This paper was updated on October 15, 2015 to reflect the final end of year deficit as announced by the Treasury Department.
The Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 budget deficit totaled $439 billion, according to today’s statement from the Treasury Department. Although this is roughly 10 percent below the FY 2014 deficit and nearly 70 percent below its 2009 peak, the country remains on an unsustainable fiscal path.
In this paper, we show:
- Annual deficits have fallen substantially over the past six years, largely due to rapid increases in revenue (largely from the economic recovery), the reversal of one-time spending during the financial crisis, small decreases in defense spending, and slow growth in other areas.
- Simply citing the 70 percent fall in deficits over the past six years without context is misleading, since it follows an almost 800 percent increase that brought deficits to record-high levels.
- Even as deficits have fallen, debt held by the public has continued to rise, growing from $5.0 trillion in 2007 and $7.5 trillion in 2009 to $13.1 trillion today. As a share of GDP, debt rose from 35 percent in 2007 to about 74 percent in 2014 and 2015.
- Both deficits and debt are projected to rise over the next decade and beyond, with trillion-dollar deficits returning by 2025 or sooner and debt exceeding the size of the economy before 2040, and as soon as 2031.
Unfortunately, the recent fall in deficits is not a sign of fiscal sustainability.
The Deficit in FY 2015
According to the Treasury Department, the federal deficit totaled $439 billion in FY 2015 (an initial report from the Congressional Budget Office on October 7th estimated the deficit at $435 billion), with $3.25 trillion of revenue, $3.69 trillion of spending.
Since 2009, the budget picture has changed significantly, with deficits falling by 70 percent, from $1.4 trillion to $439 billion. This reduction was driven mainly by the 54 percent ($1.1 trillion) increase in tax collections that has come largely as a result of the economic recovery but also due to real tax bracket creep, new taxes from the American Taxpayer Relief Act, the Affordable Care Act, and increased remittances from the Federal Reserve.
At the same time, nominal spending is only slightly higher than in 2009, even as the economy has grown, and inflation has eroded the value of this spending. Indeed, nominal spending has decreased in a number of areas, particularly due to the absence and reversal of financial rescue and economic recovery programs through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the expiration of stimulus spending. Defense spending has also fallen as a result of the drawdown in war spending along with spending caps (further reduced under “sequestration”) on base defense spending. Meanwhile, non-defense discretionary spending has remained relatively flat in nominal terms since 2009, while Medicare, non-ACA Medicaid, and interest costs have all grown slowly relative to their historical trends.
With spending growing at a relatively slow pace, revenue has largely caught up – leading to a substantial reduction in deficits between 2009 and 2015. However, at $439 billion (2.5 percent of GDP), the deficit in 2015 was still significantly higher than the pre-recession deficit of $161 billion (1.1 percent of GDP) in 2007.
Deficits Fell From Record Levels, And They Will Rise Again
A 70 percent drop in annual deficits since 2009 is certainly significant, but it is less impressive than some would suggest when put in context. The rapid fall was from record-high levels and followed an even more rapid increase. At $1.4 trillion, the 2009 deficit was the highest ever in both real and nominal dollars, and the largest as a share of the economy except during World War II. The 2009 deficits represented a 779 percent increase from 2007 – only two years earlier.
While legislated spending reductions, tax increases, and other factors have played a role in reducing deficits from since 2009, the end of trillion-dollar deficits was largely the expected result of the recovering economy and the fading of measures intended to boost the recovery. As unemployment rates have fallen and GDP risen, revenue collection has returned to more normal levels and countercyclical spending has subsided in areas such as unemployment insurance and food stamps. Meanwhile, stimulus and financial rescue measures enacted to speed the recovery have mostly ended and are in some cases now generating income for the government.
Unfortunately, even with these gains, the deficit remains about 270 percent as high as in 2007 (1.4 percentage points higher as a percent of GDP) and is projected to grow over time. Under CBO’s current law baseline, annual deficits will return to trillion-dollar levels by 2025. In 2016 deficits are projected to fall slightly however the likely continuation of tax extenders – even if only retroactively – means deficits will almost certainly rise that year. Under the more pessimistic Alternative Fiscal Scenario in which policymakers fail to pay for new spending and tax cuts, the deficit will reach $1.3 trillion in 2025, rapidly approaching the nominal-dollar record set in 2009.
