Government Performance and Accountability:

Tax Expenditures Represent a Substantial Federal Commitment and Need to Be Reexamined

GAO-05-690: Published: Sep 23, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 2005.

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Numerous federal programs, policies, and activities are supported through the tax code. As described in statute, tax expenditures are reductions in tax liabilities that result from preferential provisions, such as tax exclusions, credits, and deductions. They result in revenue forgone. This report, done under the Comptroller General's authority, is part of an effort to assist Congress in reexamining and transforming the government to meet the many challenges and opportunities that we face in the 21st century. This report describes (1) how tax expenditures have changed over the past three decades in number, size, and in comparison to federal revenue, spending, and the economy, and (2) the amount of progress made since our 1994 recommendations to improve scrutiny of tax expenditures.

Whether gauged in numbers, revenues forgone, or compared to federal spending or the size of the economy, tax expenditures have represented a substantial federal commitment over the past three decades. Since 1974, the number of tax expenditures more than doubled and the sum of tax expenditure revenue loss estimates tripled in real terms to nearly $730 billion in 2004. The 14 largest tax expenditures, headed by the individual income tax exclusion for employer-provided health care, accounted for 75 percent of the aggregate revenue loss in fiscal year 2004. On an outlay-equivalent basis, the sum of tax expenditure estimates exceeded discretionary spending for most years in the last decade. For some budget functions, the sum of tax expenditure estimates was of the same magnitude as or larger than federal spending. As a share of the economy, the sum of tax expenditure outlay-equivalent estimates has been about 7.5 percent of gross domestic product since the last major tax reform legislation in 1986. All federal spending and tax policy tools, including tax expenditures, should be reexamined to ensure that they are achieving their intended purposes and designed in the most efficient and effective manner. The nation's current and projected fiscal imbalance serves to reinforce the importance of engaging in such a review and reassessment. Although data and methodological challenges exist, periodic reviews of tax expenditures could establish whether they are relevant to today's needs; if so, how well they have worked to achieve their objectives; and whether the benefits from specific tax expenditures are greater than their costs. Over the past decade, however, the Executive Branch made little progress in integrating tax expenditures into the budget presentation, in developing a structure for evaluating tax expenditure outcomes or in incorporating them under review processes that apply to spending programs, as we recommended in 1994. More recently, the Administration has not used its Program Assessment Rating Tool process to systematically review tax expenditures or promote joint reviews of tax and spending programs sharing common goals.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that policymakers and the public have the necessary information to make informed decisions and to improve the progress toward exercising greater scrutiny of tax expenditures, the Director of OMB, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, should develop and implement a framework for conducting performance reviews of tax expenditures. In developing the framework, the Director should (1) determine which agencies will have leadership responsibilities to review tax expenditures, how reviews will be coordinated among agencies with related responsibilities, and how to address the lack of credible performance information on tax expenditures; (2) set a schedule for conducting tax expenditure evaluations; (3) re-establish appropriate methods to test the overall evaluation framework and make improvements as experience is gained; and (4) to identify any additional resources that may be needed for tax expenditure reviews.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Open

    Comments: In September 2005 comments on the draft report, OMB said that this recommendation had potential promise but was mainly a job for the Department of Treasury. The Director of OMB has not developed a framework for reviewing tax expenditure performance, as GAO recommended in September 2005. Since their initial efforts in 1997 and 1999 to outline a framework for evaluating tax expenditures and preliminary performance measures, OMB and the Department of the Treasury ceased to make progress and retreated from setting a schedule for evaluating tax expenditures. The President's fiscal year 2012 budget stated that developing an evaluation framework is a significant challenge and that the administration's focus is on addressing challenges with data availability and analytical constraints so that the administration can work towards crosscutting analyses examining tax expenditures alongside related spending programs. The President's fiscal year 2013 and 2014 budgets did not provide an update on these efforts. In November 2013, OMB officials stated that the President's fiscal year 2014 budget laid out tax reform principles and proposed numerous reforms to tax expenditures, which it estimated would save billions in total; however, published evaluations of specific tax expenditures were not available. Assessing the performance of tax expenditures is critically important given that many function as entitlement programs--although perhaps with even less transparency--do not compete overtly in the annual budget process. In addition, many tax expenditures are not subject to congressional reauthorization. Therefore, Congress does not have the opportunity to regularly review their effectiveness. Periodic reviews could help identify redundancy in related tax and spending programs and determine how well specific tax expenditures work to achieve their goals and how their benefits and costs compare to those of programs with similar goals.

