Ask the grumpies: If you were a supercommittee with superpowers where would you start reducing the federal government budget?

chacha1 asks

If you were the supercommittee, with actual governmental superpowers, where would you start with reducing the federal government’s budget so that we could actually start reducing the national debt without condemning the nation’s poor to starvation, homelessness, and/or death from preventable illnesses and workplace injuries?

Well, the answer to this would depend a lot on how much power said supercommittee had.  Like, does what we say become law?  Does it have to be voted on?  What happens when people protest?  And so on.

Here I’m going to assume that the committee has the power to force through legislation and people just have to lump it, but doesn’t have supernatural powers to change the hearts and behaviors of people.  We make the laws, they try to get around them.  They can’t vote us out.  In any case, some really easy cuts would be to go with evidence-based policy.

Note:  We may not actually *want* to reduce spending when times are bad because even just throwing money out of a plane over a city is better than reducing spending.  So I’ll assume that in those situations the money saved goes to feed kids, fix infrastructure, fund education, stimulate important research, and otherwise fix the economy in ways that are good for our long-term growth.

So easy things:

  1. Phase out the mortgage benefit– this benefit does not encourage homeownership, only overconsumption of houses
  2. Phase out the SS tax cap
  3. Completely eliminate ridiculous agricultural subsidies that are making us fat.
  4. Examine the corporate tax code– this is hard because there’s a lot to be cut, but there is a real worry that corporations will move things overseas, so it’s not just a slam-dunk.  I’m sure more educated folks than I have better ideas.
  5. Go with the Poterba policy recommendations for stream-lining the tax code so that there are fewer loopholes for extremely high earners (this is essentially expanding the alternative minimum tax system)
  6. Make stock earnings taxed as income (or otherwise make it so the Buffett tax hits people who own American stocks)
  7. Cut inefficient military spending, replace it with efficient military spending or infrastructure spending so as not to hurt communities dependent on the industry (possibly phasing out plants)
  8. I’m not so good at foreign policy, but there’s a lot that can be done to decrease our spending in this arena without jeopardizing our national security.  We need more focus on doing things with coalitions rather than unilaterally.  And we do need to help out more like with the Syrian refugee crisis.
  9. Cut foreign policy aid to Israel and possibly to Egypt.
  10. Cut some Medicare spending– allow Medicare better bargaining power, allow outcomes from experiments to influence policy, cut some doctor reimbursement (but not to Medicaid levels)
  11. Allow federal funds to fund abortions.
  12. Add a public option to health care with an eye towards eventually transitioning to single payer health care (this will actually cost money and we’ll have to pay more taxes but it is good for efficiency).

There’s probably a lot I’m forgetting.  In my work office I have a chart of government spending, but I don’t have one off the top of my head here.


30 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: If you were a supercommittee with superpowers where would you start reducing the federal government budget?”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    I think even if you change nothing, I believe there are many ways you can cut inefficiencies by managing departments better. For example I know someone who worked at the department of revenue who took a couple of FMLAs in a row and then never came back to work. This person continued to be employed for another 8 years. Although they were not being paid salary during that time, all the healthcare and insurance benefits were still intact and being paid out of taxpayers pockets.

    There is probably a lot of opportunity too if you put some more analysts to investigate fraud.

    I may try to streamline the process of being able to be a government contractor so it would be easier to bid on projects. More competition should reduce costs. I also get the sense that many of the companies profiting off the government are good ol boys who know someone.

    I think in generally, spending money to drive change is a good thing, but there is very little accountability once the money is spent. One of the things I loved hearing Hillary say is that if we are giving big corporations huge tax breaks to stimulate the economy and then they move stuff overseas anyway, why are we not demanding the money back? Why is there not a contract or metric that the companies are held accountable to? Again, I think the spending is okay, but not if the receiver doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain. I work at and with a lot of big companies and I see them have their cake and eat it too over and over. It makes me sick.

    Excellent post question. Looking forward to reading people’s answers.

  2. Solitary Diner Says:

    I would happily live in a country with you as dictator.

    Out of curiosity, why cuts to Egypt? I visited there this Spring, and the country has been economically devastated by damage to the tourism industry following the revolution. There are a lot of people suffering in what was already a pretty poor country.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m not an expert but why Egypt over any other suffering country (the answer, of course, has to do with us screwing with middle east politics because it has oil)? Also my understanding is it is a lot of military aid, not humanitarian. Egypt and Israel make up the bulk of our foreign aid.

  3. yuppiemillennial Says:

    Agree with everything except maybe 9. For 4 I would need presidential cooperation to broker international agreement on corporate tax rate (say 20-25%). For 7 I would specifically try to redirect military spending currently going to planes nobody flies to renewable energy manufacturing.

