Opinion: Wrapping up a record-setting year of red ink


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The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget observes the last day of fiscal 2009 (that is, today) by measuring how deep a hole Washington has dug for itself in the past 12 months. The highlights (OK, lowlights) cited by CRFB, a non-partisan group dedicated to the quaint notion of fiscal discipline, include:

  • $1.65 trillion added to the national debt, a 28% increase;
  • A debt-to-GDP ratio of 11.2%, a post-war record;
  • A $4.3 trillion increase in projected deficits over the coming decade, up 300% from the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate last year.

CRFB President Maya MacGuineas cut policymakers a little slack, saying that many of the steps that drove up the deficit were needed to strengthen the economy. ‘But if not accompanied by efforts to reduce the long-term fiscal gap,’ she added, ‘they come at the expense of future growth and prosperity.’

Lawmakers still have time to establish a bit of deficit-cutting credibility -- 12 of the 13 annual appropriations bills that were due by Oct. 1 are still working their way through Congress. Unfortunately, there are signs that some powerful lawmakers (in the Senate particularly) are more concerned about steering dollars to pet projects than saving money for taxpayers. Granted, earmarks are a minuscule part of the budget problem. But if Congress can’t get the small stuff right, how likely is it that lawmakers will take the hard but meaningful steps to close the budget gap?


Incidentally, the liberal Center for American Progress added its voice today to the anti-deficit chorus, issuing a primer on the problem from a left-of-center point of view. Sounding a bit like editorial writers, the authors say that there are no easy choices (No, really?). They also offer a less-than-dispassionate view of how we got in the mess we’re currently in, treating the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 as costly deficit boosters rather than acknowledging their role in stimulating the economy. The center’s analysis gives short shrift to the growing economy’s role in solving the short-term budget problems of the 1990s, and all but ignores the complex interrelationship between taxes, spending and GDP growth. Nevertheless, the authors paint a clear picture of the structural problems facing lawmakers, and explain why neither spending cuts nor tax hikes alone can close the gap.

-- Jon Healey