    Recommendation: To ensure that policymakers and the public have the necessary information to make informed decisions and to improve the progress toward exercising greater scrutiny of tax expenditures, the Director of OMB, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, should develop clear and consistent guidance to Executive Branch agencies on how to incorporate tax expenditures in strategic plans, annual performance plans, and performance and accountability reports, to provide a broader perspective and more cohesive picture of the federal government's goals and strategies to address issues that cut across Executive Branch agencies.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OMB has taken action to address how agencies should incorporate tax expenditures in strategic plans and annual performance plans and reports, as GAO recommended in September 2005. The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) established a framework aimed at taking a more crosscutting and integrated approach to focusing on results and improving government performance. GPRAMA requires OMB, in coordination with agencies, to identify tax expenditures among programs and activities that contribute to federal government-wide goals and to assess their contributions. In August 2012, OMB updated Circular A-11 with information on implementing GPRAMA in agency performance planning and reporting. The 2012 guidance instructed agencies to identify tax expenditures that contribute to agency priority goals, which represent a small subset of agencies? goals overall. However, in April 2013, GAO?s review of the agency priority goals found that only one agency, for one of its priority goals, identified two relevant tax expenditures?the only agency priority goal out of all 102 to have tax expenditures identified as external contributors. In July 2013, OMB updated Circular A-11 and directed agencies to identify tax expenditures that contribute to each of their strategic objectives. In the guidance, OMB stated that it plans to work with the Department of the Treasury and agencies to facilitate alignment of tax expenditure information with agency priority goals and strategic objectives. This guidance, if properly implemented, should position OMB and the agencies to more broadly identify how tax expenditures contribute to each agency's overall performance.

    Recommendation: To ensure that policymakers and the public have the necessary information to make informed decisions and to improve the progress toward exercising greater scrutiny of tax expenditures, the Director of OMB, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, should develop and implement a framework for conducting performance reviews of tax expenditures. In developing the framework, the Director should (1) determine which agencies will have leadership responsibilities to review tax expenditures, how reviews will be coordinated among agencies with related responsibilities, and how to address the lack of credible performance information on tax expenditures; (2) set a schedule for conducting tax expenditure evaluations; (3) re-establish appropriate methods to test the overall evaluation framework and make improvements as experience is gained; and (4) to identify any additional resources that may be needed for tax expenditure reviews.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

    Status: Open

    Comments: In September 2005 comments on the draft report, OMB said that this recommendation had potential promise but was mainly a job for the Department of Treasury. The Director of OMB has not developed a framework for reviewing tax expenditure performance, as GAO recommended in September 2005. Since their initial efforts in 1997 and 1999 to outline a framework for evaluating tax expenditures and preliminary performance measures, OMB and the Department of the Treasury ceased to make progress and retreated from setting a schedule for evaluating tax expenditures. The President's fiscal year 2012 budget stated that developing an evaluation framework is a significant challenge and that the administration's focus is on addressing challenges with data availability and analytical constraints so that the administration can work towards crosscutting analyses examining tax expenditures alongside related spending programs. The President's fiscal year 2013 and 2014 budgets did not provide an update on these efforts. In November 2013, OMB officials stated that the President's fiscal year 2014 budget laid out tax reform principles and proposed numerous reforms to tax expenditures, which it estimated would save billions in total; however, published evaluations of specific tax expenditures were not available. Assessing the performance of tax expenditures is critically important given that many function as entitlement programs--although perhaps with even less transparency--do not compete overtly in the annual budget process. In addition, many tax expenditures are not subject to congressional reauthorization. Therefore, Congress does not have the opportunity to regularly review their effectiveness. Periodic reviews could help identify redundancy in related tax and spending programs and determine how well specific tax expenditures work to achieve their goals and how their benefits and costs compare to those of programs with similar goals.

