts are required by last summer's debt ceiling law and must be applied across-the-board in sufficient amounts to cut spending authority by $109 billion in FY 2013.

Today's report releases preliminary estimates of percentages that will be cut from all programs, projects and activities: 9.4% for defense discretionary spending and 8.2% for non-defense discretionary spending. (These are reductions to spending authority; the actual outlay reductions will be less for FY 2013, based on how quickly various programs spend their funds.) The law specifies that Medicare cuts are limited to 2%.

The sequester would also cut non-exempt, nondefense "mandatory" programs by 7.6% and non-exempt defense "mandatory" programs by 10%.( "Mandatory" spending generally refers to entitlement or other programs that are not annually appropriated.) However, most entitlement programs are exempt, as explained in this CRS report. Exempt programs include military personnel, veterans' programs, Social Security and some low-income programs including Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).)

In dollar terms, the cuts are:
$54.6 billion from defense discretionary
$38 billion from nondefense discretionary
$11 billion from Medicare
$5.5 billion from nondefense, nonexempt mandatory spending
$91 million from a student loan fee increase
Total Reduction for FY 2013: $109 billion

The law requires $109 billion of automatic cuts in each year through 2021, although future years allow for more discretion in which programs are cut.

The report does not estimate how many workers would be cut in FY 2013 but a senior administration official told CNN Money "this would have a significant effect on the federal workforce."

Not surprisingly, the report urges action to substitute an alternative set of budget reductions, saying the across-the-board cuts "would be deeply destructive to national security, domestic investments, and core government functions."

More specifically, on the defense side of the budget, the report says "while the Department of Defense would be able to shift funds to ensure war fighting and critical military readiness capabilities were not degraded, sequestration would result in a reduction in readiness of many non-deployed units, delays in investments in new equipment and facilities, cutbacks in equipment repairs, declines in military R&D efforts, and reductions in base services for military families."

On the non-defense side, the report says "sequestration would undermine investments vital to economic growth, threaten the safety and security of the American people, and cause severe harm to programs that benefit the middle-class, seniors, and children," specifically mentioning cuts in education, FBI agents, customs and border protection agents, correctional officers, federal prosecutors, air traffic control, food safety, air and water quality, NIH health research, FEMA response to terrorism and disasters, housing, and food assistance.

The report also pointedly reminds us that the sequester requirement was enacted by "bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate" -- given all of the recent congressional rhetoric decrying the impending cuts. OMB Sequester Report

Sept. 13, 2012: Congress missed last opportunity before the year-end lame duck session to avoid the fiscal cliff. The House passed a six-month stop-gap spending measure 329-91, but neglected to take any actions to avoid the fiscal cliff that threatens the US economy with recession and 2 million job losses.

Sept. 13, 2012: The House passed a symbolic bill (HR 6365) that would require the President to submit to Congress by Oct. 15 legislation to replace the automatic across-the-board cuts scheduled for January.with alternative cuts. However, the Senate is not expected to take up the bill, and the White House threatened to veto it.

Sept. 12, 2012: AMA, AHA, and ANA released a new report concluding that the Medicare portion of the impending sequester will result in the loss of 496,000 jobs in 2013 and 766,000 by 2021.

Sept. 11, 2012: Judge Julia Smith Gibbons of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the automatic sequester would cut the judiciary's budget by more than $500 million and "a reduction of this magnitude would cripple the operations of the federal judiciary and our constitutional mission would be compromised due to these sudden, arbitrary cuts," reports Congressional Quarterly.

Sept. 11, 2012: Moody's says it would maintain a "negative outlook" on the U.S. credit rating if the economy experiences the shock of going over the fiscal cliff.

Sept. 10, 2012: According to Congressional Quarterly, Sen. John McCain is seeking a 3-month delay of automatic defense cuts scheduled for January and may offer an amendment to legislation Congress will consider this week to keep the government operating during the first 6 months of the new fiscal year (which begins October 1).

Continuing political gridlock over whether to extend tax cuts for high income earners is impeding any general progress on avoiding the overall fiscal cliff, which the Congressional Budget Office projects will lead to a 2013 recession and the loss of 2 million. jobs. Whether Congress will avoid the cliff in a post-election lame duck session remains doubtful due to continuing gridlock over tax rates and spending levels. Click here for analysis.

