By Donna Cooper | February 22, 2011

House leaders are unfortunately restricting their proposed budget cuts for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 to nonsecurity discretionary spending in an attempt to tame a $1.3 trillion deficit. This approach is especially shortsighted since the Federal Treasury loses twice as much revenue due to tax breaks than Congress appropriates on all nonsecurity discretionary spending.

The chart below compares the 10 safety-net programs slated for deep cuts with the cost of the tax breaks that should also be considered for reduction or elimination to bring the budget into balance. The column on the left is a list of safety-net programs that have already been targets of the House leadership’s budget ax. The column on the right is the cost to specified tax breaks (see bottom of page for sources).

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Most Americans would be surprised to learn that tax breaks are not on the table during any budget negotiations. In fact, Congress has the Congressional Budget Office prepare an official spending estimate for the cost of all programs or their expansions. Meanwhile, Congress enacts and continues tax breaks without any requirement that the cost of tax breaks be calculated and shared with members before a vote.

That’s why, over the last 16 years, the cost to the Treasury of the mortgage interest tax deduction, for example, doubled from $48 billion in 1995 to nearly $100 billion this year and no one made a peep about getting control of this loss in revenue. The stunning growth in this tax break is unchecked and unquestioned.

This tax break is also increasingly benefiting individuals who don’t need any federal incentives to purchase a home. In 2011 the mortgage interest deduction will help families who purchase a vacation home avoid taxes to the tune of $800 million. Meanwhile, the House Budget Committee chairman’s 2011 budget bill included $730 million in cuts to housing programs for the elderly and disabled.

There are many other examples where the cost of tax breaks are skyrocketing and disproportionately benefiting companies and people who don’t need them (see chart above):

  • Congress should rein in the $4.6 billion in tax breaks given to companies who move jobs offshore instead of making cuts to the $4 billion in job-training programs.
  • Oil companies get more than $2 billion in tax write-offs for drilling expenses yet Congress is considering cutting the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the $2 billion federal program that helps poor families pay their winter heating bills.
  • Large biofuels companies, such as Archer Daniels Midland, benefit from the ethanol tax break that now costs nearly $5 billion a year. And oil companies such as ExxonMobil benefit from more than $9 billion in tax breaks for oil exploration.