    Recommendation: To ensure that policymakers and the public have the necessary information to make informed decisions and to improve the progress toward exercising greater scrutiny of tax expenditures, the Director of OMB, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, should require that tax expenditures be included in the PART process and any future such budget and performance review processes so that tax expenditures are considered along with related outlay programs in determining the adequacy of federal efforts to achieve national objectives.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Open

    Comments: OMB has made some progress in including tax expenditures along with related outlay programs in the Executive Branch?s budget and performance review processes as GAO recommended in September 2005, but has not developed a systematic approach for conducting such reviews. The President?s fiscal year 2012 budget stated that the administration would work towards examining the objectives and effects of the wide range of tax expenditures in the budget. For the 14 interim federal priority goals presented in the President?s 2013 budget submission, OMB identified 20 tax expenditures as potential contributors for 5 goals, as consistent with the requirements of the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA). On a quarterly basis, OMB is to assess whether the relevant federal agencies and program activities, including any related tax expenditures, are contributing as planned to achieving each priority goal. However, OMB subsequently removed many of the tax expenditures originally identified as potential contributors in the quarterly updates on Performance.gov. The two tax expenditures that continue to be listed for two crosscutting goals represent only $2.7 billion or 0.3 percent of the $1 trillion sum for tax expenditures estimated for fiscal year 2012 by the Department of the Treasury. As GAO reported in June 2013, OMB staff said the removal of tax expenditures for two goals was an oversight and that OMB planned to add tax expenditures in the near future. Per July 2013 guidance for GPRAMA implementation, OMB plans to work with the Department of the Treasury and agencies to facilitate alignment of tax expenditure information. As of December 2013, the two crosscutting goals for which tax expenditures were mistakenly removed had not been updated to include any tax expenditures among potential contributors. Coordinated reviews of tax expenditures with related federal spending programs?which are consistent with GPRAMA requirements?could help policymakers reduce overlap and inconsistencies and direct scarce resources to the most effective or least costly methods to deliver federal support. Ensuring the inclusion of some tax expenditures along with related other programs in the GPRAMA interim crosscutting goals would be an important step toward providing policymakers with the breadth of information needed to understand the full federal effort to accomplish national objectives.

    Recommendation: To ensure that policymakers and the public have the necessary information to make informed decisions and to improve the progress toward exercising greater scrutiny of tax expenditures, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, should resume presenting tax expenditures in the budget together with related outlay programs to show a truer picture of the federal support within a mission area.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

    Status: Open

    Comments: In October 2005, the Department of the Treasury responded that this recommendation did not relate to Treasury. In June 2010, Treasury reiterated that OMB controls budget presentation. In the President's Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, tax expenditures were separately reported rather than integrated alongside related spending.

    Recommendation: To ensure that policymakers and the public have the necessary information to make informed decisions and to improve the progress toward exercising greater scrutiny of tax expenditures, the Director of OMB, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, should develop clear and consistent guidance to Executive Branch agencies on how to incorporate tax expenditures in strategic plans, annual performance plans, and performance and accountability reports, to provide a broader perspective and more cohesive picture of the federal government's goals and strategies to address issues that cut across Executive Branch agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2005, the Department of the Treasury responded that this recommendation did not relate to Treasury. OMB Circular A-11 (last update August 2013) specifies that Treasury Office of Tax Analysis has lead responsibility for tax policy and analysis of tax expenditures and that agencies are to work with this Treasury Office, to develop data and methods to evaluate the effects of tax expenditures that affect (or are directed at the same goals as)agency spending programs. The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) establishes a new framework aimed at taking a more crosscutting and integrated approach to focusing on results and improving government performance. GPRAMA requires OMB, in coordination with agencies, to identify tax expenditures among programs and activities that contribute to federal government-wide goals and to assess their contributions. In August 2012, OMB updated Circular A-11 with information on implementing GPRAMA in agency performance planning and reporting. The 2012 guidance instructed agencies to identify tax expenditures that contribute to agency priority goals, which represent a small subset of agencies' goals overall. However, in April 2013, GAO's review of the agency priority goals found that only one agency, for one of its priority goals, identified two relevant tax expenditures - the only agency priority goal out of all 102 to have tax expenditures identified as external contributors. In July 2013, OMB updated Circular A-11 and directed agencies to identify tax expenditures that contribute to each of their strategic objectives. In the guidance, OMB stated that it plans to work with the Department of the Treasury and agencies to facilitate alignment of tax expenditure information with agency priority goals and strategic objectives. This guidance, if properly implemented, should position OMB, Treasury, and the agencies to more broadly identify how tax expenditures contribute to each agency's overall performance.