August 22, 2012: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that going over the cliff will lead to recession, and CBO Director Elmendorf told reporters this would lead to a loss of two million jobs. Link to CBO August Update

In its August budget update, CBO reiterated its projection that failure to avoid the fiscal cliff "will lead to economic conditions in 2013 that will probably be considered a recession," with unemployment rising to 9.1 percent. Alternatively, if the cliff is avoided, CBO projects no recession with GDP growth of 1.7 percent and unemployment at 8 percent.

The CBO said, "The increases in federal taxes and reductions in federal spending, totaling almost $500 billion, that are projected to occur in fiscal year 2013 represent an amount of deficit reduction over the course of a single year that has not occurred (as a share of GDP) since 1969....Real GDP is expected to fall at an annual rate of 2.9 percent in the first half of next year and then to rise at an annual rate of 1.9 percent in the second half."

"The stakes of fiscal policy are very high right now," said CBO Director Doug Elmendorf. "The sooner that that uncertainty is resolved, the stronger the economy would be in the second half of this year.... Economic growth right now is being held back by the anticipation of this fiscal tightening."

At the same time, CBO has projected that avoiding the fiscal cliff by permanently extending all expiring tax cuts, repealing the automatic spending cuts, indexing the alternative minimum tax, and repealing the automatic medicare physician payment cuts -- without any way to pay for these policies -- would have disastrous consequences for the nation's debt, adding $7.7 trillion to the publicly held debt by 2022. This is the essence of our fiscal challenge: avoiding the fiscal cliff, recession and 2 million job losses in 2013, while at the same time putting in place a long-term set of spending and tax reforms that will stabilize the debt.

August 18, 2012: The Scariest Fiscal Cliff Chart

August 16, 2012: CNBC: Cliff Hanger: Corporate America Puts Everything on Hold

August 10, 2012: Nonpartisan Congressional Research Service Releases Analysis of Fiscal Cliff

August 9, 2012: Congressional Research Service releases a report on programs exempt from automatic cuts

August 7, 2012: President signs into law a bill (HR 5872) requiring the Administration to detail within 30 days how it would implement the January 2013 automatic across-the-board cuts in defense and non-defense spending.

This will include the projected across-the-board percentage reductions (about 8% for nondefense and 11% for defense) as well as cuts in each specific program, project and activity, except for programs that are exempt from the automatic cuts, which include military personnel, veterans' programs, Social Security and some low-income programs including Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

The sequester details provided by OMB in early September will underscore the impact of going over the cliff, but are unlikely to break the partisan gridlock over extending the Bush tax cuts for upper income taxpayers, which is the core political conflict leading the nation towards the fiscal cliff.

August 7, 2012: Op-ed: If Congress goes over the Fiscal Cliff, why the tax increases and spending cuts will be difficult to un-wind

August 6, 2012: Secretary of Defense Panetta, calls the automatic cuts "crazy, insane, nutty" and blamed the looming cuts on both Democrats and Republicans.

August 2, 2012: Senate Parliamentarian confirms that there is no fast-track procedure available to replace a presidential sequester order.

August 2, 2012: Congressional Quarterly reports that "senior congressional aides" have estimated that the across-the-board cuts at the Defense Dept. would be about 11.2 percent in 2013, given the President's decision to exempt military personnel (about 30 percent of the defense budget)..

August 2, 2012: Senate Finance Committee approves a two-year AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) patch and tax extenders package (R&E tax credit, deduction for state sales taxes and other expiring provisions.). However, the measure fails to address the fiscal cliff (major tax hikes in early January 2013 when the Bush tax cuts expire). The package costs $205 billion over 10 years, the bulk of which is from the AMT patch. Outlook: Senate could vote on the package in September, but the House has not scheduled action on extenders and, as reported by Congressional Quarterly, may wait until consideration of the larger tax issues after the election.
Documents related to the tax extenders bill JCT Revenue Estimates
CRS Summary of Tax Provisions Expiring in 2012 including the expiring "Bush tax cuts"

August 1, 2012: House passes a one-year extension of Bush tax cuts after rejecting a Democratic proposal to let the cuts expire for individuals earning up to $200k and joint filers earning up to $250k. (The Senate rejected the House approach the previous week.) Summary of the House-passed bill

July 31, 2012: OMB (White House budget office) issued a letter on the automatic defense and non-defense budget cuts (“sequestration”) scheduled to occur on January 2, 2013.   In summary, OMB:  (1) acknowledges that the sequestration “would be highly destructive to national security and domestic priorities”;  (2) calls on Congress to avoid sequestration by adopting alternative deficit reduction measures that are “balanced”; and (3) states their intention to begin consulting with agencies on preparations for sequestration. 

