This morning, Eric Rosengren, chief executive of the Boston Federal Reserve, cautioned lawmakers against further fiscal retrenchment, lest they slow the recovery. As he said at the Global Interdependence Center’s Central Banking Conference in Italy: “Given the economic realities I would urge policymakers to consider scenarios where some elements of fiscal rebalancing take effect only after the economy has more fully improved.”
He’s right, in large part because Congress has already done a fair amount of deficit reduction. Beginning in 2011, with unemployment still high and the economy on a long, slow climb out of recession, Congress — led by a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives — moved to make big cuts in medium-term discretionary spending. It slashed $1 trillion with the Budget Control Act of 2011, and followed that with hundreds of billions more in spending cuts and tax increases with the fiscal cliff deal and sequester.
Now, as a result of this deficit reduction, the Congressional Budget Office projects a $642 billion budget deficit for fiscal year 2013, down $200 billion from its projection at the beginning of the year, and the lowest level of deficit spending since President Obama entered office. The near-term deficit projection also shows improvement; the CBO estimates a 2015 deficit of $378 billion. For Washington’s deficit hawks, this is cause for celebration. It’s a sign the federal government is on its way to a more sustainable debt load.
But this rapid deficit reduction is far less of a boon for most Americans, who have to live in an economy that’s been largely stalled by Congressional inaction. At 7.5 percent, unemployment is still too high, and there’s little sign of rapid improvement. According to most projections, joblessness won’t reach pre-recession levels for another three years.
Congress’ push for deficit reduction has a lot to do with this. As noted in the New York Times last week: “The nation’s unemployment rate would probably be nearly a point lower, roughly 6.5 percent, and economic growth almost two points higher this year if Washington had not cut spending and raised taxes as it has since 2011.”
To put that in more concrete terms, 1.5 million more Americans would have jobs if not for Washington’s decision to pursue deficit reduction in the midst of a sluggish economy.
Unfortunately, news of successful deficit reduction is unlikely to result in any respite from new cuts or tax increases. The Obama administration still has its Social Security cuts on the table — as part of a potential “grand bargain” — and Congressional Republicans are gearing up to demand still more spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
Will Washington avoid endangering the still-fragile recovery with further deficit reduction? If the refusal to end or replace the sequester is any indication, I wouldn’t hold my breath.