PAYGO in the House

By :: January 11th, 2011

In one of their first actions after taking control of the House of Representatives last week, the new Republican majority passed their budget rules for the 112th Congress. The most important may have been major changes to longstanding PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) rules that were designed to constrain federal deficits. If they are followed—and Congress has a long history of ignoring these requirements—the new PAYGO requirements open the door to many more tax subsidies even as they put new pressure on entitlement spending.

In the Democratic House, lawmakers had to offset any tax cut or entitlement increase with  equivalent tax hikes or entitlement cuts. Old PAYGO thus meant that tax and entitlement changes couldn’t increase the federal deficit, at least when Congress followed its own rules. Keep in mind that these rules don't apply to discretionary spending that Congress reviews every year.

The new rules still require the House to pay for new entitlement spending but only with offsetting entitlement cuts—tax hikes will no longer count. And the new spending must be balanced over 1-, 5-, and 10-year periods. That will bar lawmakers from promising to cut spending five years from now to offset new spending today—a gimmick that Democrats used  in the 2010 health law.

In contrast, tax cuts won't require any offsets. And keep in mind that refundable tax credits don’t count as taxes—budget rules say they are spending. As a result, if the House increases the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Child Tax Credit, it can only offset the cost by cutting entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid. That rule, however, does not apply to other tax breaks, such as repealing the estate tax or cutting tax rates on capital gains or dividends. (I’m not sure how the new rules interact with statutory PAYGO—can rules override law or are favorable parliamentary rulings needed?)

The Republicans also exempted specific laws from PAYGO. For instance, the House won't have to pay for another extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax acts. Disappointing, though not surprising. Neither will it have to offset the revenue lost from additional relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax, further estate tax cuts, trade agreements, or small business tax relief.

The new rules also exempt repeal of last year’s health reform. This may be a backhanded way to ignore the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that repealing reform would add $240 billion to the deficit over the next decade. Or it may simply be a frontal assault on an inconvenient obstacle to political grandstanding. (Note that the Dems’ hands aren't completely clean regarding PAYGO: In the last Congress they exempted the 2001-2003 tax cuts, AMT patches, and the yearly ritual of increasing promised payments to Medicare physicians—the doc fix.)

While the new rules will make it easier for House Republicans to pass more budget-busting tax cuts, the combination of the Democrats’ majority in the Senate and President Obama’s veto pen  could limit the fiscal damage.

But don’t be so sure. Remember that in recent years, the House obeyed its strict PAYGO rules by offsetting AMT relief with higher taxes on managers of hedge funds and other investment firms. But the Senate then ignored its own PAYGO requirements and let each year’s patch add to the deficit. And last month, after insisting for two years that fiscal restraint demanded that the Bush-era tax cuts expire for high-income taxpayers, the president quickly gave away that revenue in his compromise agreement with Republicans.

Efforts to maintain some measure of fiscal discipline have hardly risen above lip service in recent years. So while the House may have taken any remaining bite out of PAYGO, it may make little practical difference.


  1. Sid F  ::  12:15 pm on January 11th, 2011:

    You are correct, PAYGO rules do not make any difference.

    The battle over the next decade is the percentage of GDP allocated to Federal spending. Conservative see 14-15% as the ideal (see Grover Norquist, for example) and their strategy is to keep revenues at that level and use the pressure of the deficit to bring spending down to that level. Non-Conservatives see 21-22% as a reasonable goal, which is approximately the current level over recent years, but the deficit puts tremendous pressure on them to abandon that goal.

    The result is “deficit gridlock”, which will continue until the pressure of the deficit forces some type of change.

  2. Michael Bindner  ::  1:29 pm on January 11th, 2011:

    As you say, the President and the Democratic Senate mean that the majority can’t go too far off the edge of sanity.

    I suspect it is much more likely that the Democrats will pick up 25 net votes from the 62 “Obama districts” on fiscal issues and roll the Republican majority. It would be rich if the Democrats used the new rules to help them do so.

    I strongly disagree with their desire to limit the Child Tax Credit and its refundability, since increasing the credit will offset some of the effects on housing that would be certain if the mortgage interest deduction were scrapped – as well as decreasing the abortion rate and helping add workers to the future economy – thus saving Social Security. This is an area where they majority is likely to be rolled – assuming it does not simply participate in a bipartisan tax reform deal.

  3. Ed Lorenzen  ::  10:29 am on January 12th, 2011:

    House rules cannot override or directly change statutory law. However, it is possible for the rules package to indirectly affet the implementation of Statutory PAYGO, and a separate provision in the rules package attempts to do so. The Statutory PAYGO Act established a process for the Chairmen of the Budget committees to submit cost estimates prepared by CBO when legislation is passed by Congress that are used for the PAYGO scorecard under Statutory PAYGO. The new House rules package allows the Chairman of the House Budget Committee to exclude the costs of certain policies — extension of 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, repeal of health reform, the small business tax deduction in the Republican pledge and trade agreements — from the Statutory PAYGO estimates. The law requires that the final estimate be prepared jointly by the House and Senate Budget Committee Chairmen; if there is not a joint estimate submitted when the final legislation is approved OMB estimate are used for the PAYGO scorecard. The Senate does not give the Budget Committee Chairman this authority, so as a practical matter this rules change is unlikely to actually affect implementation of Statutory PAYGO. But it does set up potential conflicts between the House and Senate, and as you note it is impossible to be certain how differences between the chambers will play out.

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