Bruce Bartlett, former senior advisor to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush as well as a staffer for the late Rep. Jack Kemp and the current Rep. Ron Paul, possesses impeccable conservative Republican credentials. But he’s become one of the most effective critics of today’s version of Republican.
Are the Bush Tax Cuts the Root of Our Fiscal Problem?By BRUCE BARTLETT
Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul.
Whether revenue should play any role in deficit reduction is at the root of the fiscal impasse between Congressional Republicans and President Obama. One factor underlying the hard-line Republican position that taxes must not be increased by even $1 is their assertion that the Bush tax cuts played no role in creating our deficit problem.
Perspectives from expert contributors.
In a previous post, I noted that federal taxes as a share of gross domestic product were at their lowest level in generations. The Congressional Budget Office expects revenue to be just 14.8 percent of G.D.P. this year; the last year it was lower was 1950, when revenue amounted to 14.4 percent of G.D.P.
But revenue has been below 15 percent of G.D.P. since 2009, and the last time we had three years in a row when revenue as a share of G.D.P. was that low was 1941 to 1943.
Revenue has averaged 18 percent of G.D.P. since 1970 and a little more than that in the postwar era. At a similar stage in previous business cycles, two years past the trough, revenue was considerably higher: 18 percent of G.D.P. in 1977 after the 1973-75 recession; 17.3 percent of G.D.P. in 1984 after the 1981-82 recession, and 17.5 percent of G.D.P. in 1993 after the 1990-91 recession. Revenue was markedly lower, however, at this point after the 2001 recession and was just 16.2 percent of G.D.P. in 2003.
The reason, of course, is that taxes were cut in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006.
It would have been one thing if the Bush tax cuts had at least bought the country a higher rate of economic growth, even temporarily. They did not. Real G.D.P. growth peaked at just 3.6 percent in 2004 before fading rapidly. Even before the crisis hit, real G.D.P. was growing less than 2 percent a year.
By contrast, after the 1982 and 1993 tax increases, growth was much more robust. Real G.D.P. rose 7.2 percent in 1984 and continued to rise at more than 3 percent a year for the balance of the 1980s.
Real G.D.P. growth was 4.1 percent in 1994 despite widespread predictions by opponents of the 1993 tax increase that it would bring on another recession. Real growth averaged 4 percent for the balance of the 1990s. By contrast, real G.D.P. growth in the nonrecession years of the 2000s averaged just 2.7 percent a year — barely above the postwar average.
Few people remember that a major justification for the 2001 tax cut was to intentionally slash the budget surplus. President Bush said this repeatedly during the 2000 campaign, and it was reiterated in his February 2001 budget document.
In this regard, at least, the Bush-era tax cuts were highly successful. According to a recent C.B.O. report, they reduced revenue by at least $2.9 trillion below what it otherwise would have been between 2001 and 2011. Slower-than-expected growth reduced revenue by another $3.5 trillion.
Spending was $5.6 trillion higher than the C.B.O. anticipated for a total fiscal turnaround of $12 trillion. That is how a $6 trillion projected surplus turned into a cumulative deficit of $6 trillion.
Congressional Budget Office
These figures are conservative insofar as revenue is concerned, because the higher interest payments required by the deficits created by the Bush tax cuts are allocated to spending. If one allocates the interest cost proportionally, the Bush tax cuts were responsible for increasing the debt by $3.2 trillion — 27 percent of the fiscal deterioration since 2001.
These facts notwithstanding, it has become a Republican talking point that the Bush tax cuts did not, in fact, reduce revenue at all — something the Bush administration itself never asserted.
Last year, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, said: “There’s no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy.”
On June 10, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said, “Keep in mind, whether it be the Bush tax cuts, the Reagan tax cuts or other tax cuts, they always produce an increase in revenue.”
On July 10, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said of the Bush tax cuts, “The revenue went up every single year after those tax cuts were put in.”
And on July 15, Representative Trent Franks of Arizona said, “Even the much-maligned Bush tax cuts brought in an additional $100 billion a year to government coffers.”
It is hard to know where these totally erroneous ideas come from. Federal revenue fell in 2001 from 2000, again in 2002 from 2001 and again in 2003 from 2002. Revenue did not get back to its 2000 level until 2005. More important, revenue as a share of G.D.P. was lower every year of the Bush presidency than it was in 2000.
Congressional Budget Office