The Bottom Line

July 25, 2014

In a recent New York Times column, economist Paul Krugman argued that the focus on the national debt represented “an imaginary budget and debt crisis.” He stated that current debt increases are manageable, there is little danger of a debt crisis, and it would be “no big deal” economically to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio. He contends that those who focus on impending deficits are fear mongering and diverting the national attention "from its real problems — crippling unemployment, deteriorating infrastructure and more."

We find several flaws in Krugman’s budgetary logic, detailed below.

Claim: The Long-Term Outlook is "distinctly non-alarming"

In his column, Krugman argues that the latest Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections are "distinctly non-alarming" except to those engaging in scare tactics. We think Doug Elmendorf – Director of CBO – would disagree. In his recent testimony before the House Budget Committee, he warned that the debt projections could have "significant negative consequences," that further debt increases "could be especially harmful," and that the budget is on an "unsustainable current path."

July 24, 2014

In its release this week of the economic effects of the President's budget, CBO found it would increase the size of the economy, mainly due to immigration reform. As a result, under the President's budget Gross National Product (GNP) would be about 2.1 percent higher in 2024 than before the enactment of the budget, though GNP per capita would be about 1 percent lower. Importantly, higher economic growth would lead to additional revenue collection and lower deficits. Because CBO accounted for certain economic effects of immigration in its analysis of the President's budget, the additional economic effects would actually increase the deficit by less than $100 billion over ten years.

In analyzing the economic impact of the President's budget, CBO finds six main ways in which the budget would affect economic growth:

  • Increasing the size of the U.S. population, thus raising the number of workers;
  • Increasing federal budget deficits in the short term, mainly through higher government spending, which would boost aggregate demand and the use of labor and capital;
  • Reducing federal budget deficits in the long term, which would increase national saving and private investment;
  • Raising the marginal tax rate on labor income, thereby discouraging work;
  • Raising the marginal tax rate on capital income, thereby discouraging saving; and
  • Increasing federal investment in ways that would increase productivity and the skill level of the workforce.
July 23, 2014
Think Tanks on Left, Right, and Center Agree

In the coming days, the Senate will vote on the House-passed measure to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. The bill is a last-ditch effort to prevent the fund from going bankrupt, which would stall construction projects across the country.

July 23, 2014

Although most of our analysis of CBO's Long-Term Budget Outlook has focused on debt projections, CBO also makes projections about the solvency of trust funds over the long term. And, unfortunately, it finds that most major trust funds will become insolvent in the not-too-distant future.

CBO has already projected the impending disruption of construction projects due to the Highway Trust Fund depletion later this year, the 20 percent across-the-board benefit cut facing Social Security Disability beneficiaries sometime in FY 2017, and the need to address the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation's Multiemployer Pension fund by 2021. In this report, it finds that the the combined Social Security trust funds (assuming the SSDI program borrows from the Old-Age trust fund) and the Medicare Hospital Insurance (HI) trust fund will both run out of money around 2030. In other words, CBO projects that all the major trust funds will be depleted just over fifteen years from now. And, at that point, significant automatic benefit/payment cuts would take place.

As we touched on before, Social Security's projected finances are worse than last year, a product of lower payroll tax revenue and lower interest rates. On the other hand, the HI insolvency date has been moved back about five years due to CBO's continued downward revisions to Medicare spending. Still, these changes give a 15-year clock for both the Social Security trust fund and the HI trust fund. These trust funds would experience a sizeable cut in spending (benefits) to bring outlays in line with revenue when the trust funds are exhausted.

Exhaustion Dates for Major Trust Funds
Trust Fund
Exhaustion Date
Percent Cut Required
Highway Trust Fund FY 2015 28%
Social Security Disability Insurance FY 2017 20%
PBGC Multiemployer Fund FY 2021 87%
Medicare Hospital Insurance ~2030 ~15%
Social Security Old-Age and Survivors Insurance 2032 ~30%
Social Security Combined 2030 ~27%

 Source: CBO, CRFB calculations

July 23, 2014

In our series on the long-term budget outlook, we covered how debt projections would change if some of CBO's economic and technical assumptions turned out differently. Uncertainty is clearly a factor in any budget projection and especially so for 75-year estimates. But CBO also points out that there are ways for policymakers to remove or lessen this uncertainty by changing federal policies, including by reducing federal debt to lessen the risk of negative revisions to projections.