    I would also:
    13. implement a graduated sugar and sweetener tax on drinks including sodas and juices as well as candy.
    14. increase max and income limits on ira contributions and phase out 401k and 403b. Default opt-in status at 10% of gross which gets renewed each time person signs up with new employer. (may increase tax burden but will make population more resilient when the next conservative cuts public funding)
    15. require living will and advance directives upon signup to Medicare, have default option at the ready
    16. prohibit any public official on a supercommittee to go into that industry (employee or contractor) or to lobby on issues regarding that sector for 10 years after serving on committee. However may ask to publicly share views on Congress floor.
    17. initiate program requiring facilities receiving federal dollars to undergo energy audit, fund changes with payback of <8ish years.
    18. fund pilot program for hospitals paying hospitalists on salary not based on caseload or outcomes (like Mayo Clinic) and suspend/clear med school debt in exchange for 10-15 years of service (basically an expanded PLUS loan forgiveness). gradually move US to hospitalist centered system.
    19. decriminalize drug use, purchase, sale. earmark taxes collected for mental health
    20. phase out the 529

    And then some that probably won't decrease spending in the short term but may lead to better use of tax dollars that may reduce future spending:
    21. fund pilot program to create peacekeeping force as first responders to minor community disturbances (specifically trained in mental health and defensive use of force)
    22. fund pilot program to have child services provide in-home helper as intervention step for referred families prior to removal of child
    23. phase out private prisons
    24. fund k-12 breakfast and lunch, no means testing + get rid of related administrata

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      From what I understand, the amount of foreign aid that goes to Israel and Egypt is enormous and could be cut while still giving them more aid than all of the rest of the countries. Again, not my area of expertise.

      Revolving door lobbyist prohibitions are a good idea. Let’s add that if our supercommittee can’t just block that kind of lobbying.

      your #23 is a great example of private contracting being a bad thing

      • yuppiemillennial Says:

        My general feeling on 4 is that there may be a good reason to maintain strong ties (even if that means military aid) to our allies in the Middle East. If I were Prez I may use that aid as leverage for those allies to do some more PR boosting work (better support for Syrian refugees in Egypt, for instance), but wouldn’t neceassarily say cut spending, at least without talking to my advisors who would clearly know more on the issue.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Well, the recommendation is based on previous conversations with actual foreign policy experts. Obviously that’s not what the government is doing. But it sounds like the government has done a lot of harm world-wide in an effort to keep America as the hegemon. Our goals have nothing to do with actually helping people in other countries and a lot to do with keeping places destabilized (not Egypt, but places around Egypt).

      • yuppiemillennial Says:

        Oh yeah I would never argue that the US hasn’t done a ton of damage destabilizing a number of governments, nor that our foreign spending has ever been for anything other than promoting American or American-aligned corporate interests. I’ll defer to your conversations with experts on the matter as providing the better policy, though I certainly would be interested in the broader strategy that contextualizes it.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I’m not entirely sure that experts know either (and obviously they disagree). There’s not a lot of counter-factuals.

        But, are we sure that Egypt and Israel are the best places to put our direct foreign aid dollars? Israel doesn’t really need it (but we need them, and Florida is a swing state). Things suck in Egypt, but there are plenty of places that suck more that don’t happen to be our allies in an oil rich area.

        So, I dunno, there are reasons people say not to give money to the places we give money to, but maybe our foreign policy interests are best serves continuing to do what we do. I talk to experts, but not recently and I’m not one.

    • chacha1 Says:

      #15 here is totally brill and should be law RIGHT NOW.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        but but death panels…

        (Sigh– and that was just for offering/paying, not for requiring)

        Sadly, EOL directives are often ignored by hospitals even when people do have them. Still, a huge boon for the younger relatives who end up having to make difficult choices on behalf of their parents. My evil uncle and my saintly uncle got into a heated discussion about this at my grandma’s funeral, since my saintly uncle sure would have liked to know what my grandma wanted re: surgeries etc. before she got Alzheimer’s. (Whereas my evil uncle was big on Palin/Rush Limbaugh/that stupid lady who just joined Trump’s campaign, etc.)

  4. Dave Says:

    Most of these seem like good ideas, but a lot of them are nonresponsive to the original question. How do 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 reduce federal spending?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The question wasn’t about spending, it was about budget and debt. That’s a difference, not just a level. Note that #12 already says it increases government spending, so saying it is nonresponsive is both repetitive and kind of a dick thing to point out.

      If you don’t understand how 11 will reduce spending, you should think harder.

  5. Becca Says:

    In terms of making a dent in the budget by cutting spending, I don’t think I could ignore prison reform. Most importantly, we need to release everyone in prison for non violent offenses, and develop rehabilitative models for violence reflective of endemic fraying of societal /community structure.

    I’ve got no especial problem with “inefficient” military spending (one person’s overpriced toilet seat is another person’s breast cancer grant with a 30% success rate instead of an NCI 13% success rate… sweeping random pet projects into bipartisan defense bills is how you get a semi functional democracy when you can’t have a magic benevolent dictatorship). What I do think we need to do something about is developing and producing significant numbers of modernized nuclear weapons- there’s a middle ground between “our nuclear subs are running code from the 60s” and “let’s restart the cold war”.

