Should a Proposal “Pay for Itself” (and How do We Know if it Does)?

Posted by Don Fullerton on Sep 18, 2009

Filed Under (U.S. Fiscal Policy)

A member of Congress who wants to spend additional money often has to say what tax will be raised to pay for it.  Somebody else who wants a particular tax cut for their favorite lobbyist may have to say what other tax will be raised.  As a general principle, this kind of “budget neutrality” is often a good idea.  In all likelihood, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 only succeeded because it was revenue neutral.  It broadened the tax base and lowered tax rates, to fix the tax system without changing the amount collected.

But how is revenue neutrality calculated?  Politicians on both sides of the aisle call upon the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) as the arbiter of budget balance.  If important policy choices must pass the CBO’s litmus test, then we need to understand what test is being administered.  According to its website, the “CBO’s [cost estimate] statement must also include an assessment of what funding is authorized in the bill to cover the costs of the mandates and, for intergovernmental mandates, an estimate of the appropriations needed to fund such authorizations for up to 10 years after the mandate is effective” (  This CBO test has a few major problems that could limit the benefits from a policy, or even prevent enactment of a good policy.

First of all, not every act of Congress must be revenue neutral.  But policymakers may want the restriction of revenue neutrality, in order to “prove” they are fiscally responsible.  Recently, President Obama in his health care policy speech to a joint session of Congress promised that he “will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future.”  Thus, one general problem is: who decides which projects must be revenue neutral?

Second, of course, a project may generate revenue or cost savings after ten years.  President Obama’s health care reform has initial start up costs, but it may “bend” the long-run cost curve for federal expenditures on Medicare and Medicaid, so that cost savings accrue and accumulate over more than ten years.  In general, the CBO’s ten-year balance sheet could say that a policy adds to the debt over ten years, even though it may save taxpayer dollars in the long-run.  On Wednesday, September 16, 2009, the CBO released its official cost estimate for the Senate Finance Committee’s draft health care bill, stating that it would have a “net reduction in federal budget deficits of $49 billion over the 2010–2019 period” (  However, an additional, unofficial estimate by the CBO concluded that the “the added revenues and cost savings are projected to grow more rapidly than the cost of the coverage expansion”, meaning that over a longer time horizon that the bill further reduces the deficits.

To be clear, the federal debt is a real concern.  Running massive deficits that pile up year after year is unsustainable and irresponsible.  But a strict CBO ten-year cost estimate test may not be the best way to evaluate a potential policy change.

A third problem is that any such test must be somewhat arbitrary, regarding what is counted as “revenue”.  Does it just count actual dollars flowing into government coffers?  What about features of a policy that reduce future outflows?  Some pieces of additional spending in proposed health care reforms are intended to improve future heath and thus to avoid the need for some future medical expenses.  The CBO would count current “preventive care” spending as a cost, but it may not count the fact that this current spending could reduce the need for Medicare and Medicaid to pay for some future medical procedures.

Fourth, and most importantly, even if NOT revenue-neutral, SOME policies are still valuable, important, and worthwhile.  A project may have generalized benefit to everybody in society that exceeds the actual social cost, meaning that it passes a benefit-cost test, even though it requires government spending and is not “revenue neutral”.

Any revenue-neutrality test is a way for policymakers to “tie themselves to the mast” and prevent them from pork spending of the most egregious sort.  Maybe that’s good and worthwhile.  But it may also mean we can’t have some other worthwhile policies either.