The president released his FY2011 budget yesterday. According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the administration begins with a ten year baseline deficit of $5.5 trillion dollars. Simply put, if Congress and the administration left current laws in place, the deficit would average over $500 billion per year for the next decade.

The president’s proposed policies would raise this deficit to $8.5 trillion. As a result, debt held by the public would increase from $5.8 trillion (41 percent of GDP) in 2008 to $17.5 trillion (76 percent of GDP) in 2019.

It always helps to look at the really big numbers — there aren’t any bigger than when you’re discussing federal budgeting — to put things in perspective. Under the president’s proposed budget:

  • Total spending over ten years would be $45.8 trillion. Spending is scheduled to move from 24.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 23.7 percent of GDP in 2020. The historical average is around 21 percent.
  • Meanwhile, total revenue collections would be $37.3 trillion. Taxes are scheduled to rise from 14.8 percent of GDP in 2009 to 19.6 percent by 2020. The historical average is 18 percent.

On the revenue front, the president proposes just over $4 trillion in tax relief — most of which comes in the form of extending the 2001 and 2003 tax relief packages which targeted folks making less than $250,000. On the other side of the ledger, the president proposes a large “grab bag” of tax increases — LIFO repeal, carried interest, black liquor, etc. With the odd baseline the administration is using (see below), we’re not sure exactly what the tax increases total, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 to $1.5 trillion.

As expected, the budget calls for allowing taxes on upper-income families (and businesses) to rise back to their pre-2001 levels. As the Wall Street Journal reports this morning,

The two top income-tax brackets would rise to 36% and 39.6%, from 33% and 35% respectively. For families earning at least $250,000, capital gains and dividend tax rates would rise to 20% from 15%. All told, upper-income families would face $969 billion in higher taxes between 2011 and 2020.

For other big ticket items — health care reform and cap-and-trade — the budget includes only cursory references. These placeholders are consistent with the administration’s approach to date of delegating these policy decisions to Congressional leadership.

As we have observed in previous posts, the president’s budget is always an odd duck. The president has no tangible authority to tax or spend — the Constitution reserves that right for Congress, after all — yet there is a leadership quality to any presidential budget that can effectively set the tone for the budget decisions to be litigated through the legislative process.

In the case of this budget, that leadership appears wholly absent. No details on his biggest policy priorities. No meaningful proposals for holding down spending or bringing down the deficit/ No hints at entitlement reform. There is a proposed deficit reduction commission, but it has no teeth.

Congress this year will face as difficult a budgeting challenge as any in recent memory. The economy has stabilized and a continued financial meltdown is no longer imminent. The biggest threat to economic growth now is the federal deficit and its impact on interest rates and prices. As this budget release makes clear, Congress will be addressing these challenges alone.

Estate Tax Update

On the estate tax front, the president continues to call for making permanent the estate tax rules from 2009 — a 45 percent top rate and a $3.5 million exemption — but you’d be hard-pressed to find much discussion of this policy in the budget. That’s because the administration is using something other than the usual “Current Law” baseline. As Treasury’s Green Book notes:

The Administration’s primary policy proposals reflect changes from a tax baseline that modifies current law by “patching” the alternative minimum tax, freezing the estate tax at 2009 levels, and making permanent a number of the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003. The baseline changes to current law are described in the Appendix. In some cases, the policy descriptions in the body of this report make note of the baseline (e.g., descriptions of upper-income tax provisions), but elsewhere the baseline is implicit.

In other words, they have taken a projection of current policy and modified that baseline to accommodate changes to AMT, Medicare Physician Payment policy and the estate tax. In budget world, no mention of the estate tax in the budget means an extension of current policy. A footnote on page 158 of the budget makes clear the “current” policy they’re referring to for the estate tax is the 2009 policy, not the 2010 policy currently in place. Not exactly a strident endorsement for the 2009 rules, but it’s there nonetheless.

The second set of estate tax proposals in the budget looks similar to last year’s budget proposals. There are three, the headings are the same, and the revenue estimates are similar:

1. Require consistent valuation for transfer and income tax purposes: Ten Year Estimate — $1.8 billion (2010 budget); $2.1 billion (2011 budget);

2. Modify rules on valuation discounts: Ten Year Estimate — $19.0 billion (2010 budget); $18.7 billion (2011 budget);

3. Require a minimum term for grantor-retained annuity trusts (GRATS): Ten Year Estimate — $3.3 billion (2010 budget); $3.0 billion (2011 budget).

We spent the past year working on issues related to provision 2 — the valuation discounts. While the write-up of the administration’s proposal refers to “estate freezes” rather than the “family attribution”, we remain wary that restoration of the old “family attribution” approach is part of the policy mix being discussed at Treasury and on Capitol Hill.B B B With that in mind, we will continue our work to educate policymakers on why family attribution is a really bad idea.

Regarding work on an estate tax compromise, the Finance Committee has been working with key offices to come up with some sort of process to move a compromise forward in the next couple months. They appear to be still working on what that compromise might look like, even at this late date. Possible policies range from restoring 2009 rules to implementing a more business-friendly compromise centered around a 35 percent top rate and $5 million exemption.

The bottom line question for everyone involved remains the same — is there a proposal out there that can garner 60 votes? If not, expect to see the current repeal stay in place through the rest of the year, followed by the restoration of the old pre-2001 rules. The longer this process takes, the more likely that is the final outcome.