Bush’s legacy of budget debt

President Bush likely would prefer not to dwell on the fact, but
new congressional estimates show that one of his administration’s
legacies will be a running federal budget deficit.

The president took office with a budget surplus and a forecast of a
cumulative 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion. That is now, like, so

The Congressional Budget Office predicts a deficit of
$337 billion when this fiscal year ends Sept. 30. And these same
estimates see the deficits dropping to $241 billion in 2009, the last
budget-year Bush will be responsible for, and $114 billion by 2011.
Using the same assumptions, the Concord Coalition, an independent
watchdog group, says the budget could be in balance the year after.

But these assumptions are unrealistically conservative. They assume the
president’s tax cuts expire; there is no change in the expanding
alternative minimum tax; that the costs of Iraq and Katrina have wound
down; and that there are no new federal spending initiatives.

And the forecast calls for Congress getting improbably tough on
spending. Say the budget scolds at the Coalition: “… it assumes
policymakers will hold discretionary programs, including defense, to
just 2 percent growth annually _ as opposed to 8 percent last year and
a 5.2 percent annual average rate from 1994 through 2004 …”

Barring that, says the CBO, we’ll be running $300 billion-plus deficits
through the end of the decade, ratcheting up the national debt and the
cost of paying interest on it. And, taking into account tax cuts, Iraq
and Katrina, the CBO says this year’s deficit is likely to reach or
exceed $400 billion and the White House agrees. The all-time record
one-year deficit was $413 billion in fiscal 2005.

Bush and the
GOP Congress have begun talking a tough game on budget deficits, but
that will require really hard choices on tax cuts and spending. Both
will have to be reduced and in ways that may not be politically popular.

Concludes the CBO, “A substantial reduction in the growth of spending
and perhaps a sizable increase in taxes as a share of the economy will
be necessary for fiscal stability to be at all likely in the coming

The longer those choices are put off, the tougher they’ll be when they absolutely must be made.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)