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Updated Appropriations 101

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 the absence of a budget resolution, each chamber may enact a deeming resolution that sets the 302(a) allocation for that chamber. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 gave the Chairman of the Budget Committee authority to set the 302(a) allocation for the Appropriations Committee for Fiscal Year 2017 at the statutory discretionary spending cap established by the Bipartisan Budget Act.

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, 2015, 2016, and 2017 by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, and Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. Beyond 2017, 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 deficit.

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 2016 regular (non-war, non-disaster) appropriations, along with the Senate FY 2017 302(b) allocations for each of the subcommittees.1

Source: Senate Appropriations Committee, CBO.

The table excludes funding not subject to the spending caps, such as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 exceeded the President’s request for OCO spending by about $16 billion in 2016, creating the opportunity to spend around the caps (see more on that in our blog).

Each subcommittee must propose a bill that ultimately must pass both chambers of Congress and be signed by the President in order 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 OCO 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 15. The House may begin consideration of appropriations bills on May 15 even if a budget resolution has not been adopted, and is supposed to complete action on appropriations bills by June 30. However, none of these deadlines are enforceable and they are regularly missed. The practical deadline for passage of appropriations is October 1, 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 1?

If the appropriations bills are not enacted before the fiscal year begins on October 1, 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 Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 allows for appropriations levels for FY 2017 of $1.070 trillion, which is above the Budget Control Act sequester level caps. Both the House and Senate are expected to attempt to pass individual appropriations bills this year.

As of May 16, 2016, neither chamber has passed a budget resolution. However, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) used the authority provided in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015’s language to establish a 302(a) allocation at the $1.070 trillion statutory cap level. The Senate Appropriations Committee has already approved the 302(b) subcommittee allocations, and the Senate has begun floor consideration of appropriations bills.

The House Budget Committee has passed a budget resolution that includes a 302(a) allocation of $1.070 trillion consistent with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, as well as $73.7 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations account. However, the full House has not yet voted on this budget and has not approved a deeming resolution. Consequently, the Appropriations Committee has not issued 302(b) allocations.

The House Appropriations Committee informally set subcommittee allocation for some of the bills only in order to move forward with consideration, but it has not formally approved full 302(b) allocations for all twelve bills.

For a detailed explanation of how the chambers can move forward with appropriations without passing a budget resolution, see our blog House and Senate Move Forward on Appropriations. To follow the progress of appropriations throughout the process, see our Appropriations Watch: FY 2017.

1 As of May 16, 2016, the House has not passed a budget resolution or deeming resolution setting a 302(a) allocation for FY 2017. Therefore, the Appropriations Committee has not established 302(b) allocations.

Adding Up Donald Trump's Campaign Proposals So Far

UPDATED: This analysis was originally published on February 13, 2016. It has since been updated to reflect new policies offered by the Trump campaign, changes in the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline, and formatting that mirrors our other candidate analyses. You can view the original analysis here: http://fiscalfactcheck.crfb.org/how-do-donald-trumps-campaign-proposals-so-far-add-up-archive/

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has put forward seven major sets of initiatives on his campaign’s website in the areas of U.S.-China trade relations reform, protecting second amendment rights, immigration reform, Veterans Administration reform, tax reform, health care reform (including a proposal to block-grant Medicaid), and paying for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. By our very rough and initial estimates, these initiatives together would add anywhere from $10.7 trillion to $15.45 trillion to the debt over the next 10 years, with our central cost estimate being that they would add $12.1 trillion to the debt, including interest.

Under this central cost estimate, debt held by the public would increase from nearly $14 trillion today to $36 trillion by 2026 (compared to about $24 trillion under current law). This means debt would grow from 74 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at the end of last year (and headed to 86 percent by 2026) to 129 percent by 2026. Under our high cost estimate, debt could reach as high as 141 percent by 2026, or reach as low as 111 percent assuming his plans also lead to significant economic growth.

Read the full explainer on our Fiscal FactCheck website. 

Trump Debt 3

Read the full explainer on our Fiscal FactCheck website. 

Nine Social Security Myths You Shouldn’t Believe

Summary of 4 myths related to 2016 campaign

Social Security is a vital program for tens of millions of seniors, dependents, and workers with disabilities, and it has been a hot topic of conversation in the 2016 election campaign as well as discussions in and outside of Washington. Unfortunately, the program is currently on a financially unsustainable path toward insolvency. Already, Social Security pays more in benefits than it is raises from payroll taxes, a trend that is projected to worsen as the baby boom generation continues to retire and life expectancy grows.

The Social Security Trustees project that the trust funds will run out of reserves in just 18 years, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects they will run out in 13 years. Little time remains to enact sensible changes that would avoid deep cuts for nearly all seniors and workers with disabilities.