As Deficits Fall, the Debt Keeps Rising
Arguably the most important metric of a country’s fiscal health is its debt-to-GDP ratio. And unfortunately, even as deficits have fallen the last six years, debt has grown. Indeed, over the same period that deficits fell by 70 percent, nominal debt held by the public grew by about 75 percent – from $7.5 trillion to $13.1 trillion. As a percent of GDP, debt has also grown rapidly, from 35 percent of GDP in 2007 to 52 percent of in 2009 and nearly 74 percent in 2015. This puts debt at just under twice the 50-year historical average of 38 percent of GDP, and leaves it near record-high levels never seen other than around World War II.
Falling deficits have not prevented the debt from growing; rather, they have only slowed down the growth trend. While the debt-to-GDP ratio was essentially stable between 2014 and 2015 and may remain so for the next few years, debt is projected to continue growing faster than the economy over the long run. As the population ages, health care costs grow, and interest rates rise to more normal levels, CBO projects debt will rise from 73 percent of GDP in 2018 to 77 percent of GDP by 2025, and will exceed the size of the economy before 2040. Under CBO’s Alternative Fiscal Scenario (AFS), debt will exceed the size of the economy by 2031.
The fact that deficits have fallen from their trillion-plus dollar levels is encouraging, but more a sign of the economic recovery than enacted deficit reduction. And unfortunately, Washington’s myopic focus on near-term deficits has led to savings which will do little to alter the trajectory of our growing debt.
The significant decline in the deficit followed a massive increase in response to the economic crisis. Moreover, this decline does not suggest the country is on a sustainable fiscal path as debt levels are near historic highs and are projected to grow unsustainably over the long run. In only a decade, deficits are projected to again exceed $1 trillion, and within 15 to 25 years debt is projected to exceed the entire size of the economy.
Policymakers must work together on serious tax and entitlement reforms to put debt on a clear downward path relative to the economy, and should not declare false victories while sweeping the debt issue under the rug.
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This paper was updated on October 15, 2015 to reflect the final end of year deficit as announced by the Treasury Department. In addition, the paper is an update of “Deficit Falls to $483 Billion, but Debt Continues to Rise” from October 2014
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) today released its updated budget and economic projections for the coming decade, showing that while short-term deficits are down, the debt continues to grow unsustainably over the long term. The report focuses on a “current law” baseline, which assumes policymakers generally pay for passing any new or extended tax cuts or spending increases. Under this scenario, CBO shows the following:
- Deficits will fall to $426 billion (2.4 percent of GDP) in 2015 and $414 billion (2.2 percent of GDP) in 2016, but will grow from there with trillion-dollar deficits returning by 2025, when annual borrowing will total 3.7 percent of GDP.
- Debt held by the public will grow by nearly $8 trillion between now and 2025, from over $13 trillion today to $21 trillion by 2025. As a share of GDP, debt will remain near its post-World War II record high of 74 percent through 2021, before rising to about 77 percent of GDP by 2025.
- Spending will grow from 20.6 percent of GDP in 2015 to 22.0 percent in 2025 while revenues will remain at about 18.3 percent of GDP.
- Interest spending represents the fastest growing major part of the budget, rising from $218 billion (1.2 percent of GDP) in 2015 to $755 billion (2.8 percent of GDP) by 2025. Spending on the major health and retirement programs will grow from 10 to 12 percent of GDP.
- CBO’s projections are quite similar to those made in March, with lower interest rates improving the forecast but being largely offset by various technical changes and the recent permanent “doc fix” legislation.
- Extrapolating forward, we project debt would likely exceed the size of the economy by around 2040, and continue to grow thereafter.
- We project under the assumptions of CBO’s Alternative Fiscal Scenario, where Congress extends various expired and expiring tax provisions and eliminates ”sequestration,” debt would exceed 85 percent of GDP by 2025 and exceed the size of the economy by around 2030.
