OPINION: CBO Score Highlights The Massive Budget Gimmicks Behind Build Back Better

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After months of turbulence and a record night of speechifying in opposition by Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House today approved the latest version of Democrats’ trillion-dollar social spending plan on a partisan 220-213 vote. Dubbed the Build Back Better plan, the legislation now advances to the Senate, where Punchbowl News describes its prospects ominously: “The Senate is going to spend weeks, maybe months, revising this legislation.” And while the bill’s title suggests it creates a coherent bridge between the pandemic and a better society, in reality it’s a grab bag of old and new proposals for massively expanded government benefits. It’s also an affront to anyone who thinks lawmakers should identify tax hikes sufficient to credibly cover the cost of new spending programs.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wields her gavel as the U.S. House of Representatives votes on President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better Act” after hours-long overnight delay in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., November 19, 2021. REUTERS/Al Drago

This week President Biden continued to assure us the bill is fully paid for. Yet the Congressional Budget Office score of the legislation released yesterday reveals this claim is false. CBO finds the legislation would add over $750 billion to the federal debt over the next five years — on top of the deficit spending in the new trillion-dollar infrastructure law the president similarly promised would be fully paid for. CBO projects the deficit spending would shrink to around $160 billion over 10 years as spending seems to slow while revenues kick in. But that only reveals the dirty little secret about this massive bill: It’s a mess of budget gimmicks.

A defining feature of this legislation is that it includes 10 years of tax hikes to cover the cost of often just a few initial years of new benefits — which supporters intend to provide forever but don’t have sufficient tax hikes to cover for longer. The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget summarizes: “Because the legislation includes a number of temporary programs with arbitrary sunsets and expirations, ultimate costs could be much higher.” The most dramatic example is the one-year extension of the costly new monthly child benefit checks now paid to roughly 1 in 3 households in the US. That’s a benefit President Biden and other supporters have said they really want to make permanent, and this one subterfuge hides over $1 trillion in potential costs not included in the official CBO score. When all such gimmicks are considered, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget finds the legislation could cost well over $4 trillion in the next decade, or “double its gross costs.”

The ugly process behind this legislation is similarly telling. To their credit, majority Democrats held committee markups on the prior supposed $3.5 trillion version of the legislation (which was never officially scored). For example, major provisions were marked up by the House Ways and Means Committee and approved on September 9, 2021. At that time, the committee created a major new entitlement program for paid leave estimated to cost about $500 billion over its first decade. That massive program was subsequently removed from the bill to shrink its overall cost — before being added back under the direction of a different federal agency. So much for committee deliberation and “regular order” in legislating.

The shrinkage of the legislation from its former supposed $3.5 trillion spending level is noteworthy in other ways, too. If offered as its own legislation, those proposed changes — an apparent shift of over $1 trillion — would constitute one of the largest bills in American history. Yet there have been no committee hearings or markups on those changes, all crafted behind closed doors by House leaders since standing committees acted in September. Instead, new temporary select committees created as megaphones for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and other liberal cheerleaders for this massive spending plan are currently the closest thing to public deliberation in the House.

Such venues are unlikely to spotlight one of the most immediate effects of this bill if it is enacted — the largest benefits cliff in US history next Christmas, when monthly checks now provided to some 65 million children and extended for another year under the bill would come to an abrupt end. If approved by the Senate, that cliff will be the first — but certainly not the last — concrete example of the budget gimmickry that defines this legislation. That is, it will mark the first time benefits expanded under this supposedly “transformational” legislation will simply end — all so supporters can try and argue the bill is “fully paid for.” CBO’s score shows it is not, and if it is enacted, supporters’ predictable calls for another extension of those checks late next year will only spotlight that inconvenient truth.

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