Does Fiscal Policy History Rhyme?

This paper is part of an initiative from the Peterson Foundation to help illuminate and understand key fiscal and economic questions facing America. See more papers in the Expert Views: Bipartisan Policymaking under Divided Government series.

By G. William Hoagland

Feb 2, 2023

“It has been said that history repeats itself,” psychoanalyst Theodor Reik (and no, not Mark Twain) first observed. “This is perhaps not quite correct; it merely rhymes.”1 So, maybe there are lessons to be learned and things to be avoided from recent past periods of divided governments when it comes to setting fiscal policy.

Notwithstanding the tumultuous process in electing the Speaker of the House for the 118th Congress, history still could and to some extent should rhyme loudly particularly on fiscal issues. The sounds of the 112th Congress that convened in January 2011 echo. Key players on this year’s divided playing field lived thru those tumultuous fiscal battles of the 112th. Hopefully applying that lived experience will allow the 118th to avoid the reckless brinkmanship and — many would say — failed accomplishments of the 112th.

In 2011, just as this year, Republicans regained control of the House (after a four-year hiatus) while the White House and Senate remained in Democratic hands. In January 2011 Republican Speaker John Boehner enjoyed a 49-seat margin of Republican control, compared to the 10-seat margin that Speaker McCarthy will oversee. Similarly, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will have a one-seat margin of control in the Senate, compared to the 2-seat margin his predecessor Harry Reid enjoyed in 2011. The Senate’s Minority Leader in 2011 — Mitch McConnell — will retain that same position in 2023. Of course, Senate filibuster rules make the math in that chamber less straightforward.

Speaker McCarthy clearly has already had to make major concessions to his House Freedom Caucus members to win his new position. But he should review how Speaker Boehner managed a similarly contentious House Republican caucus in 2011 when it came to fiscal matters. That way, maybe he can help all policymakers avoid the fiscal crises that threatened the nation that year, secure his position as Speaker, and, most importantly, put the country on a sounder fiscal future.

Unfortunately, McCarthy’s “degrees of freedom” are so much narrower to work with than what Boehner had. He will need support not just from his Republican House members but from all those in leadership. So, what should happen and will history rhyme?

First President Biden — who has indicated a bipartisan willingness to work with Congress in the previous two years — should reach out to McCarthy, the Senate and House Democratic and Republican leaders and offer to work with them to craft a broad, long-term bipartisan budget agreement. The goal should be to put the federal government on a path reducing its debt to an economically manageable 70 to 80% of gross domestic product (GDP) at the end of 10 years.2 Currently, the debt is on track to top 110% in ten years, which would mark the highest it has ever been, and left unchecked reaching nearly 185% by the half century mark.

As a point of reference, in January 2011 the Congressional Budget Office projected that the debt to GDP would reach nearly 77% ten years hence (2021), and the federal debt held by the public would exceed $18 trillion.3 Further, the U.S. Treasury, CBO, and the Bipartisan Policy Center all projected that the Congress would need to raise the statutory debt limit by the summer of 2011, or the country would face default. The 118th Congress will face the same task of raising the country’s borrowing authority likely in the fall of 2023, if not sooner.

If the debt and deficit figures were enough to generate fiscal concerns in 2011, they have only been magnified by the outlook in 2023. Therefore, to craft a bipartisan budget agreement in 2023, all parties should be willing to put everything “on the table” — taxes, appropriated spending, all entitlements, yes even including Medicare and Social Security. The so-called “grand bargain”. (The Medicare Hospital Insurance (HI) trust fund is expected to be depleted in 2028 and the Social Security Trust Fund depleted in 2034.)

Second, Congress should do the most basic first step in federal budgeting, something that was not done in 2011, adopt a broad budget blueprint to guide fiscal policy over the next several years. The adoption of a Fiscal Year 2024 Concurrent Budget Resolution providing a roadmap to achieve the 70–80% debt to GDP goal should be the sine qua non both for the administration and for the new 118th Congress.