Recall that the four parameters for which CBO evaluated alternate assumptions were mortality, productivity, interest rates, and health care cost growth. While it is difficult to insulate the budget from productivity shocks, government policy can mitigate the effect of shocks for the three other variables on the budget.


While lower mortality is clearly a good thing for the country, it is not the case for the budget, since it raises spending on retirement and health care programs (although it also can raise the number of years a person remains in the labor force). One way to make a positive development less negative for the budget is to index retirement ages, particularly for Social Security, to longevity. This would mean that the ratio of years worked versus years receiving federal retirement benefits for the average person would remain constant over time, rather than increasingly continuously as it does now. Alternatively, current Council of Economic Advisers chair Jason Furman wrote in a 2007 Brookings Institution paper that policymakers should focus on the concept of "robust solvency" for Social Security, by making it solvent enough to be robust to changes in demographics or other projections. As an example, he showed the effect of "dependency indexing" the payroll tax rate or the benefit formula, or changing those factors based on the projected ratio of workers to beneficiaries.

Health Care Cost Growth

July 22, 2014
How Long-Term Debt Looks With Different Assumptions

Any budget projection is inherently uncertain, and that uncertainty is magnified when the projection period is extended to 25 or 75 years, as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) does in its long-term outlook. That's why CBO publishes an Alternative Fiscal Scenario (AFS), to illustrate what would happen to debt if lawmakers cut taxes and increase spending differently than projected by current law (the Appendix of our analysis explains the differences). However, policy is not the only source of uncertainty in long-term projections; the economic and technical assumptions used also greatly affect CBO's estimates. Fortunately, CBO provides a band of assumptions for mortality, productivity, interest rates, and health care cost growth, showing how they would each affect debt in 2039 (at 111 percent of GDP in the Extended Baseline, including economic feedback effects). We delve into these details below.


CBO's projections assume that population-wide mortality rates decline at 1.2 percent per year. This is somewhat higher than the 0.8 percent decline that the Social Security Trustees assume and is a main reason why CBO's Social Security projections look worse than the Trustees'. CBO evaluates what would happen to debt through 2039 if mortality rates declined 0.5 percentage points faster or slower annually. These different declines result in life expectancy for a 65 year-old being about one year longer or shorter than the default by 2039.

Different life expectancy and mortality rate assumptions affect spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (and certain other mandatory programs), but they also can affect revenue by changing the labor supply; CBO assumes that every additional year of life expectancy would cause a worker to spend three more months in the labor force. However, these alternative assumptions make little difference for debt through 2039: it rises from 111 percent of GDP to 113 percent with the faster decline in mortality and goes to 110 percent with the slower decline. These differences would compound over time though, so greater separation would occur in later years.

July 21, 2014

The Bipartisan Policy Center held an event Tuesday commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Congressional Budget Act, which became law on July 12. The event featured two panel discussions: The first panel included six former directors of the Congressional Budget Office (including CRFB Board members Alice Rivlin, Rudy Penner, and Dan Crippen), and the second panel consisted of former chairmen and members of the House and Senate Budget Committees (including CRFB Co-Chair Bill Frenzel and Board member Jim Jones). Bill Hoagland, another CRFB Board member, presided over the event. Both panels touched on the merits of the Congressional Budget Office, which the Budget Act created, and the failure of Congress to pass concurrent budget resolutions in recent years. The speakers also touched on many of the issues raised in our recent paper on the problems with the budget process. On the whole, the panelists stated that the political polarization of Congress, not inadequacies in the Budget Act, was a main reason for the gridlock in the process.

See the full videos of the panels here.

July 21, 2014
Easier to add debt than choose

Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, served as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee from 2005 to 2007 and ranking member from 2007 to 2011. He recently wrote an op-ed featured in The Hill. It is reposted here.

The United States debt now stands at $18 trillion. This is double what it was just a few years ago. The trend, under the presently proposed budgets of President Obama, is that it will triple in another five to seven years.

People point facts like this out all the time. But the response from the president and the Congress is to add more spending that has not been paid for, thus increasing the debt problem.

The two most recent cases are the supposed ‘fix’ of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the highway bill.

July 21, 2014
The Two Budgeteers: All for One in Effort to Update Budget Act

Kent Conrad, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota, and Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, are both former chairmen of the Senate Budget Committee. They recently co-wrote an op-ed featured in Roll Call. It is reposted here.

