Attention! Deficit Disorder!
Published 12:09 pm Tuesday, April 5, 2022
BY THOMAS L. KNAPP
On March 28, US president Joe Biden unveiled his 2023 budget proposal. It totals $5.8 trillion, which would bring federal spending and deficits back below their pandemic-era heights (although not back to 2019 levels). Biden’s ask comes to nearly $18,000 for every man, woman, and child in America.
Oddly, The Hill reports, the White House’s big brag on the proposal is that it would reduce the deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next ten years.
Usually when a politician pitches a plan to do something over the course of a decade, I expect a bunch of rosy projections that won’t ever come to pass. It’s easy to make promises now and leave and them to another president and other Congresses to keep.
This proposal doesn’t even bother with the rosy projections, though. Its tables, which run through 2032, project higher, not lower, deficits. The 2023 deficit would come to $1.154 trillion, the 2032 deficit to $1.784 trillion. The cumulative projected deficit for the period 2023-2032 would increase the national debt to nearly half again its current total of $30 trillion. Then again, perhaps those projections ARE rosy. They assume ever-increasing federal revenues and spending, with no obstacles to the US government’s ability to borrow as much as it feels like borrowing. None of those are safe assumptions.
Of course, presidential budget proposals are just that — proposals. Since the 1920s, the president has been legally required to submit one to Congress each year. But Congress isn’t required to pass it. It’s always modified, and the modifications are almost always upward.
The problem is exacerbated by the US government’s “baseline budgeting” accounting method, under which the starting point for all spending is the current level and it’s assumed spending will increase from that level to account for inflation and population growth.
In other words, spending increases are automatic, while spending cuts (even cuts to the projected increases!) require explicit congressional action. And cuts to projected increases are always portrayed by their opponents as actual cuts in the fights over such action.
American politicians don’t fight to cut spending, borrowing, debt, or deficits. They just fight over how much to increase all four. They’re building a house of cards, and one day a stiff breeze will come along and blow that house — and them — over.
Could this be fixed? Well, maybe. A good start would entail two elements.
The first would be actually ending, not just promising to someday reduce, deficit spending. That is, plausibly estimate revenues and budget to spend less than those revenues.
The second would be to eliminate “baseline budgeting” and require every department to justify every dime it asks for every year.
Will that happen? Almost certainly not. The American political establishment’s deficit disorder is chronic, probably incurable, and eventually fatal.
(Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.)