Do I think this will be easy? Clearly not. Why would McCarthy, after his bruising Speakership election, want to engage in such discussion? Further, why would President Biden (if he is seeking a second term) or Senate Majority Leader Schumer, and the new House Democratic Leadership under Hakeem Jefferies be willing to engage in such a discussion? Not clear.

Maybe because they all must recognize that our country’s economic future and, in turn, our global leadership are increasingly at risk as our debt rises to economically unsustainable levels. Maybe because they realize that protecting our fiscal future requires setting politics aside.

Maybe also, all might reflect on James Madison and one of our country’s founding principles. Madison “understood something that many contemporary political commentators forget: Politicians, like other people, compromise because they have to, not because they want to.”4 So the founders modeled a system that would compel them to bargain. And just maybe, with the very small margins McCarthy must work with in the House, he will realize that a bipartisan, compromised approach to fiscal policy is the only way to avoid fiscal disaster.

The alternative — no such action, gridlock — means ever-rising debt as a share of GDP, the prospect of economic turmoil, and lower living standards than otherwise for our children and grandchildren.

Clearly this is no easy task for any political figure, certainly not in historical terms. McCarthy has already limited this option in order to secure the votes for his Speakership with commitments made. His statement at the end of the 117th Congress that he would not work with any Senate Republican who voted for the final 2022 omnibus appropriation bill will ring in his ears. The fact that 18 GOP Senators did vote for it, including McConnell and 13 other GOP Senators returning in the 118th does not bode well for McCarthy in serious 2023 negotiations, even among fellow Republicans. He was there in 2011 as the Republican Whip in a position to see the challenges that faced Leader Boehner. All politicians are known to revise and extend previous statements made in haste. He must also, understand, that the Speakership is not a lifetime commitment.

Faced with the task of raising the nation’s debt limit in the fall of 2011, House Republicans proposed big spending cuts in return for their support. As mentioned, the 118th Congress, too, will have to raise the debt limit, and House Freedom Caucus members claim to have already achieved Leadership commitments for big spending cuts as the price for their votes to raise the debt limit.

Sound familiar?

In early 2011, then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan proposed his “The Path to Prosperity: Restoring America’s Promise,” which included over $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. With Ryan’s proposed deficit reduction all on the spending side, Democrats balked, and a summer of stalemate ensued.

So, in June, President Obama and Speaker Boehner began direct talks on a long-term budget plan to address our fiscal problem.

The need to raise the debt limit became imminent in the spring. Standard and Poor (S&P) issued a warning in April of downgrading America’s credit rating due to the uncertainty about whether policymakers would do so in time.5 Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad went to work and crafted the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, following a general outline by the then White House National Economic Council Director, Gene Sperling, another player who remains in an active role today as Adviser to President Biden.

This last minute before default legislation, raised the debt limit in three tranches the first on August 2 and avoided financial catastrophe. The BCA of 2011 also established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, dubbed the “supercommittee”. The committee was charged with reducing the deficit a minimum of $1.2 trillion over the following 10 years. However, the committee was unable to reach an agreement, and provisions of the BCA automatically kicked in to achieve the savings. This included setting caps on discretionary spending for the next decade along with automatic reductions in non-exempt mandatory spending programs.

Before long, policymakers put aside the problem and lawmakers of both parties focused on the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. A similar fate could result as the focus turns to 2024 presidential and congressional elections by mid-year.

Will the next Speaker not wait until rating agencies warn or downgrade the country’s credit and reach out to President Biden earlier than Boehner did to Obama? Will the new Senate and House Budget Committee Chairs work together to avoid a financial meltdown and adopt a budget blueprint for the next decade. Then-Chairmen Conrad and Ryan avoided a budget resolution but once it became clear disaster awaited, worked on actual legislation to increase the debt limit while putting in place a mechanism for attempting to control future spending — if the grand compromise could not be achieved. In retrospect the touted automatic reductions imposed by spending caps, proved weak.

CBO estimated at the time of BCA’s enactment that the spending caps would reduce spending by $935 billion over the 10-year period.6 However, over the course of the following 10 years the caps were adjusted upwards by $750 billion with the passage of Bipartisan Budget Acts of 2013, 2015, 2018 and 2019. Spending has been a bipartisan act. The result, 80% of the estimated initial savings from the spending caps were never achieved.

