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How Big is the Federal Government?

Donald Marron, Eric Toder

Published: March 26, 2012
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The federal government is larger than conventional budget measures suggest. Many tax preferences are effectively spending programs. Adding these preferences to federal outlays and receipts makes the government appear about 4 percent of GDP larger. The 1986 tax reform cut these benefits, but they have since rebounded to a larger share of GDP than before. Using this broader measure of government size, many base-broadening reforms viewed as tax increases would be reclassified as spending cuts. Raising marginal tax rates would be recorded as a tax increase and a spending increase because it would boost the value of many tax preferences.