WASHINGTON (AP) — With inflation raging near its highest level in four decades, President Joe Biden on Tuesday afternoon signed into law his landmark Inflation Reduction Act. Its title raises a tantalizing question: Will the measure actually tame the price spikes that have inflicted hardships on American households?
Economic analyses of the proposal suggest that the likely answer is no — not anytime soon, anyway.
The legislation, which was approved by Congress last week, won’t directly address some of the main drivers of surging prices — from gas and food to rents and restaurant meals.
Still, the law could save money for some Americans by lessening the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly, extending health insurance subsidies and reducing energy prices. It would also modestly cut the government’s budget deficit, which might slightly lower inflation by the end of this decade.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded this month that the changes would have a “negligible” impact on inflation this year and next. And the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model concluded that, over the next decade, “the impact on inflation is statistically indistinguishable from zero.”
Such forecasts also undercut the arguments that some Republicans, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have made, that the bill would “cause inflation,” as McCarthy said in a speech on the House floor.
Biden himself, in speaking of the legislation’s effect on inflation, has referred to potentially lower prices in individual categories rather than to lower inflation as a whole. The president said the bill would “bring down the cost of prescription drugs, health insurance premiums and energy costs.”
Bringing down the deficit
At the same time, the White House has trumpeted a letter signed by more than 120 economists, including several Novel Prize winners and former Treasury secretaries, that asserts that the law’s reduction in the government’s budget deficit — by an estimated $300 billion over the next decade, according to the CBO — would put “downward pressure on inflation.”
In theory, lower deficits can reduce inflation. That’s because reduced government spending or higher taxes, both of which help shrink the deficit, drive down demand in the economy, thereby easing pressure on companies to raise prices.
Jason Furman, a Harvard economist who served as a top economic adviser in the Obama administration, wrote in an opinion column for The Wall Street Journal: “Deficit reduction is almost always inflation-reducing.”
Yet Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was a top economic adviser to President George W. Bush and later a director of the CBO, noted that the lower deficits won’t kick in until five years from now and won’t be very large over the next decade considering the size of the economy.
“$30 billion a year in a $21 trillion economy isn’t going to move the needle,” Holtz-Eakin said, referring to the estimated amount of deficit reduction spread over 10 years.
Help paying for health insurance
Holtz-Eakin also noted that Congress has recently passed other legislation to subsidize semiconductor production in the U.S. and expand veterans’ health care, and said that those laws will spend more than the Inflation Reduction Act will save.
In addition, Kent Smetters, director of the Penn Wharton Budget Model, said the law’s health care subsidies could send inflation higher. The legislation would spend $70 billion over a decade to extend tax credits to help 13 million Americans pay for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
Those subsidies would free up money for recipients to spend elsewhere, potentially increasing inflation, although Smetters said the effect would likely be very small.
Lowering prescription drug costs
Though the measure could have the benefit of increasing the savings of millions of households on pharmaceutical and energy costs, those items typically constitute relatively small portions of household budgets. Prescription drugs account for only 1% of the spending in the U.S. consumer price index; spending on electricity and natural gas makes up just 3.6%.
Starting in 2025, the act will cap the amount Medicare recipients would pay for their prescription drugs at $2,000 a year. It will authorize Medicare to negotiate the cost of some high-priced pharmaceuticals — a long-sought goal that President Donald Trump had also floated. It would also limit Medicare recipients’ out-of-pocket costs for insulin at $35 a month. Insulin prescriptions averaged $54 in 2020, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“This is a historic change,” said Leigh Purvis, director of health care costs at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “This is allowing Medicare to protect beneficiaries from high drug prices in a way that was not there before.”
A study by Kaiser found that in 2019, 1.2 million Medicare recipients spent an average of $3,216 on drug prescriptions. Purvis said recipients who use the most expensive drugs can spend as much as $10,000 or $15,000 a year.
The legislation authorizes Medicare to negotiate prices of 10 expensive pharmaceuticals, starting next year, though the results won’t take effect until 2026. Up to 60 drugs could be subject to negotiation by 2029.
Holtz-Eakin argued that while the provision may lower the cost of some Medicare drugs, it would discourage the development of new drugs or reduce new venture capital investment in start-up pharmaceutical companies.
The Inflation Reduction Act’s energy provisions could also create savings, though the amounts are likely to be much smaller.
The bill will provide a $7,500 tax credit for new purchases of electric vehicles, though most EVs won’t qualify because the legislation requires them to include batteries with U.S. materials.
And the legislation also significantly expands a tax credit for homeowners who invest in energy-efficient equipment, from a one-time $500 credit to $1,200 that a homeowner could claim each year. Vincent Barnes, senior vice president for policy at the Alliance to Save Energy, said this would allow homeowners to make new energy-efficient investments over several years.
But for all Americans, including those who aren’t homeowners, the impact will likely be limited. The Rhodium Group estimates that by 2030 the bill’s provisions will save households an average of up to $112 a year as gas and electricity becomes cheaper as more Americans drive EVs and houses become more energy-efficient.
President Biden signed the bill into law on Tuesday, delivering what he has called the “final piece” of his pared-down domestic agenda, as he aims to boost his party’s standing with voters less than three months before the midterm elections.
The legislation includes the most substantial federal investment in history to fight climate change — some $375 billion over the decade — and would cap prescription drug costs at $2,000 out-of-pocket annually for Medicare recipients. It also would help an estimated 13 million Americans pay for health care insurance by extending subsidies provided during the coronavirus pandemic.
The measure is paid for by new taxes on large companies and stepped-up IRS enforcement of wealthy individuals and entities, with additional funds going to reduce the federal deficit.
In a triumphant signing event at the White House, Biden pointed to the law as proof that democracy — no matter how long or messy the process — can still deliver for voters in America as he road-tested a line he will likely repeat later this fall ahead of the midterms: “The American people won, and the special interests lost.”
“In this historic moment, Democrats sided with the American people, and every single Republican in the Congress sided with the special interests in this vote,” Biden said, repeatedly seizing on the contrast between his party and the GOP. “Every single one.”
The House on Friday approved the measure on a party-line 220-207 vote. It passed the Senate days earlier with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a 50-50 tie in that chamber.
“In normal times, getting these bills done would be a huge achievement,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said during the White House ceremony. “But to do it now, with only 50 Democratic votes in the Senate, over an intransigent Republican minority, is nothing short of amazing.”