Fiscally Responsible Stimulus

Policy Paper
Nov. 10, 2008

In light of the current state of the economy, it appears likely that Congress will pass another stimulus package...

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget recognizes that there is a strong enough risk of a prolonged recession that a fiscal stimulus package may well make sense. Given the many risks associated with a significant downturn, it makes sense to err on the side of caution in determining whether more stimulus is appropriate. Assuming Congress proceeds with plans to offer some type of stimulus package, CRFB offers three recommendations.

1) The package should be designed to accomplish economic, not political, objectives. There is already a good deal of momentum behind the idea that there should be another stimulus package and the size of this package seems to be growing by the week. It is critical that this not become a political package filled with Members' favorite items or unrelated spending and tax initiatives, dress up as stimulus.

Congress has a poor recent track record on this point: the September $700 billion dollar package included tens of billions of dollars in unrelated giveaways like tax breaks for sales of wooden arrowheads and a credit for turning chicken waste into jet fuel. The package also included more substantive measures like the $80 billion patch on the Alternative Minimum Tax, which never received the full and open debate it deserved because it was rushed through as part of an emergency spending measure. If Congress passes a second stimulus proposal, CRFB urges it to pass a "clean" bill that is free of unrelated provisions and political bargaining chips.

2) Borrowing should only be used for temporary measures. Pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules need not apply to temporary fiscal stimulus-in fact, any short-term or immediate offsets would defeat the purpose of fiscal stimulus, which relies on deficit spending to help boost aggregate demand and GDP.

However, if the federal government borrows too much, it risks creating serious long-term damage to the nation's economy. While deficits can stimulate growth and encourage consumption in the short-run, they stifle long-run growth by crowding out investment. Interest payments also crowd out other areas of the budget, and present a particularly worrisome situation if they are growing faster than the economy. If the new debt associated with the stimulus becomes permanent, we will pay interest on that borrowing indefinitely in return for temporary employment and consumption gains. The long-term fiscal picture is already quite bleak; and it would be a mistake to make the situation worse by prolonging stimulus policies and borrowing past the window of need.

Accordingly, CRFB strongly urges Congress to make all parts of any stimulus package temporary. The stimulus should not include outlays or tax cuts that extend beyond the period in which they are expected to mitigate the effects of an economic downturn. Permanent policies developed to encourage economic growth, such as fundamental tax reform or investment spending on areas such as energy, infrastructure and research, should be evaluated on their own merits and paid for rather then deficit-financed. Part of the stimulus agreement should be that Congress will find corresponding offsets for any tax or spending policies that are passed as part of a stimulus package, but have costs beyond the period when the economy is in recession.

3) The creation of a mechanism to address fiscal imbalances should be included with any stimulus package. We strongly recommend that any stimulus package include a mechanism to help start the process of addressing the nation's long-term budget imbalances. As the economy struggles to gain its footing, it is not the time to implement the types of policies-raising taxes and cutting spending-that will be necessary to re-balance the country's short- and long-term budget. But a stimulus package should put in place the mechanism to begin crafting a longer-term budget plan. This could take the form of a Members Working Group, or a Task Force to present recommendations that could be implemented once the economy has stabilized. Such an action would send an important signal to markets and our creditors that the current economic crisis is not being viewed as an excuse to borrow endlessly without a credible plan to pay down the debt in the future.

Click here to download the full report.