AZCentral.com – by Lori Montgomery.
WASHINGTON – The nation’s unnerving descent into debt began a decade ago with a choice, not a crisis.
In January 2001, with the budget balanced and clear sailing ahead, the Congressional Budget Office forecast ever-larger annual surpluses for the foreseeable future. The outlook was so rosy, the CBO said, that Washington would have enough money by the end of the decade to pay off everything it owed.
Voices of caution were swept aside in the rush to take advantage of the apparent bounty. Political leaders chose to cut taxes, jack up spending and, for the first time in U.S. history, wage two wars solely with borrowed funds. “In the end, the floodgates opened,” said former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who chaired the Senate Budget Committee when the first tax bill hit Capitol Hill in early 2001.
Now, instead of tending a nest egg of more than $2 trillion, the federal government expects to owe more than $10 trillion to outside investors by the end of this year. The national debt is larger, as a percentage of the economy, than at any time in U.S. history except for the period shortly after World War II.
Polls show a large majority of Americans blame wasteful or unnecessary federal programs for the nation’s budget problems. But routine increases in defense and domestic spending account for only about 15 percent of the financial deterioration, according to a new analysis of CBO data.
The biggest culprit, by far, has been an erosion of tax revenue triggered largely by two recessions and multiple rounds of tax cuts. Together, the economy and the tax bills enacted under former President George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent by President Barack Obama, wiped out $6.3 trillion in anticipated revenue. That’s nearly half of the $12.7 trillion swing from projected surpluses to real debt. Federal tax collections now stand at their lowest level as a percentage of the economy in 60 years.
Big-ticket spending initiated by the Bush administration accounts for another 12 percent of the shift. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have added $1.3 trillion in new borrowing. A new prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients contributed another $272 billion. The Troubled Assets Relief Program bank bailout, which infuriated voters and led to the defeat of several legislators in 2010, added just $16 billion – and TARP may eventually cost nothing as financial institutions repay the Treasury.
Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus, a favorite target of Republicans who blame Democrats for the mounting debt, has added $719 billion – 6 percent of the total shift, according to the new analysis of CBO data by the nonprofit Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative. All told, Obama-era choices account for about $1.7 trillion in new debt, according to a separate Washington Post analysis of CBO data over the past decade. Bush-era policies, meanwhile, account for more than $7 trillion and are a major contributor to the trillion-dollar annual budget deficits that are dominating the political debate.
As Congress prepares this week to launch a high-stakes battle over whether to raise the legal limit on borrowing, the analyses offer a clearer view of the drivers of the debt – and of the difficulty of re-balancing the budget without new tax revenue.
Most Republicans reject raising taxes as part of the solution; House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has called it a “non-starter.” But Democrats won’t go for a proposal based solely on spending cuts. The”Gang of Six,” a bipartisan Senate group dedicated to debt reduction, is expected to unveil a strategy soon that couples sharp spending cuts with a rewrite of the tax code that would raise additional revenue.
(The debt ceiling, set at $14.3 trillion, covers all federal debt, including money the Treasury owes other federal entities, such as the Social Security trust fund. The CBO data focus on the portion of the debt borrowed from outside investors. The debt is the accumulation of annual deficits; if annual budgets are in surplus, the nation can pay down the debt.)
Today, the CBO forecasts are unrelievedly gloomy, showing huge deficits essentially forever. As policymakers grapple with the legacy of the past decade, a demographic wave of senior citizens is crashing at their doorstep, driving up the cost of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
William Hoagland, who was for years a top budget aide to Domenici and other GOP Senate leaders, said it is simplistic to think today’s fiscal problems began just 10 years ago. In 1976, as a young CBO analyst, Hoagland produced a long-term simulation that showed entitlement costs gradually overwhelming the rest of the federal budget.
“This situation really goes back to long before the Bush administration, which is to say to old dead men that have long left the Congress,” he said.
Still, Hoagland said, the abandonment of fiscal discipline in the wake of the surpluses didn’t help. “Nobody pushed for paying for this stuff,” he said. Not even after “it became very clear in the middle of 2003 that the line had turned on us. And the surpluses as far as the eye could see were no longer there.”