Or has the budget become so politicized, and are the margins of party control so small, that the President and Congress cannot find any common ground, threatening another credit downgrade or, worse, a financial calamity if they don’t raise the debt limit in time?

For McCarthy, Schumer, Biden, McConnell, and other key policymakers who were serving in 2011, the budget battles of that year should prove instructive. The parties never came together on a blueprint to address the nation’s long-term fiscal challenges. They avoided the worst possible near-term outcome, however, default. The somewhat modest progress made by establishing discretionary spending caps, did not address the real factors driving the country’s debt path. Discretionary spending, representing one-third of all federal spending increased 2.0 percent annually over the 10-year period of the BCA of 2011, while mandatory spending representing nearly 50 percent of all spending, increased nearly four times faster — 8.7% annually.

For 2023, today’s leaders should aim higher than 2011 and rhyme but not repeat history.

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2 Estimates to achieve 80% of GDP based on current policy forecast, would require nearly $13.3 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10-years. Source: “The CRFB Fiscal Blueprint for Reducing Debt and Inflation.”,restoring%20solvency%20to%20Social%20Security

3 The actual level of public debt to GDP reached 100% in 2021, and $24 trillion in debt, 33% higher than was expected when the 112th Congress convened.

4 Rescuing Compromise; Jonathan Rauch, National Affairs, Fall 2013.

5 S&P actual downgrade of U.S. government debt from AAA to AA+ occurred on August 5.

6 Congressional Budget Office, letter to the Honorable John Boehner and the Honorable Harry Reid providing estimate of the BCA of 2011, posted on the House Committee on Rules on August 1, 2011.

About the Author

G. William Hoagland is a BPC senior vice president. In this capacity, he helps direct and manage fiscal, health, and economic policy analyses.

Before joining BPC in September 2012, Hoagland served as vice president of public policy for CIGNA Corporation, working with business leaders, trade associations, business coalitions, and interest groups to develop CIGNA policy on health care reform issues at both the federal and state levels. Prior to joining CIGNA, Hoagland completed 33 years of federal government service, including 25 years on the U.S. Senate staff. From 2003 to 2007, he served as the director of budget and appropriations in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. He assisted in evaluating the fiscal impact of major legislation and helped to coordinate budget policy for the Senate leadership.

From 1982 to 2003, Hoagland served as a staff member and director of the Senate Budget Committee, reporting to U.S. Sen. Pete V. Domenici, chairman and ranking member of the committee during this period. He participated in major federal budget negotiations, including the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Budget Deficit Reduction Act, the 1990 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, and the historic 1997 Balanced Budget Agreement. In 1981, he served as the administrator of the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service and as a special assistant to the Secretary of Agriculture. He was one of the first employees of the Congressional Budget Office in 1975, working with its first director, Alice Rivlin.

In both 1997 and 2005, National Journal listed him as one of the “Washington 100 Decision Makers” and referred to him as a “bottom-liner who is not a hard-liner.” Roll Call consistently named Hoagland as one of the top 50 Hill staffers. In 2002, he received the James L. Blum Award for Distinguished Service in Budgeting. The National Association of State Budget Officers honored him in 2004 with its Leadership in Budgeting Award, and in 2006 he was inducted as a fellow in the National Academy of Public Administration.

Hoagland is an affiliate professor of public policy at the George Mason University and a board member of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the National Academy of Social Insurance, and the National Advisory Committee to the Workplace Flexibility 2010 Commission. In 2009, he was appointed to the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform examining the overall structure of the budget, authorization, and appropriations process, and was a member of BPC’s Debt Reduction Task Force that published Restoring America’s Future in November 2010. He coordinated BPC’s 2013 report, A Bipartisan Rx for Patient-Centered Care and System-Wide Cost Containment. In April 2015, he co-chaired the National Academy of Social Insurance report, “Addressing Pricing Power in Health Care Markets.”

Hoagland attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and holds degrees from Purdue University and The Pennsylvania State University. His family’s Indiana family farm was recognized as a “Hoosier Homestead” for having remained in the family for over a century.

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