CBO shows an unsustainable fiscal outlook under current law, and an even more dangerous one if policymakers continue to act irresponsibly. Lawmakers will therefore need to strictly abide by pay-as-you-go rules and take steps to control the growth of entitlement spending, while enacting other tax and spending reforms to put debt on a downward path over the long run.
See the full document below or download it here.
In early 2015, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) warned of the upcoming Fiscal Speed Bumps, explaining “lawmakers will face a number of important budget related deadlines…that will require legislative action.”
Inaction and postponed deadlines have created a gathering storm where Congress and the President must address four remaining Fiscal Speed Bumps before the end of the year:
- The end of 2015 appropriations and return of sequester caps (October 1)
- The expiration of the highway bill and insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund (October 30 & Summer 2016)
- The exhaustion of extraordinary measures to avoid raising the Debt Ceiling (mid-Fall)
- The deadline to renew tax extenders retroactively (December 31)
Although deadlines vary, political considerations may cause lawmakers to combine these issues – leading to a double, triple, or even quadruple cliff.
An irresponsible approach could add up to $2.5 trillion to the debt by 2025 above what current law allows, after interest. Instead, lawmakers should take advantage of this gathering storm to make sensible reforms to improve policy, accelerate economic growth, and address the overall fiscal situation.
Appropriations End. Sequester-Level Caps Return (October 1)
When the government’s fiscal year ends on September 30, so too will the laws that provide discretionary dollars. In theory, Congress is supposed to pass 12 appropriations bills before October in order to fund the government for Fiscal Year 2016 (FY 2016). However, the House has passed only six so far, while the Senate has not passed any. Failure to pass appropriations bills or a Continuing Resolution (CR) would result in a government shutdown.
Assuming policymakers avoid a shutdown, they will still need to decide at what level to fund the government. The Ryan-Murray Bipartisan Budget Act set spending levels for only FY 2014 and FY 2015. For FY 2016, current law spending caps will be dictated by automatic spending reductions commonly referred to as the “sequester.”
Under sequestration spending levels, nominal discretionary caps will rise only $3 billion (0.3 percent) next year – and remain about $90 billion below the pre-sequester caps set in the Budget Control Act. A number of policymakers and outside analysts have called for repealing or reducing the impact of this sequester.
Permanent sequester repeal would cost $1 trillion before interest over the next decade – although policymakers could enact a partial and/or temporary reduction of the sequester cuts. In any case, lawmakers should fully offset the costs with more thoughtful permanent savings that grow over time, without relying on gimmicks.
Legislation increasing the discretionary caps could also be accompanied by budget process reforms to strengthen their enforcement and restrict the use of gimmicks – such as the use of the Overseas Contingency Operations in the Congressional budget to effectively circumvent the defense caps. We describe such reforms in Strengthening Statutory Budget Enforcement.
In September, CRFB will release a plan to replace a portion of the sequester cuts over the next two years and on a permanent basis with savings elsewhere in the budget.
To learn more, read Everything You Should Know About Government Shutdowns, Appropriations 101, and Understanding the Sequester.
Highway Bill Expires and Trust Fund Runs Low (October 30 & Summer 2016)
At the end of October when the current highway bill expires, no new funds may be obligated to transportation projects without additional legislation. If highway spending is continued at current levels without additional revenue, the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in the fourth quarter of FY 2016, or next summer.
Ultimately, policymakers should close the structural gap between dedicated tax revenue (e.g., the gas tax) and highway spending, which is projected to total about $13 billion this year and $175 billion through 2025. Preferably, this gap would be closed permanently with structural changes to revenue and/or spending, although a fully-offset general revenue transfer could be used to buy time, as it was this July.
CRFB released an illustrative plan in May: The Road to Sustainable Highway Spending, which included a fully-offset, short-term cash infusion into the trust fund, a process for tax and transportation reform, a scheduled 9-cent per gallon gas tax increase if alternatives were not identified, and a spending limit to keep future highway costs in line with revenue.
For more background, see our paper Trust or Bust: Fixing the Highway Trust Fund.