In a separate letter to Congress, OMB stated the President's intent to exempt military personnel from sequester, which will increase the spending cuts applied to non-personnel defense accounts.

July 31, 2012: Congressional leadership announces stopgap measure ("continuing resolution") to prevent government shutdown on October 1, 2012, but measure fails to address the impending fiscal cliff

July 31, 2012: CNBC Fed Survey of top money managers, investment strategists, and economists identifies the fiscal cliff as the biggest threat facing the U.S. economy, taking the spot away from the European financial crisis. 78 percent of respondents said the fiscal cliff is already having a negative effect on business.

July 30, 2012: Bipartisan op-ed on how to avoid the fiscal cliff

July 30, 2012: Dept. of Labor released letter issuing guidance that the WARN Act does not require Federal contractors "whose contracts may be terminated or reduced in the event of sequestration on January 2, 2013" to provide WARN Act notices 60 days before that date to workers employed under government contracts due to "the lack of certainty about how the budget cuts will be implemented and the possibility that the sequester will be avoided before January."

July 25, 2012: Sen. Tom Harkin releases report on automatic cuts' impact on nondefense jobs and services

July 25, 2012: Senate passes legislation to extend for one year the Bush tax cuts on income up to $200k for individuals and $250k for joint filers, after defeating a Republican alternative to extend the cuts for all income levels. (The House later rejected the Senate approach on August 1.) Statement of Administration Policy on Senate bill

July 17, 2012: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, at a Senate Banking Committee hearing, urged Congress to pull back from the fiscal cliff.

July 17, 2012: A George Mason University study commissioned by the Aerospace Industries Association projects the automatic budget cuts could result in the loss of more than 2 million jobs in 2013 alone

July 3, 2012: IMF warns that failure to avoid the fiscal cliff "would trigger a severe fiscal tightening in 2013" threatening a recession "early next year" and "significant negative repercussions on an already fragile world economy." IMF Report

May 22, 2012: CBO predicts that Fiscal Cliff will cause a recession in the first half of 2013. CBO estimates that the combination of tax increases and spending cuts -- together characterized as the "fiscal cliff" -- would remove about $600 billion from the economy between 2012 and 2013.

May 10, 2012: House passed legislation (HR 5652) to cancel the 2013 sequester and replace it with spending cuts to be achieved elsewhere, while leaving the 2014-2021 automatic cuts in place. Link to bill summary

November 21, 2011: Congressional "Super Committee" announces inability to reach a budget deal, triggering automatic budget cuts ("sequestration") on January 2, 2013


Background on "Sequestration"
: 

The August 2011 Debt Ceiling Agreement included more than $750 billion in spending cuts (compared with what spending would have been if appropriations were allowed to grow with inflation) by placing statutory caps on discretionary spending for 10 years. Including interest savings, this totals up to deficit reduction of more than $900 billion.  In addition, the Debt Ceiling Agreement established a “Super Committee” to achieve another $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.  

The total deficit reduction of about $2.1 trillion over 10 years —even though an enormous reduction in discretionary spending—is not sufficient to stabilize the projected explosion of U.S. debt. The Domenici-Rivlin Bipartisan Debt Reduction Task Force estimated that fully stabilizing the debt for the long-term would require nearly $6 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years.

Background:  In August, the Treasury was close to hitting the statutory ceiling on the (gross) U.S. debt (about $15 trillion), threatening a possible default.  Deficit hawks used the threat of default to force enactment of the Budget Control Act of 2011 which had two key provisions:

 

1. The BCA imposed tight caps for the next 10 years on total discretionary spending. The programmatic impact of these reductions will be determined each year in the appropriations process.  (“Discretionary spending” refers to programs that are annually appropriated, as opposed to “entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare – the costs of which are driven by benefit formulas written into the law.) 

The BCA’s 10-year spending caps are very tight and will significantly impact many programs – both defense and non-defense.  Under the spending caps, total discretionary spending remains well below FY 2011 levels for the next decade (see the table below).

