Fiscal analysts see debt-limit deal as missed opportunity to fix real problems

The deficit-reduction deal that the House approved Monday might allow Washington to narrowly avert a self-inflicted fiscal disaster, but it does not get to the root of the nation’s long-term debt problem, according to economists and independent budget experts.

The deal struck by the White House and congressional leaders to raise the debt limit would cut deficits by at least $2.1 trillion over 10 years. But it leaves for another day the hard decisions of finding new revenue or cuts in entitlement programs, which are the biggest drivers of the nation’s burgeoning debt.

“They achieved a temporary political solution, but not a fiscal solution,” said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates fiscal responsibility. “The real problem here is the mismatch between growing entitlement spending and revenues. And what don’t they address here? Growing entitlements and revenues.”

A cross section of fiscal analysts called the prolonged debt negotiations a missed opportunity for political leaders to take bolder action.

“Even after all of this, our entitlement problems remain horrifying,” said Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute. “They didn’t really fix what needs to be fixed.”

Weeks of high-stakes talks focused the nation on the exploding debt problem unlike any time in recent history. But after flirting with a “grand bargain” to decisively cut the nation’s long-term deficit by curbing entitlement spending and raising revenue, lawmakers were forced to settle for a more incremental deal.

They could not do more because of Republicans’ refusal to raise taxes and Democrats’ refusal to substantially trim entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without gaining new tax revenue.

“The problem that we have economically is a function of something we have been doing for the past 30 years, when we went on this binge of deficit spending,” said Lance Roberts, chief executive of Streettalk Advisors, an investment firm. “This is not only government, but also individuals.”

The White House and congressional leaders call the deal the best that they could muster given the philosophical chasm separating the political parties.

The deal would make more than $900 billion in budget cuts, to be followed by at least $1.2 trillion in savings from cuts done by a special congressional committee.

Enactment of the agreement would move the federal government from the edge of default, which the White House and many analysts predicted would have triggered a calamitous chain reaction.

But even though many of the domestic spending cuts are slated to take place in 2013, the measure does nothing to help lift the flagging economy in the short run. Though the national jobless rate is 9.2 percent, the deal does not extend federal emergency unemployment benefits, which expire at the end of the year. Nor does it extend the reduction in payroll taxes that ends in December.

The deal, with its prospect of future cuts and possible revenue changes to be sought by the special committee, also extends the “uncertainty” that many analysts say has also hindered the economy.

Despite those shortcomings and missed opportunities, many economists nonetheless called the deal an improvement over the status quo. “It is a step in the right direction,” said Scott J. Brown, senior vice president and chief economist for Raymond James and Associates, a financial services company. “But the real problem is the long-term budget outlook. As it is, we already are seeing contractionary fiscal policy — the cuts in state and
local government — restricting growth.”

Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said: “I wish I could stand on the sidelines and applaud this deal.”

But, she said, it does not go far enough.

“I’m afraid it is going to fall short of the critical goal,” she said, “which is stabilize the debt by doing what we need to do — reform entitlement programs and overhaul the tax system.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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