Federal Debt Ceiling is Reinstated (Mid-Fall)
The federal debt ceiling – which was suspended in February 2014 – was reinstated this March, limiting gross federal debt to its current level of $18.15 trillion. Through “extraordinary measures,” the Department of Treasury has been able to delay the need to address the debt ceiling even as the federal government continues to borrow. However, those measures are estimated to run out sometime after the end of October.
Policymakers must increase or suspend the debt ceiling to avoid a potentially disastrous government default, and should do so in a timely manner because waiting until the 11th hour could have negative economic consequences. At the same time, the debt ceiling can be – and in the past has been – an opportunity to take stock of the nation’s unsustainable fiscal situation and make fiscal reforms. An increase would ideally be accompanied with improvements to reduce the long-term debt.
Reforms to the debt ceiling itself should also be considered. Through our Better Budget Process Initiative, CRFB has presented a number of ideas for Improving the Debt Limit to better promote fiscal responsibility without generating as much economic risk.
To learn more about the debt ceiling, read Q&A: Everything You Should Know About the Debt Ceiling and Understanding the Debt Limit.
“Tax Extenders” Reach Reinstatement Deadline (December 31, 2015)
At the end of last year, over 50 temporary “tax extenders” expired. These include individual and business tax breaks for research and experimentation, wind energy, state and local sales tax, and many others.
Most are renewed regularly and can be reinstated retroactively through the end of 2015, and possibly later. Doing so for 2015 would cost over $40 billion before interest, and extending them into 2016 would cost about $95 billion. Many of these provisions have been enacted temporarily to hide their costs, but the price mounts if they are continued year after year. A permanent extension would cost roughly $500 billion through 2025 for traditional extenders, $245 billion for bonus depreciation, and $200 billion for expiring refundable credits – about $940 billion total, without factoring in interest costs.
Rather than add to the debt, lawmakers should use this deadline as an opportunity for comprehensive, pro-growth tax reform that simplifies the tax code, reduces tax rates and deficits, broadens the tax base, promotes growth, and makes thoughtful choices about how to address each tax extender. Last year, CRFB proposed the PREP Plan, which combined a temporary extension with a fast-track process for tax reform and offset the cost with tax compliance measures.
To read more about the tax extenders, see The Tax Break-Down: Tax Extenders.
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The gathering fiscal storm facing our country this fall will require legislation to address the important budgetary issues mentioned above. We hope Congress and the President use this as an opportunity to improve, rather than worsen, the nation’s unsustainable fiscal situation.
Update 9/10/2015: This paper was updated for the Department of Transportation's announcement that the Highway Trust Fund would last through the third quarter of FY 2016, and updated to clarify when listed costs included interest.
For additional budget process resources including specific options for reform, visit our Better Budget Process Initiative home page.
A previous version of this chartbook is available at Chartbook: Avoiding Budget Gimmicks and explanations of the previous charts are included on the blog Everything You Need to Know About Budget Gimmicks, in 8 Charts.
As Congress begins the appropriations process, maneuvers through this year’s Fiscal Speed Bumps, and looks to pay for the costs of new legislation, they may be tempted to rely on budgetary slights-of-hand in order to avoid hard choices. With debt already at record-high levels, these budget gimmicks will both worsen the fiscal situation and undermine Congress’ credibility.
Here are four gimmicks to watch out for. See illustrations of these and other gimmicks in our chartbook:
- Pension Smoothing: Some policies would save money in the near-term by shifting revenues from the future, taking advantage of the ten-year Congressional budget window. One specific policy called “pension smoothing” would reduce employer pension contribution requirements (increasing taxable profit) initially and increase them (reducing taxable profit) later. The policy would raise revenue in the first decade but lose that same revenue afterwards, and thus should not be used as a pay-for.
- OCO Defense Slush Fund: Non-war defense spending is capped under current law and limited by “sequestration.” But the caps can be circumvented by designating some non-war defense spending as “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) funds, which are exempt from spending limits. The current budget resolution allows appropriators to spend $96 billion on OCO, even though the Pentagon only requested $58 billion, using the account as a slush fund. Any significant divergence from the Pentagon request would represent a gimmick meant to inflate defense spending.
