CBO's Long-Term Budget Outlook

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The Congressional Budget Office released the latest edition of its annual forecast of where the federal government’s budget is headed. The numbers are new but the message is the same: the budget is on an unsustainable path. According to the CBO’s more politically-realistic “alternative scenario,” federal debt as a share of GDP will hit 109 percent in 2021 and would approach 190 percent in 2035.

For those mistaken souls who believe that merely eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse” in government programs can solve the problem, the CBO has news for you:

In the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO’s) long-term projections of spending, growth in noninterest spending as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) is attributable entirely to increases in spending on several large mandatory programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and (to a lesser extent) insurance subsidies that will be provided through the health insurance exchanges established by the March 2010 health care legislation. The health care programs are the main drivers of that growth; they are responsible for 80 percent of the total projected rise in spending on those mandatory programs over the next 25 years.

Others believe that “tax cuts for the rich” are the source of the problem. But according to the CBO’s alternative scenario, if the Bush tax cuts are extended and the Alternative Minimum Tax continues to be patched, federal revenues as a share of GDP will still exceed the post-war average by the decade’s end. Under the CBO’s standard baseline, which assumes that those policies will not be continued, federal revenues as a share of GDP will go zooming by the historic average. That might be good for politicians, bureaucrats, and other “tax eaters,” but it wouldn’t be good for the country’s economic welfare.

The problem is clearly spending and the GOP has rightly made spending cuts a key condition to lifting the debt ceiling. The magic number being reported is $2 trillion in cuts. That sounds like a lot of money – and it is – but it’s likely that those cuts are to be achieved over 10 years. According to the CBO’s most recent estimates, the federal government will spend almost $46 trillion over the next 10 years. And as Chris Edwards has been repeatedly warning (see here, here, and here), there’s a possibility that the cuts will be of the “phony” variety.