Since ratification of the constitutional authority given to Congress to tax and spend in 1788, our government has struggled to manage the federal budget. After numerous failed budget concepts and commissions, the Budget Act was finally enacted in 1974 to establish the modern-day budget process. Almost exactly 40 years since the Budget Act was signed into law, there is growing consensus among policymakers and budget observers that the system no longer functions as intended.

As former chairmen of the Senate Budget Committee, we have personally witnessed the transformation away from a functioning regular order and toward an ad hoc approach to fiscal policy. Congress adopted an annual budget resolution, approved by both chambers, each fiscal year from 1976 through 1998. Since then, however, there have been eight fiscal years in which Congress has not approved a budget resolution. Government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, temporary fixes and retroactive policy changes — all without serious consideration of our nation’s fiscal health — have become the new budgetary world order. Even when budget rules are in place, lawmakers evade them with gimmicks, emergency designations and waivers that result in the costs being added to our debt.

One of the core functions of Congress is to review and allocate discretionary spending each year through 12 appropriations bills. If not done by the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, then either the government shuts down or operates on a continuing resolution. As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget points out in a new paper detailing the problems with the current process, the average length and breadth of continuing resolutions has increased in recent years. These temporary funding extensions, along with shut downs, postpone important funding decisions and hamper the efficiency across the federal government.

We also know too well that even when budgets are produced on time, they are often political documents that lawmakers never expect to implement or enforce. Consideration of budget resolutions on the floor of the United States Senate in particular often devolves into late-night “vote-o-rama” sessions where hundreds of political messaging amendments geared to inspire campaign commercials are filed, while there is little debate on the ways to address the long-term drivers of our debt such as the need for tax reform and entitlement reform. In fact, we found the constraints of the budget process and the lack of political will to address the debt so stifling that we worked together to author legislation to create a special commission, later known as the Fiscal Commission or Simpson-Bowles, to bypass some of these process challenges.

July 21, 2014

In addition to showing the path of future debt, CBO's Long-Term Budget Outlook described the consequences of a large and growing federal debt.  The four main consequences are:

  • Lower national savings and income
  • Higher interest payments, leading to large tax hikes and spending cuts
  • Decreased ability to respond to problems
  • Greater risk of a fiscal crisis

According to the report, debt held by the public will rise dramatically in the coming decades, reaching 106 percent of GDP by 2039. The below graph shows the projected increase of the federal debt held by the public from 2014 (dashed line) through 2039 under CBO's extended baseline.

Debt rising to this nearly unprecedented level will have many negative consequences for the economy and policymaking.

July 18, 2014

This week, CRFB President Maya MacGuineas appeared on Bloomberg Television to discuss the CBO's Long-Term Budget Outlook and how imperative it is for lawmakers to address our nation's fiscal challenges.

Debt is basically twice the historical post war average, so that is much too high. But even more troubling is looking forward, the debt is growing and that its going to be the size of the entire economy by 2036.

You have a lot of troubling benchmarks along the way... the [disability insurance] trust fund's going to be running out of funds in a couple of years. By 2030, the combined trust funds of Social Security and Medicare Part A will have run out of reserves. There are so many warning signs that we need to be making changes, and yet you look at what's going on in Washington and we're not making a bit of progress on all these challenges that are so clearly laid out by the CBO.

July 18, 2014

The Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) Long-Term Budget Outlook shows a clearly unsustainable debt path over the long term, one that policymakers will have to address to avoid economic damage. While lawmakers may see the projections and think that getting debt under control is a daunting task, they should keep in mind that the longer they wait, the more difficult it will be to do so. This is true for both the Social Security program and the broader budget. CBO points out in the report that "waiting for some time before reducing federal spending or increasing taxes would result in a greater accumulation of debt ... and would increase the size of the policy changes needed to reach any chosen target for debt."

Quantifying the cost of waiting can be done by estimating the fiscal gap, or the amount of non-interest spending and revenue changes necessary to keep debt stable (or reduce it to some other level) over a period of time. In the report, CBO shows that closing the 25-year fiscal gap, either by keeping debt stable or reducing it to its 40-year historical average share of 39 percent of GDP, would require a reduction in non-interest spending and/or an increase in revenues of 1.2 and 2.6 percent of GDP, respectively, if implemented today. Those changes would grow considerably larger if policymakers waited five or ten years to take action.