Yet too little of the discussion in Washington and on the campaign trail is about the types of solutions necessary to fix Social Security, and too much is focused on perpetuating myths that cloud the discussion. In this paper, we identify and debunk nine such myths:

Myth #1: We don’t need to worry about Social Security for many years.
Myth #2: Social Security faces only a small funding shortfall.
Myth #3: Social Security solvency can be achieved solely by making the rich pay the same as everyone else.
Myth #4: Today’s workers will not receive Social Security benefits.
Myth #5: Social Security would be fine if we hadn’t “raided the trust fund.”
Myth #6: Social Security cannot run a deficit.
Myth #7: Social Security has nothing to do with the rest of the budget.
Myth #8: Social Security can be saved by ending waste, fraud, and abuse.
Myth #9: Raising the retirement age hits low-income seniors the hardest.

Below, we debunk these myths in the hopes that an honest discussion of the facts will lead the next President and Congress to come together and put Social Security on sound financial footing.

Read the short version as a printer-friendly PDF.

Myth #1: We don’t need to worry about Social Security for many years

Fact: There is a high cost of waiting to reform Social Security.

According to estimates from CBO and the Social Security Trustees, the Social Security trust funds have sufficient reserves to pay full benefits through 2029 or 2034. This has led some to claim Social Security reform can be put off well into the future; they are wrong.

Although 2034 seems to be far away, many of today’s newest retirees would likely still be on the program – turning 80 – and today’s 49-year-olds would be reaching the normal retirement age. At that point, all beneficiaries would face an immediate across-the-board benefit cut of about one-fifth.

The cost of waiting to avoid this cut is high. The longer lawmakers wait to enact Social Security reform, the more abrupt and less targeted changes will have to be, the less time workers will have to plan and adjust, and the fewer the options policymakers will have. Perhaps more importantly, the size of the problem literally grows over time.

For example, based on projections from the Trustees, the payroll tax would need to rise 21 percent (2.6 points) today to make Social Security solvent but by 32 percent (4.0 points) if lawmakers wait until 2034 to act.

The size of the necessary across-the-board benefit cut would similarly grow from 16 percent today to 20 percent in a decade and 23 percent by 2034. If lawmakers exempted existing beneficiaries, that cut would be 20 percent today, 33 percent in a decade, and literally could not solve the problem by 2034.


Prompt action is the best way to keep the program solvent. For this reason, “the Trustees recommend that lawmakers address the projected trust fund shortfalls in a timely way in order to phase in necessary changes gradually and give workers and beneficiaries time to adjust to them… [and] allow more generations to share in the needed revenue increases or reductions in scheduled benefits.”

Read more about the cost of waiting here.

Myth #2: Social Security faces only a small funding shortfall.

Fact: Social Security faces a large but manageable financing gap.

Although many have claimed Social Security’s shortfall is small, the reality is that significant adjustments will be needed to bring spending and revenue in line. In 2016, Social Security will spend about $70 billion more on benefits than it will generate in tax revenue. As the population ages, that gap will only widen.

Social Security spending has already risen from 10.4 percent of payroll in 2000 to 13.9 percent of payroll this year. The Trustees project the cost of scheduled benefits to further grow to 16.7 percent of payroll by 2040 and 18 percent by 2090. Meanwhile, revenue will remain relatively constant at about 13 percent of payroll.

Addressing this large and growing gap will require significant adjustments. Even acting immediately to make Social Security solvent for the next 75 years would require the equivalent of an immediate 21 percent (2.6 point) payroll tax increase or 16 percent across-the-board benefit cut, according to the Trustees. CBO estimates that a much larger 35 percent (4.4 point) tax increase or 26 percent benefit cut would be necessary. Closing the program’s structural gap permanently will require a much larger tax increase of 38 to 52 percent, or a spending cut of 27 to 32 percent.

These shortfalls are much larger than the shortfall closed in the 1983 Social Security reforms. 

Myth #3: Social Security solvency can be achieved solely by making the rich pay the same as everyone else.

Fact: Eliminating the payroll tax cap would still leave a shortfall.

Currently, Social Security’s 12.4 percent payroll tax applies to a worker’s first $118,500 of wage income, and benefits are calculated based on that income. Though this “taxable maximum” is indexed to wage growth, it currently only covers about 83 percent of all wages – meaning 17 percent remain tax free.

One common suggestion for solving the Social Security shortfall is to lift or eliminate the taxable maximum so more income is subject to the 12.4 percent payroll tax. This change would significantly improve Social Security’s finances, but it would not by itself make the program sustainably solvent – and thus other actions would be necessary.

According to the Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration, eliminating the taxable maximum would extend the life of the trust fund by 32 years, close 71 percent of the program’s 75-year gap, and close 34 percent of the structural gap by the end of the projection window. CBO estimates the same policy would extend the life of the trust fund by 10 years, close about 40 percent of the program’s 75-year gap, and close 19 percent of the structural gap.

