CBO: If Congress does nothing, deficit plummets

at 11:44 AM ET, 01/31/2012

The Congressional Budget Office released its new budget outlook this morning, and it says what it always says: Deficits are huge, but projected to shrink dramatically in the next few years. Congress could sit back, do nothing, and deficits would fall from 7 percent of GDP to 1.5 percent of GDP.

But that would mean Congress allows the Bush tax cuts to expire, the alternative minimum tax to return, the 1997 Balanced Budget Act to cut Medicare’s payments to doctors by about 30 percent, and the Budget Control Act’s trigger to make $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. If Congress moves to block those changes, however, deficits will remain huge. How huge? About 5.4 percent of GDP, guesses the CBO. So that’s the basic choice facing U.S. policymakers: Huge tax increases and spending cuts, or huge deficits.

In the background of all this is the economy. The CBO projects the economy will grow at a rate of 2 percent in 2012, and 1.1 percent in 2013. That’s brutal. But it’s not inevitable. It assumes massive drag from the expected tax increases and spending cuts. If those tax increases and cuts are further delayed, the CBO expects the economy to grow by about 2.5 percent in 2012, and 2.6 percent in 2013. But then the deficit problem is unresolved.

All this suggests the economy faces an either/or choice between growth and deficit reduction. It doesn’t. Policy could be designed to protect the recovery over the next few years and gradually phase in deficit reduction as the economy gets back on its feet.

Indeed, there’s reason to believe that one could actually support the other: If Washington had a firm, credible deficit-reduction plan in place, the market, which shows no sign of being concerned about our deficits at the moment, would likely give us even more time to let the recovery take hold first. Insofar as there’s a concern about our deficits, it’s about the uncertainty of how they’ll come down, not the specific timing of when they’ll come down. No one cares whether we begin cutting in 2013 or 2014. Take away that uncertainty, and there will be even less concern about the timing.

Conversely, the more growth we have, the smaller our deficits will be, and the easier they will be to cut. A world in which the economy is growing at less than two percent is not a world in which we’re going to be able to bring the budget into balance. The market knows that perfectly well. There’s no deficit-reduction strategy that’s credible without a growth-protection strategy.

 
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