July 18, 2014

The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) new Long-Term Budget Outlook presents plenty of good news on Medicare costs yet still highlights the role that increased federal health care spending plays in driving the medium- and long-run growth in our debt. While costs are lower than in last year's projection, health care spending is still expected to increase significantly as a percent of GDP over the long term.

Projected federal health care costs overall may be down only a small amount (0.1 percent of GDP annually) since last year's report, but they have now been lowered by an astounding $900 billion cumulatively from 2011-2021. Moreover, CBO also slightly lowered its estimate of underlying health care cost growth because it is based on the historical average of spending growth since 1985 (with recent years weighted more heavily), which now incorporates one more year (2012) of very slow growth. For Medicare, this works out to slower long-term spending per beneficiary growth of about 0.07 percentage points annually.

Despite the improvements, spending on these programs is still scheduled to grow from 4.8 percent of GDP this year all the way up to 8 percent of GDP by 2039.

July 18, 2014

New calculations in the Congressional Budget Office's Long-Term Budget Outlook show that the high debt projected under current law could diminish average annual income by $2,000 within 25 years, and that a $4 trillion debt reduction package would not only prevent that $2,000 hit but could also increase average income in the economy by another $2,000, among other findings.

The report details the economic drag that will be caused by our growing debt once the economy has fully recovered by the Great Recession, if Congress does nothing to address it. Under CBO's "Extended Baseline Scenario," debt would increase from its current 74 percent of GDP to exceed the size of the economy, reaching 108 percent of GDP, by 2040. Yet even the Extended Baseline Scenario is perhaps too optimistic in assuming that some provisions are allowed to expire as scheduled and that Congress won't take any more fiscally irresponsible decisions. CBO also projects an alternative baseline (the "Alternative Fiscal Scenario (AFS)"), which roughly illustrates what would occur if lawmakers continue current policies, keep non-health, non-Social Security spending from reaching historical lows, and do not allow taxes to continually increase as a result of "bracket creep." Under the AFS, debt skyrockets to 170 percent of GDP by 2040, over twice its current level.

CBO's standard budget estimates utilize historical trends of economic growth, inflation, and other variables. They do not, however, incorporate the effects of changing levels of debt on the economy, often called “feedback” or “dynamic" effects. In reality, high and growing debt levels will hinder long-term economic growth. In particular, CBO explains that "higher debt crowds out investment in capital goods and thereby reduces output relative to what would otherwise occur." In other words, high debt harms economic growth.

In its report, CBO has analyzed the harmful effects of debt.  If its economic projections are modified to include these negative effects, the economy is 3 percent smaller in 25 years. If lawmakers return to their more profligate ways and follow the policies in the AFS, the economy will be another 5 percent smaller. In contrast, reducing the debt can lead to modest but real gains in economic growth: a 2 percent larger economy within 25 years.

A bigger economy means increased income for each individual. CBO also shows the effects on per-capita GNP, a rough proxy for average income.  By 2039, GNP would be $78,000 per person before accounting for the negative effects of high debt levels, in today's dollars. If the economic drag from higher debt is included, per capita GNP drops to $76,000 – a $2,000 cut in income. If Congress continues profligate spending and increases debt to the levels in the AFS, GNP will drop by another $3,000, which means the average income will have dropped $5,000 dollars because of high debt.

July 16, 2014

Budget rules require new policies to be paid for with savings elsewhere in the budget. Policymakers must balance the new policy against the choices necessary to offset the costs, forcing them to prioritize and exercise cost restraint. Once PAYGO rules are suspended, however, legislation can be loaded up with new spending or tax breaks without the same scrutiny.

The tax bills considered by the House this year to permanently extend certain breaks are a prime example. These bills have all have been exempted from PAYGO rules which require legislation to be paid for and the budget limits established by the Ryan-Murray budget agreement. As a result, these bills have advanced new tax breaks and expanded existing tax breaks to the tune of $275 billion.

We've long called for Congress to abide by PAYGO with the tax provisions that expired at the end of 2013 known as the tax extenders. However, Congress appears to be holding themselves to a more relaxed standard where they are not required to pay for the costs of extending current policy: the tax cuts can be "extended for free." Even though this is a mistake which allows costs to disappear from the budget process, the door is opened to even greater problems once legislation is exempt from PAYGO. Without PAYGO, nothing prevents legislation from becoming a spending free-for-all of new and expanded tax breaks. 

