The US Federal Budget

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The recession and attendant financial shock appear to be easing as I write this. But in Washington, financial imprudence is part of the fabric of government. You can see that in a single document that gets updated every year: the US budget. In putting together the budget, the president and Congress set our national priorities and allocate resources among them. The results have been pretty consistent. Over the forty years ending in 2008, revenues have averaged about 18.3 percent of our economy and spending has averaged over 20.6 percent, resulting in an average deficit of about 2.4 percent.

But that gap began to widen under Bush 43, who cut taxes while starting two wars, bolstering homeland security, adding an expensive prescription drug benefit to Medicare, and increasing other spending. In 2007, the federal deficit stood at $161 billion, or 1.2 percent of our economy. In 2008 it was $455 billion, or 3.2 percent. In 2009, figuring in the billions spent to pull our economy out of recession and on various bailout efforts, the deficit rocketed to about $1.42 trillion, 9.9 percent of our economy.

In Washington, they speak of our “fiscal exposure” – the sum of all the benefits, programs, debt payments, and other expenses that will cost us big bucks in the future whether or not we want to cut spending. The term I’ve used for all of that is our “federal financial hole.” In the first eight years of this century it has grown from $20.4 trillion to $56.4 trillion – a 176 percent increase.

Maybe you have a few bills – mortgage payment, auto loan, cable TV, phone – deducted automatically from your checking account. How would you feel if those expenses had risen 176 percent in eight years while your income remained steady?

The hole is getting deeper because we are doing little to bring our income into line with our spending. And until now I haven’t even talked about the interest payments on our federal debt. Suppose our government fails to increase federal revenues above the current rate. Based on the GAO’s latest long-range alternative budget simulation, within about twelve years, our interest payments will become the largest single expenditure in the federal budget. By 2040, all of our federal tax revenues will add up to enough to cover only our two biggest expenses: interest on our debt and Medicare and Medicaid. Everything else – Social Security, defense, education, road building, you name it – will fail to be funded.

As you know, benefits payments are the biggest chunk of the government’s massive obligation. Since the 1960s, the growth of these mandatory payments has overtaken what we spend on defense as a share of our national output – and what we spend on everything else in our federal budget, from law enforcement to border protection, children’s programs to national parks, highways to foreign aid.

Although defense has declined dramatically as a percentage of the overall federal budget over the past forty years, we have actually increased total defense spending. In recent years, we have added resources to fight terrorism abroad. That means that other discretionary programs are much more susceptible to cutting. These include education, research, transportation, infrastructure, and other programs that, if properly designed and effectively executed, can promote economic growth and development. How will squeezing those areas serve to keep America great?

All of this puts us in a major-league quandary. Our nation has to bring what we earn into line with what we spend at a time when our spending literally is out of control. One option – cutting investments in America’s future in order to finance our large and growing mandatory spending programs – is another way of cheating the next generation. Unfortunately, today we are both cutting our investments in the future and handing our descendants a mountain of debt. That is a double whammy for young people and the unborn. It’s not just irresponsible, it’s immoral and downright un-American.

David Walker
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

David Walker
David Walker served as United States Comptroller General from 1998 through to 2008 and is now the President and CEO of The Peter G. Peterson Foundation. He is also the author of Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility.
David Walker

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