Back in 2010, Ohio Rep. John Boehner defied recent history and basic math when he comically denied that the Bush tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 played any role in producing federal budget deficits ever since. Now in his refusal to countenance any new tax revenue to avoid the job-killing sequester, Speaker Boehner is peddling a new deception. Pretending to ignore inflation, population growth and the expansion of the American economy, Boehner is now claiming federal tax revenue is at a record high.
Speaking to Scott Pelley of CBS News earlier this week, Boehner said no tax increases could be part of any bipartisan plan to avoid the first $85 billion in cuts to discretionary spending beginning March 1. Why?
"The president got his tax hikes in January. The federal government will have more revenue this year than any year in our history. It's time to tackle spending. Period."
As he declared further talks on Thursday, Boehner once again declared, "The revenue issue is now closed." He added:
"How much more money do we want to steal from the American people to fund more government?"
Now, the $2.7 trillion in fiscal year 2013 revenue recently forecast by the Congressional Budget Office is, by a small margin, Uncle Sam's largest haul when measured in current dollars. But as a percentage of the total American economy (see chart above), federal tax revenues remain well below historical averages.
The handy CBO chart paints a pretty clear picture of Boehner's whitewashing. At less than 17 percent of U.S. GDP, federal revenue for FY 2013 is near historically lows. But that is an improvement over 2010, when the disastrous recession combined with the continuing drain from the Bush tax cuts slashed federal receipts to the 15 percent level not seen since the early 1950's. Meanwhile, the costs of two wars, emergency recovery measures including TARP and the stimulus, and counter-cyclical demand for food stamps, unemployment benefits and health care pushed Washington's spending to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan's first term. (It's worth noting that federal spending is almost flat since Barack Obama first took the oath of office, while the annual deficit has declined.) Contrary to Republican mythology that "tax cuts pay for themselves," it took five years for the Treasury to recover from the Bush tax cuts of 2001.
That last point is made clearer when taking inflation into account.
Measured in constant 2005 dollars, Uncle Sam will only pocket $2.25 trillion this year. That figure is not only lower than the previous peak in 2007. It's below the $2.3 trillion in tax revenue collected in 2000 during Bill Clinton's final year in office. (In the chart above, actual data through 2012 comes from the Office of Management and Budget. For the following decade, the forecast is based on CBO numbers using its projected inflation of 2.2 to 2.3 percent.)
As the March 1 deadline came and went, the overwhelming consensus of economists including the Federal Reserve and the nonpartisan CBO remains that this is not "the time to tackle spending." While John Boehner this week admitted "I do not" have a sense of how many jobs will be lost as a result of the sequester," CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf was very clear in his recent testimony before Congress:
"The sequester alone will reduce GDP growth this year by 0.6 percentage points, lowering GDP at the end of the year by that 0.6 percent. We think that would reduce the level of employment at the end of the year by about 750,000 jobs."
Pretending Uncle Sam is having his best-ever tax haul won't change that.
(For more background, see the presentation by Edward Kleinbard of the USC Gould School of Law, "Why Tax Revenues Must Rise.")