Fiscal irresponsibility is old hat in Washington. Nevertheless, if any bill could be described as breaking new ground in that department, it might be one President Obama signed into law this month: the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014. The measure provides $10.8 billion for infrastructure projects around the country, with more than half of the money supplied not by any real increase in revenue or reduction in spending but by an egregious budgetary gimmick known as "pension smoothing."
The law allows companies to put off otherwise mandatory contributions to their defined-benefit employee pension funds, which increases tax revenue for the Treasury, since those contributions would have been tax-deductible. Actually, smoothing increases tax revenue in the short run but decreases it later on, when companies have to make up for the missed payments. But dollars gained exceed dollars lost over the 10-year interval within which Congress, somewhat artificially, calculates the fiscal impact of its policies, so lawmakers can claim that the bill doesn’t increase the deficit.
Meanwhile, pension plans will be underfunded, exposing the federal pension insurance fund, and the taxpayers who ultimately back it, to greater risk. But who cares about that. For the big companies that lobbied in favor of pension smoothing, the money saved by skipping pension contributions outweighs the cost of losing the tax deduction. And neither Congress nor the president had the courage to support an increase in the federal gasoline tax, on which the nearly exhausted highway trust fund is supposed to rely for its funding and which has not been raised for more than 20 years.
We call this a new low in fiscal irresponsibility not because pension smoothing has never been used as a "pay-for" previously. In fact, the bill Obama signed actually extends, by 10 months, a pension-smoothing provision that helped "fund" the two-year highway bill that preceded this one. But that is precisely the point: Pension smoothing has just crossed the line between exception and habit. Once a bit of an embarrassment, even to Congress, it’s becoming normalized.
Pension smoothing might be acceptable, barely, as a one-off expedient to pay for spending that is itself temporary, such as extended unemployment benefits. Of course, House Republicans blocked a plan to do just that this year before they approved the use of pension smoothing in this highway bill. Exasperating as it is, though, hypocrisy is a secondary issue. The larger problem is the dysfunction of a federal government reduced to running one of its major infrastructure programs on a year-to-year basis, held together with the budgetary equivalent of chewing gum and bailing wire.
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