Why Obama is pushing for stimulus in 'fiscal cliff' deal (+video)

President Obama's opening offer in 'fiscal cliff' talks includes $255 billion in stimulus spending – tax cuts, incentives, and more. It could be a bargaining ploy or a bid to offset rising taxes on the rich.

By , Staff writer

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    President Obama waves before speaking at the Rodon Group, which manufactures parts for K’NEX Brands toys, Friday in Hatfield, Pa. The visit comes as the White House continues a week of public outreach efforts, while also attempting to negotiate a 'fiscal cliff' deal with congressional leaders.
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How about a little government economic stimulus?

That may sound incongruous considering the budget deficit and the push from Republicans to cut government spending.

But President Obama’s first offer to avoid going over the "fiscal cliff" holds out the hope of at least some stimulus. This would include extending the 2 percentage point Social Security payroll tax cut, boosting a tax incentive to businesses, establishing a $50 billion bank for long-term infrastructure projects, and extending unemployment benefits.

Recommended: 'Fiscal cliff' 101: 5 basic questions answered

The total bill: about $255 billion out of the federal government's pocket – an amount the GOP would likely say needs to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.

The argument in favor of such stimulus? The tax measures, at least, could minimize the drag on the economy from Mr. Obama's proposed tax increases on the wealthy.

“The increases in the top two income tax brackets would put a drag on consumption, so I think, from the Obama point of view, the spending or tax cuts are designed to offset that drag to consumption,” says Michael Brown, an economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, N.C.

But to some budget experts, Obama’s list seems more like an opening round of negotiations, where he has asked for a lot more than he will get.

“It looks to me like these are bargaining chips,” says Pete Davis of Davis Capital Ideas, which advises Wall Street firms. “Even most Democrats had given up on the prospect of getting the payroll tax cut extended.”

Mr. Davis considers the odds of most of the stimulus proposals passing Congress “very low.”

What's needed most, say others, is just buckling down and negotiating an end to the fiscal cliff. “Cancelling the fiscal cliff is economic stimulus,” says Stan Collender, a budget expert and partner at Qorvis Communications in Washington.

If Obama's stimulus were passed, however, here is a look at the impact the four elements might have.

Social security payroll tax cut

The largest chunk of the Obama plan is the extension of the payroll tax cut. This is the money that comes out of an individual’s paycheck as a contribution to Social Security. Two years ago, in an effort to stimulate the economy, Congress decreased the individual contribution from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. The employer’s contribution of 6.2 percent remained unchanged.

The Obama administration estimates extending the cuts would cost the government as much as $115 billion in revenue.

The argument for extending the tax cut is that it helps lower-income workers who live paycheck to paycheck. “The difference in the paycheck might be the ability to pay the electric bill for someone or the chance to go to a sit-down restaurant once a month,” says Chris Christopher, an economist at IHS in Lexington, Mass.

The argument against continuing the cut is that it is weakening the Social Security Trust Fund. In order to make up for the loss of contributions, the government taps the general tax revenues, says Pamela Tainter-Causey, a spokeswoman for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“It sets up Social Security to compete for funding from the general fund,” she says. “It’s a perfect set up for people who are gunning for the program and claim we can’t afford it now.”

Business tax incentive

The second largest program proposed by Obama would be the extension of accelerated depreciation for business, which would cost the US Treasury about $65 billion in fiscal year 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Two years ago, business was allowed to accelerate the write-off of 100 percent of its spending on certain capital equipment. Capital spending on equipment and computer software soared by 18.3 percent in 2011.

Then, this year, the benefit to business was cut in half to 50 percent. Capital spending sank in the third quarter by 2.7 percent compared with the same quarter the prior year. With business interest in using the tax break diminishing, economist Gregory Daco of IHS says “it’s a goner.”

Infrastructure bank

Obama has also proposed a $50 billion infrastructure bank. The idea is to fund roads, bridges, tunnels and other large projects that last for a long period of time. “At the moment the funding is done on a cash basis – you have to pay for it as you build it,” says Mr. Collender.

Democrats have been trying to get Congress to fund the bank for the past 10 years, he says. “It does not have a chance of getting through the House," which is controlled by the Republicans, says Mr. Collender.

Unemployment benefits

And, finally, Obama wants to extend unemployment benefits, which would cost about $30 billion.  

Under current law, if Congress does nothing, the maximum number of weeks in which an individual could receive jobless will drop to 26 from the current 73 weeks for states with unemployment over 9 percent and 63 weeks for states with unemployment over 7 percent.

If Congress does nothing about the program during the lame-duck session, some 2.1 million jobless will lose their benefits in the first week of January, says Judy Conti, a federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in Washington. By the end of the March, she says, another 900,000 people will lose their benefits.

“Forty percent of the unemployed are long term unemployed,” she says. “They have been out of the workforce for over six months.”

Recommended: 'Fiscal cliff' 101: 5 basic questions answered
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