- Phony CHIMPs: Just as policymakers may use the OCO designation to exceed defense spending caps, they may use savings from CHIMPs – or Changes in Mandatory Programs – to thwart the non-defense caps. CHIMPs allow policymakers to offset discretionary spending over current limits with mandatory spending cuts. While the principle is sensible, in reality most of the mandatory cuts either reduce spending that would have never occurred or count one-year spending delays as if they are spending cuts. The use of this gimmick has increased since 2011 and should ultimately be discontinued.
- Double Counting Tax Reform Revenue: The same money cannot be used twice, but complicated budget conventions sometimes allow policymakers to claim it can. For example, they may use the same revenue to simultaneously pay for rate reduction and finance spending from the Highway Trust Fund. Revenue raised should only be used for one purpose or the other.
For additional budget process resources including specific options for reform, visit our Better Budget Process Initiative home page.
What are appropriations?
Appropriations are annual decisions made by Congress about how the federal government spends some of its money. In general, the appropriations process addresses the discretionary portion of the budget – spending ranging from national defense to food safety to education to federal employee salaries, but excludes mandatory spending, such as Medicare and Social Security, which is spent automatically according to formulas.
How does Congress determine the total level of appropriations?
Under current law, after the President submits the Administration’s budget proposal to Congress, the House and Senate Budget Committees are each directed to report a budget resolution, which if passed by their respective houses, would then be reconciled in a budget conference (see Q&A: Everything You Need to Know About a Budget Conference). The resulting budget resolution, which is a concurrent resolution and therefore not signed by the President, includes what is known as a 302(a) allocation that sets a total amount of money for the Appropriations Committees to spend. For example, the conferenced budget between the House and Senate set the 302(a) limit for FY 2016 at $1.017 trillion.
In addition, discretionary spending is currently subject to statutory spending caps. The Budget Control Act of 2011 set discretionary caps through 2021, which were modified for 2013, 2014, and 2015 by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 and Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. Beyond 2015, the statutory caps set by the Budget Control Act are reduced by about $90 billion annually through an enforcement mechanism known as “sequestration” (see Understanding the Sequester) implemented after the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to produce legislation to reduce the debt.
How does Congress allocate appropriations?
Once they receive 302(a) allocations, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees set 302(b) allocations to divide total appropriations among 12 subcommittees, each dealing with a different part of the budget. Those subcommittees must then decide how to distribute funds within their 302(b) allocations. These 302(b) allocations are voted on by the respective Appropriations Committees but are not subject to review or vote by the full House or Senate. The table below lists the FY 2015 regular (non-war, non-disaster) appropriations, along with the House FY 2016 302(b) allocations for each of the subcommittees.
Each subcommittee must propose a bill that ultimately must pass both chambers of Congress and be signed by the President to take effect. Although the budget process calls for 12 individual bills, many of them are often combined into what is known as an omnibus appropriations bill and sometimes a few are combined into what has been termed a minibus appropriations bill.
How are appropriations levels enforced?
If any appropriations bill or amendment in either house exceeds the 302(b) allocation for that bill, causes total spending to exceed the 302(a) allocation, or causes total spending to exceed statutory spending caps, then any Member of Congress can raise a budget “point of order” against consideration of the bill. The point of order can be waived by a simple majority in the House as part of the rule for floor consideration of the bill and overridden by a 60-vote majority in the Senate. If, despite these points of order, Congress enacts legislation increasing spending beyond the defense or non-defense caps, then the President must issue a sequestration order to reduce discretionary spending across-the-board in the category in which the caps were exceeded, effective 15 days after Congress adjourns for the year. Importantly, certain types of discretionary spending – including for overseas contingency operations and for designated emergencies – do not count against the statutory caps.
What happens if funds are needed outside of the appropriations process?