    Recommendation: To ensure that policymakers and the public have the necessary information to make informed decisions and to improve the progress toward exercising greater scrutiny of tax expenditures, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, should resume presenting tax expenditures in the budget together with related outlay programs to show a truer picture of the federal support within a mission area.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Open

    Comments: OMB did not agree with GAO's September 2005 recommendation and stated that information on tax expenditures is not useful for budgeting and that they have never been included in the congressional budget process. However, the 1974 Congressional Budget Act requires a list of tax expenditures. Whereas OMB favors reporting tax expenditures separately from the rest of the budget, GAO has reported that an integrated presentation is also useful to show the relative magnitude of tax expenditures compared to spending and credit programs across mission areas. OMB had previously presented tax expenditure sums alongside outlays and credit activity for each budget function in the federal budget from fiscal year 1998 through fiscal year 2002, but discontinued the practice. Moreover, tax expenditures were not integrated in the President's fiscal year 2014 budget. As a result, the budget does not provide a comprehensive picture for policymakers and the public to compare all of the policy tools used within a mission area.

    Recommendation: To ensure that policymakers and the public have the necessary information to make informed decisions and to improve the progress toward exercising greater scrutiny of tax expenditures, the Director of OMB, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, should require that tax expenditures be included in the PART process and any future such budget and performance review processes so that tax expenditures are considered along with related outlay programs in determining the adequacy of federal efforts to achieve national objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

    Status: Open

    Comments: In October 2005, the Department of the Treasury responded that this recommendation did not relate to Treasury. The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) establishes a new framework aimed at taking a more crosscutting and integrated approach to focusing on results and improving government performance. GPRAMA specifically mentions tax expenditures as one of the things to be identified as contributing to federal government-wide goals when applicable. The President's fiscal year 2012 budget stated that the administration would work towards examining the objectives and effects of the wide range of tax expenditures in the budget. For the 14 interim federal priority goals presented in the President's 2013 budget submission, OMB identified 20 tax expenditures as potential contributors for 5 goals, as consistent with the requirements of the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA). On a quarterly basis, OMB is to assess whether the relevant federal agencies and program activities, including any related tax expenditures, are contributing as planned to achieving each priority goal. However, OMB subsequently removed many of the tax expenditures originally identified as potential contributors in the quarterly updates on Performance.gov. The two tax expenditures that continue to be listed for two crosscutting goals represent only $2.7 billion or 0.3 percent of the $1 trillion sum for tax expenditures estimated for fiscal year 2012 by the Department of the Treasury. As GAO reported in June 2013, OMB staff said the removal of tax expenditures for two goals was an oversight and that OMB planned to add tax expenditures in the near future. Per July 2013 guidance for GPRAMA implementation, OMB plans to work with the Department of the Treasury and agencies to facilitate alignment of tax expenditure information. As of December 2013, the two crosscutting goals for which tax expenditures were mistakenly removed had not been updated to include any tax expenditures among potential contributors. Coordinated reviews of tax expenditures with related federal spending programs - which are consistent with GPRAMA requirements - could help policymakers reduce overlap and inconsistencies and direct scarce resources to the most effective or least costly methods to deliver federal support. Ensuring the inclusion of some tax expenditures along with related other programs in the GPRAMA interim crosscutting goals would be an important step toward providing policymakers with the breadth of information needed to understand the full federal effort to accomplish national objectives.

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