Government Spending

Progressives Want To Use a Giant Budget Gimmick To Hide the Cost of the Democrats' Spending Bill

When everything's a priority, nothing is.


Imagine, for a moment, that you are a Democratic legislator of a progressive bent in Congress. Over the course of the summer, you have been forced into an unwelcome (to your progressive sensibilities) realization: The $3.5 trillion partisan spending bill you and your fellow travelers have been trying to get through Congress is not going to be $3.5 trillion. 

The reason is not Republicans, or the filibuster, or any other politically convenient excuse. No, the reason is because at least two Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona), won't go for it at that size. Even President Joe Biden, who stuffed his entire domestic policy agenda into a two-bill spending spree—it's the Dagwood sandwich of legislation—has now admitted that if and when the bill passes, the topline number will be less. 

Exactly how much less is hard to say since even the lawmakers who are supposed to vote for this bill don't know precisely what's in or out of the bill at any given moment. Some Democrats have talked about a pared-back version somewhere in the $2 trillion range, though it's far from clear that Manchin and Sinema, both of whose votes are needed in order for the bill to pass, would endorse a bill of that size. 

So again: You're a progressive. You initially wanted a $6 trillion bill, and at one point said that even that was "probably too little." But now even a $3.5 trillion package seems out of reach. Faced with the reality of a smaller bill, what do you do?

One option would be to pare back your ambitions further, funding some programs while eliminating others from the legislation. This would, of course, require making some tradeoffs. 

Alternatively, you could use budget gimmicks to bring down the on-paper cost of the legislation without eliminating programs, and insist that, actually—AcKShuALLY—everything is a priority. 

Take a wild guess which one progressives in Congress want to do.

The main gimmick that is being talked about right now is time shifting. This takes advantage of the way the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) produces cost estimates: by looking at the 10-year cost of the legislation. That 10-year period is known as a "budget window." So if legislation calls for a program to start five years into the 10-year budget window, the CBO score will only reflect five years of spending. Similarly, if a program is scheduled, on paper, to only last for five years, then the CBO will only score that many years of spending—even if the authors of the bill make quite clear, in some other forum, that they intend for the program to be reauthorized and continued for the entire 10 years. The CBO, for good reason, scores legislative text, not legislator remarks or intentions, so if there's a cutoff date built into the text of the legislation, then that's what the CBO estimates. 

There's precedent for this approach (not that that justifies it): The primary spending provisions of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, didn't kick in for four years, so the price tag only reflected about six years of spending on the major programs. The Republican tax bill passed in 2017 put a sunset date on all the individual tax rate reductions in order to achieve a more favorable score, even though Republicans were quite clear that they intended those provisions to be continued in perpetuity. Yes, Republicans understood this would mean that Democrats might be in control of Congress when those provisions came up for reauthorization. But they felt they could count on Democrats not to raise taxes on broad swaths of the country. 

That's more or less what progressives in Congress want to do in order to reduce the on-paper, official price tag of the spending bill. As The Fiscal Times recently reported, "Progressives are pushing to keep a broader array of programs in the legislation while reducing costs by limiting the duration of some parts of the plan." 

To some extent, this approach is already built into the package, as the expanded child tax credit, one of the spending plan's signature initiatives, is technically scheduled to end after several years—even though Democrats have been clear they want to see it made permanent. 

Among the policies that might get this treatment is a proposed Medicaid expansion that may eventually take the form of an entirely new federal health program

Meanwhile, at least one person with prior campaign ties to the president has proposed taking this approach with the entire spending bill, cutting its price tag roughly in half by simply limiting the duration of the programs, even while campaigning on extending them forever.

This could in theory give Republicans the power to end those programs when they were scheduled, on paper, to end. But the idea is that, as with Obamacare, which the GOP campaigned against but failed to repeal in 2017, Republicans would not actually be able to muster the votes to stop those programs once they were up and running. The programs, in this vision, would be temporary on paper only. For Democrats who support this approach, the goal is to make their plans effectively permanent even while hiding their true cost. 

It's an approach to governing that is simultaneously shameless and timid, in that it is premised both on a kind of deception and an implicit acknowledgment of that deception. But more than that, it is a refusal to acknowledge the necessity of tradeoffs, political or economic. And that, in some sense, is what legislating is—a matter of sifting through options and establishing what's important given the resources and political constraints. Democrats wouldn't get all of what they want, they would still get plenty: $2 trillion is a lot of money. A $2 trillion bill, or anything close, would still represent one of the largest, most expensive pieces of economic policy legislation in history. But for progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), even $2 trillion is not enough. To paraphrase The Incredibles, when everything's a priority, nothing is.