    I’d also outlaw direct to consumer drug ads… it might drive down costs, but almost anything else the companies could spend money on would help people more. I really want the wonk ish answer to what to do about e.g. Hep C drug costs, buy I don’t have a magic bullet handy.
    I’d really like to see some kind of cuts to student aid for higher ed institutions that have really low rates of graduating Pell students, but I need a smarter wonk here too.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Great point on prison reform.

      I don’t think the DOD’s breast cancer program is inefficient (though I was weirded out when I found out that was where the post office stamp money went)! But there’s plenty of stuff they do that THEY think is inefficient that congress requires them to do anyway (occasionally with outdated technology).

      Re: your last question, I believe that’s part of Carolyn Hoxby’s extended research agenda currently.

    • Rosa Says:

      prison reform might not cut overall federal spending, though, because the states pay for a lot of prisons and released prisoners would presumably get a lot of federal money – they would either get jobs and qualify for EIC (and eventually social security), or they would be unemployable and end up on SSI. They’d probably be on TANF and other ongoing aid programs, too, but that doesn’t mean the feds would increase the state block grants so it might have no net change in spending.

      • Becca Says:

        While it’s awful that this is true, ex-felons do not have high rates of employment, most people who can’t work don’t qualify for SSI, and TANF is too busy being used for marriage counseling and college scholarships (check out the uncertain hour podcast on NPR to explain that last one). The social safety net fails a lot more than some people realize.
        Of course, I am impossibly biased. But it’s not super contoversial to suggest prison reform has benefits for the families of those involved.
        I think the larger budget issue is that it skews state budgets, which means long term benefits of reform matter less than charging inmates for soap and privatizing prisons now.

  6. Bardiac Says:

    I like a lot of your suggestions. I think we could also make legislators etc have the same health care, Social Security, Medicare as other government/military folks. (I know that’s tiny, but it’s symbolically important).

    I think we could do a lot for the national debt at the state level if states supported education at all levels more fully and justly (that is, not throwing more money at wealthy school districts or elite private schools).

    I’ve little idea about Israel or Egypt specifically, but I think if we spent more in aid for reforestation, clean water, vaccination, family planning, and girls’ education internationally, the world would be a more peaceful place, and we’d need less spent on defense.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Great idea! Or if we’re being especially obnoxious, Medicaid. (Medicare is pretty generous, Medicaid is not.)

      Agreed on the aid. But that’s not what we do. We use aid primarily as a weapon, not to heal. The main goal is to keep US supreme, not to improve the world. It’s all very disillusioning and depressing talking with experts in foreign policy.

  7. chacha1 Says:

    Knew this would be interesting. :-)

    Totally on-board with phasing out the mortgage interest deduction, prison reform, military-spending efficiencies (and not just efficiencies, personally I would chop great chunks out of the duplicative missions of our six national armed forces), federal funding for abortions, and lobbyist prohibitions. In fact I would outlaw lobbying altogether. It may have served a purpose back when the average businessman couldn’t talk to their national reps … everyone can now, if they want to.

    And yay to outlawing direct-to-consumer drug ads. The insanity of healthcare spending in the US is, IMO, directly attributable to incentivized overprescription of drugs combined with for-profit health-insurance companies. Also yay to flushing the useless expensive racist War on Drugs.

    I agree that doing away with the special care package Congresspersons receive is a minor but symbolically important cut. The employees of the citizenry should not get better benefits than the citizenry does. Their job isn’t that goddamned hard.

    My supercommittee would have some other superpowers, like legislating a full rollback of Citizens United; instituting a presidential line-item veto; outlawing adding spending riders to non-budget legislation; outlawing adding civil-rights riders to budget legislation; oh and the list goes on and on and on … !

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      YES on citizen’s united (that’ll cut lobbying), though, again, maybe not necessary if we’re in charge of the entire budget and not worried about reelection and lobbyists.

      Line item vetoing, I’m actually not as sure about. Getting rid of pork barrel spending is part of the reason congress is so dysfunctional. With the super-committee we don’t need vetoes or to get rid of pork because we can do that, but congress being able to bribe each other with things for their constituents is actually more efficient than the current gridlock. Pork grease keeps the wheels turning. Similarly with spending riders. A lot of good legislation has come out of patchwork add-ons. (As has bad, but the good is important too.)

  8. Rosa Says:

    Can we get rid of the thing where when you inherit things that have gained value over the deceased’s lifetime, it resets the capital gains basis? And make the estate tax exemption six figures instead of 7?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yes, let’s do that. Or at least start phasing them in.

      With some exceptions about the 6-figure thing… a million dollars isn’t really a lot when you’re talking about things like farms and houses that children may still need to live in/use as livelihood. Uprooting a kid because the two bedroom house they’ve lived in all their lives with their recently dead parents just because it’s worth a million dollars instead of 70K seems unfair. And there’s the life insurance trust for an infant or small child so that it won’t be a burden on whichever family member takes care of it. Etc.

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