Replenishing the Highway Trust Fund: more budget shenanigans

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It’s not just a burst of illegal immigration and a screwed up Veterans Administration that motivates Congress to try budget slight-of-hand. Rebuilding a depleted Highway Trust Fund through dubious manipulations is being tried, too.

Facing depleted resources in the Highway Trust Fund that could hold up road and bridge construction across the country, and the jobs that would come with it, House Republicans and the Obama Administration are backing a bill that would inject up to $11 billion into the Fund by, among other things, making changes to corporate’ pension contributions.

So-called “pension smoothing” would allow companies to temporarily contribute less to their employees’ pension plans.

The theory behind this maneuver is that because pension contributions are tax-deductible, companies will pay higher federal taxes over the ten-year scoring period used by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) if they put less money into their pension plans.

Senator Mr. Wyden (D – OR), Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, already sees this as an opportunity to cleave off some of that new revenue. He’s proposing to use about $2.7 billion of the increased tax collections during that 10-year period to help out retired coal miners, who have underfunded pension and health benefits programs.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)

Wyden has expressed concern in the past about the potential burden on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation from underfunded multi-employer pension plans, in which multiple employers in the same industry contribute to a single pension fund. Of particular concern are multi-employer plans established through union contracts in contracting industries, such as coal mining. Changes in the coal industry has meant fewer employers paying into pension funds on behalf of fewer employees.

But Congress’s “solution” to the Highway Trust Fund’s shortfall is a sham because the revenues that are supposedly increased because of the pension smoothing change would be largely offset in the years after the 10-year scoring period. That’s because corporations will pay less in taxes in years after the 10 year period. In other words, no real savings are realized in the long run. But because those reduced taxes wouldn’t happen until after 10 years, they don’t count in Congress’s method for calculating budget balance.

Wyden, of all people, ought to know that the whole method of producing revenue he wants to use to bulk up the coal miners’  underfunded pension plans is bogus. But why let reality intrude.

So bizarre.

Making it even more bizarre, Republicans vehemently opposed this very same “pension smoothing” policy back in March 2014 when the Democrats proposed using it to pay for the renewal of unemployment benefits.

“When they were seeking a spending offset to the five-month extension of unemployment insurance, Democrats were happy to use a budget gimmick,” the New Republic reported. “They would have preferred to use deficit spending, but a gimmick was the next best thing. If Republicans required a spending offset, better a fake one than one that cuts spending on the social safety net or other government programs.”

You have to watch them all like a hawk, don’t you.

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