Congress can pass a supplemental appropriations bill in situations that require additional funding immediately, rather than waiting until the following year’s appropriations process. Supplementals are often used for emergencies such as natural disasters or military actions. Occasionally, Congress has used supplemental appropriations to stimulate the economy or to provide more money for routine government functions after determining that the amount originally appropriated was insufficient. Supplemental appropriations bills are subject to the same internal and statutory spending limits as regular appropriations. They require the same offsets to ensure they do not exceed spending limits, unless designated as emergency spending.
What role does the President play in the appropriations process?
Although the President has no power to set appropriations, he influences both the size and composition of appropriations by sending requests to Congress. Specifically, each year the President’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) submits a detailed budget proposal to Congress based on requests from agencies. The appendix to the President’s budget submission contains much of the technical information and legislative language used by the Appropriations Committees. In addition, the President must sign or veto each of the 12 appropriations bills, giving him additional influence over what the bills look like.
What is the timeline for appropriations?
The 1974 Budget Act calls for the President to submit his budget request by the first Monday in February and for Congress to agree to a concurrent budget resolution by April 15th. The House may begin consideration of appropriations bills on May 15th even if a budget resolution has not been adopted, and is supposed to complete action on appropriations bills by June 30th. However, none of these deadlines are enforceable and they are regularly missed. The practical deadline for passage of appropriations is October 1st, when the next fiscal year begins and the previous appropriation bills expire. For a full timeline of the budget process, click here.
What happens if appropriations bills do not pass by October 1st?
If the appropriations bills are not enacted before the fiscal year begins on October 1st, federal funding will lapse, resulting in a government shutdown. To avoid a shutdown, Congress may pass a continuing resolution (CR), which allows for continued funding, providing additional time for completion of the appropriations process. If Congress has passed some, but not all, of the 12 appropriations bills, a partial government shutdown can occur.
What is a continuing resolution?
A continuing resolution, often referred to as a CR, is a temporary bill that continues funding for all programs based on a fixed formula, usually at or at least based on the prior year funding levels. Congress can pass a CR for all or just some of the appropriations bills. CRs can increase or decrease funding and can include “anomalies,” which adjust spending in certain accounts to avoid technical or administrative problems caused by continuing funding at current levels, or for other reasons.
What happens during a government shutdown?
A shutdown represents a lapse in available funding, and during a shutdown the government stops most non-essential activities related to the discretionary budget. To learn more, see Q&A: Everything You Should Know About Government Shutdowns.
Do agencies have any discretion in how they use funds from appropriators?
Executive branch agencies must spend funds provided by Congress in the manner directed by Congress in the text of the appropriations bills. Appropriations bills often contain accompanying report language with additional directions, which are not legally binding but are generally followed by agencies. And in some instances, Congress will provide for very narrow authority or can use funding limitation clauses to tell agencies what they cannot spend the money on. That said, Congress often provides broad authority, which gives agencies more control in allocating spending. Agencies also have some authority to reprogram funds between accounts after notifying (and in some cases getting approval from) the Appropriations Committees.
What is the difference between appropriations and authorizations?
Authorization bills create, extend, or make changes to the law and specific programs and specify the amount of money that appropriators may spend on a specific program (some authorizations are open ended). Appropriations bills then provide the discretionary funding available to agencies and programs that have already been authorized. For example, an authorization measure may create a food inspection program and set a funding limit for the next five years. However, that program is not funded by Congress until an appropriations measure is signed into law. The authorization bill designs the rules and sets out the details for the program, while the appropriations bill provides the actual resources to execute the program. In the case of mandatory spending, an authorization bill both authorizes and appropriates the funding for a specific program, without requiring a subsequent appropriations law.
Where are the House and Senate in the current appropriations process?
The Senate and House have set a 302(a) allocation level of $1.017 trillion for regular appropriations pursuant to the budget conference agreement. The House has passed the agreement and the Senate is expected to do so in the near future. The House Appropriations Committee has issued the 302(b) subcommittee allocations (see table above), while the Senate has yet to do so. Currently, the House is passing individual appropriations bills through committee and has already begun floor consideration, while the Senate is holding subcommittee hearings. To follow the progress of individual appropriations bills throughout the process, see our Appropriations Watch: FY 2016.