Although, recent political rhetoric might suggest that the caps are not significant, the challenges for policymakers are daunting because: (1) the costs of a growing and aging population must be absorbed within declining spending caps; (2) vital transportation infrastructure repairs and expansions must be absorbed within the caps; (3) the rapidly growing costs of veterans health care must be accommodated; and (4) the costs of inflation must be fully absorbed. (Adjustments are permitted for emergencies and military operations.)

To put this in perspective, under the spending caps total discretionary spending declines as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from 9% in FY 2011 to 6.1% in FY 2021.  Since FY 1962—the first year for which data is available—discretionary spending has only been that low as a percent of the economy in one other year.

The spending caps are enforced through automatic across-the-board cuts that are implemented by the Office of Management and Budget if the cap for any year is exceeded. 

2. The Debt Ceiling Agreement also established a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction – the so-called “Super Committee” of 6 Democrats and 6 Republicans – which was required to report to the full Congress by Thanksgiving a plan to further reduce projected deficits by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.  Republicans hoped the Super Committee would tackle entitlement reform and Democrats hoped the Super Committee would tackle tax reform (but as explained below, the Super Committee failed).

On November 21, 2011 the Super Committee announced failure to reach agreement, setting up automatic spending cuts in January 2013.

Under the terms of the Budget Control Act (as modified by the "New Year's Agreement" in January 2013), failure of the Super Committee to come up with $1.2 trillion in budget savings triggered in March of 2013 automatic across-the-board cuts that drove discretionary spending even lower than the already established caps. Automatic cuts were also made in some mandatory (entitlement) programs, primarily Medicare.

Here’s how the automatic cuts work (in plain English):

- The automatic cuts are designed to save $1.2 trillion by FY 2021, since the Joint Committee failed to do so.  Excluding interest savings, this requires about $1 trillion in program cuts.

 

These are cuts in Congress' appropriations of spending authority to agencies, rather than cuts to annual outlays -- which is most significant in 2013, when the outlay reductions will appear considerably lower than the cuts in spending authority (due to the time lag between budget cuts and reduced outlays).

- The cuts are to be divided evenly between defense and non-defense programs – about a half trillion from defense and a half trillion from non-defense over the 9 years.

- The cuts are to be spread evenly over the 9 years (2013-2021), requiring about $55 billion in cuts from defense and $55 billion in cuts from non-defense in each of the nine years.

- In FY 2013, the required budget cuts of $55 billion in defense and $55 billion in nondefense, are to be carried out through across-the-board cuts.  This required 9.4% cuts in all defense accounts (although the President has exercised his authority to exempt military personnel), and 8.4% in all non-defense accounts (except for those programs that are exempted by law).  These are cuts in addition to those already required to comply with the spending caps enacted by the Budget Control Act.

- Most of the cuts will come from discretionary spending programs (i.e., programs that are annually appropriated) because most of the entitlement programs – such as Social Security, Medicaid, Veterans Compensation and Food Stamps -- are exempted by law

- Medicare, however, is only partially exempted and is subject to a 2 percent cut in most areas of the program in each of the years, amounting to $123 billion in benefit cuts over 9 years.

- In each of the years after FY 2013, Congress and the President can avoid across-the-board cuts as long as they enact appropriations bills that produce the required $55 billion in defense and $55 billion in non-defense savings (as compared with the original Budget Control Act spending caps).  If Congress and the President fail to enact the required amount of savings, the Office of Management and Budget is required to make up the difference in each year through 2021 with across-the-board cuts.

Summary, Automatic (Sequester) Cuts:

Dec 2013

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The idea behind the automatic cuts is that they would serve as a “Sword of Damocles” to force agreement by the Super Committee and, in the event of failure, would guarantee an additional $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction – and possibly cause Congress to act in 2012 on legislation to replace the across-the-board cuts with a more sensible approach.

However, the automatic cuts won’t solve the debt crisis and have some serious flaws...The cuts fail to address the largest drivers of projected debtentitlement growth driven by the aging of the population and health care costs growing faster than the economy – and a deficient tax system that loses too much in special deductions and credits and places the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.  In addition, some argue that the automatic cuts are economically risky, because they’ll reduce government investment in highways & bridges, schools, public transit, airport modernization, and health research when the economy is weak and needs public investment. 

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