Only half of the 14 bills approved by the Ways and Means Committee even hold themselves to the more relaxed standard where extensions are free. The other half either expand current tax breaks or enact entirely new breaks, which would add about $275 billion to the debt over and above the $550 billion cost of simply extending current policies. And there are several dozen provisions that haven’t even been considered; all told with interest costs, the expansions could reach $1.5 trillion.

July 16, 2014

One of the biggest stories of last year's long-term outlook was the deterioration in Social Security's financial picture. Largely due to CBO's expectation that people will live longer, its estimate of the 75-year shortfall grew by more than half from their 2012 outlook – from 2.1 percent of taxable payroll to 3.4 percent (1.2 percent of GDP). CBO predicted that the combined Social Security trust funds would run out of money by 2031, two years earlier than predicted by the Trustees. This year's projections show a further deterioration in Social Security's financial situation, with the 75-year shortfall now projected at 4.0 percent of payroll (1.4 percent of GDP) and the trust fund expected to be exhausted by 2030. The Disability Insurance trust fund faces a more immediate issue, with its exhaustion date set for FY 2017.

This year's change is not due to demographics – which look similar to last year – but two broader economic factors: lower interest rates and slower short-term economic growth. CBO has revised its estimate of long-term interest rates down by about 0.5 percentage points. Lower interest rates mean lower debt payments and are actually good for the budget overall but cause estimates to place a greater weight on later years when Social Security is running greater deficits. Thus, the higher weight placed on later years worsens the actuarial balance (and creates a lower return to the assets in the Trust Fund) and is responsible for about half of the change.

The second major change is from changes in ten-year projections since last September, mostly from the February 2014 outlook when CBO revised down its economic growth projections. The resulting forecast had less income tax and payroll tax revenue, which contributed to the worsening Social Security balance by reducing Social Security payroll tax revenue by $230 billion over ten years. This factor represents about 0.2 percentage points of the change in the actuarial shortfall. The remaining 0.1 percentage point comes from technical factors that CBO does not specify.

Change in Social Security Long-Term Projections
  75-Year Change (Percent of Payroll)
September 2013 Shortfall 3.4%
Economic Projections (Interest Rates) +0.3%
Ten-Year Projections (Revenue) +0.2%
Other Changes +0.1%
July 2014 Shortfall
July 15, 2014

CBO's Long-Term Budget Outlook is a long and detailed 140-page document – filled to the brim with facts, figures, scenarios and assumptions – and comes with a spreadsheet with even more data. To help people navigate the report and pull out its key takeaways, we've boiled down the document into a concise 6-page analysis with all the key facts and findings.

July 15, 2014

Earlier today, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its latest Long-Term Budget Outlook. Although CBO normally makes ten-year projections, it also occasionally shows 25- and 75-year projections that highlight our long-term fiscal challenges. As the report states clearly, the fiscal situation is unsustainable, and within the next quarter century, growing debt levels will "push federal debt held by the public to a percentage of GDP seen only once before in U.S. history."

Under CBO's projections, debt will rise from 74 percent of GDP in 2014 (a post-war record high), to 80 percent of GDP by 2025, 108 percent by 2040, 147 percent by 2060, and 212 percent by 2085. The projections are modestly higher than last year's over the next three decades but somewhat lower over the very long term. As expected, the growing debt is largely the result of the rapidly growing costs of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – and the failure of revenue to keep up.

Importantly, those projections assume that Congress follows current law, letting several provisions (such as the tax extenders and doc fix) expire, allowing revenue to grow far above historical levels, and allowing discretionary spending to fall far below historical levels. Under CBO's more pessimistic Alternative Fiscal Scenario (AFS), debt will reach nearly 90 percent of GDP by 2025, 170 percent by 2040, and exceed 250 percent beyond 2050.

July 15, 2014

Yesterday, the Commmittee for a Responsible Federal Budget released a paper detailing the problems with the federal budget process. In light of the 40th anniversary of the enactment of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 this past Saturday, the paper details many problems facing the current budget process.

The paper focuses on three main issues -- each with many aspects to them -- with the modern budget process: lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and lack of a long-term focus. These issues have resulted in poor planning and policy around the debt, with the process increasingly becoming ad hoc, ineffective, and short-sighted in practice.

July 14, 2014

Today at 12.15 p.m., the Peterson Institute for International Economics is hosting a book launch for "Post-crisis Fiscal Policy," a book by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff on the role of fiscal policy during the global financial crisis and its aftermath.

Maya MacGuineas, President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, will participate in a panel discussion at the event, along with the following speakers:

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