One reason this policy does so little in the longer term is that the current Social Security structure pays benefits based on the amount of income being taxed, so eliminating the taxable maximum would significantly increase future benefits for higher earners. Breaking this link between taxes and contributions so that higher earners pay more taxes but do not receive more benefits would allow policymakers to close 71 to 88 percent of the 75-year gap and slightly more than half of the structural gap.

Even in this case, more would need to be done to fully ensure solvency. Working within the confines of the current system, such a policy would likely need to be accompanied by changes that slow the growth of benefits and/or increase taxes on income below the taxable maximum.

Myth #4: Today’s workers will not receive Social Security benefits.

Fact: Even if policymakers do nothing (which they shouldn’t), the program will still be able to pay about three-quarters of benefits.

Social Security has been around since 1935, and there is no indication that anyone intends to eliminate the program. Although Social Security faces serious financial challenges, benefits would not disappear unless lawmakers acted to eliminate them.

While the Trustees expect the combined trust fund reserves to be depleted in 2034, payroll tax revenue will continue to flow into the trust funds. This revenue would initially be sufficient to pay 79 percent of scheduled benefits and would ultimately decline to 73 percent by 2090.

Rather than causing benefits to “disappear,” the absence of legislation would probably either lead monthly checks to be reduced by about one-fifth (more in later years) or to be issued on a delayed basis, resulting in equivalent annual benefit cuts.  This cut would apply to all current beneficiaries regardless of age or income as well as to future beneficiaries.

An immediate cut of that magnitude – particularly for older and lower income retirees – could be devastating. For that reason, most observers agree that Congress should take action to avoid such an abrupt cut.

Myth #5: Social Security would be fine if we hadn’t “raided the trust fund.”

Fact: The program’s financial shortfall stems primarily from a growing mismatch between benefits paid and incoming revenue.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Social Security ran $1.1 trillion in primary surpluses, and including interest, it has accumulated $2.8 trillion of trust fund assets.  Those assets are invested in special U.S. Treasury bonds and effectively loaned to the rest of the government. Many argue that these Social Security surpluses masked other deficits in the rest of the government and thus allowed policymakers to enact more deficit-financed tax cuts or spending increases than they otherwise would have.  In that sense, it could be argued that Congress and the President “raided the trust fund.”

However, regardless of how that money was used, the full $2.8 trillion is still owed to the Social Security trust fund under current law, and nearly all measures of Social Security’s long-term projections assume the $2.8 trillion will be repaid. Redeeming these bonds will require the non-Social Security parts of government to tax more, spend less, and/or borrow more than would have otherwise been necessary. In nominal dollars, the Trustees project paying trust fund principle and interest will cost the rest of the government about $4.4 trillion through 2034.

The reality is that Social Security doesn’t face financial problems because those funds will not be repaid (they will) but rather because the trust fund is dwarfed by the system’s projected shortfall over time. On a present-value basis, the program is projected to spend $13.5 trillion more than it raises in revenue over the next 75 years – far more than the $2.8 trillion held in the trust fund. In other words, policymakers must identify $10.7 trillion, or about 2.7 percent of payroll, to make Social Security solvent even after the trust fund’s holdings are paid back.

Myth #6: Social Security cannot run a deficit.

Fact: Social Security is running a cash deficit today, and it will keep running deficits until its trust funds run out.

Social Security is legally barred from going into debt; in other words, it cannot spend more than it takes in (or has transferred in) over the life of the program. However, the program can (and does) run annual deficits. In 2016, for example, Social Security will run a cash-flow deficit of about $70 billion. Over the next decade, the Trustees project cash-flow deficits of $1.5 trillion, and CBO projects deficits of $2.2 trillion.  Even including interest income, the program is projected to begin running deficits by 2018 or 2020.

Because the Social Security trust funds currently hold $2.8 trillion in reserves, the program is projected by the Trustees to continue to run “annual deficits for every year of the projection period” until the trust funds are depleted in 2034.  At that point, current law bars Social Security from paying benefits beyond what is collected in revenue.

Myth #7: Social Security has nothing to do with the rest of the budget.

Fact: Regardless of how Social Security is viewed, it interacts in many ways with the broader federal budget.

There are two different ways to look at Social Security: as its own isolated “off-budget” program or as part of the broader “unified” budget. We discuss these two frameworks in detail in our 2011 paper, “Social Security and the Budget.” Both of these frameworks are valid, and both show the program to have a financial problem. If treated in isolation, Social Security is on the road towards insolvency. If treated as part of the unified budget, Social Security is adding to the deficit, and this effect will increase over time.

If viewed as an off-budget program, Social Security does not directly add to the “on-budget deficit.” However, it indirectly contributes to the on-budget deficit because the interest payments it receives from the general fund are on-budget. It also receives funding from income tax revenue on Social Security benefits, which is technically on-budget, and has at times received general revenue transfers to compensate for policies that would reduce Social Security revenue (such as when lawmakers cut payroll taxes in 2011 and 2012).

Viewing Social Security as a self-financed program is not a reason to exclude it from fiscal constraints. In fact, this view highlights the need to make the program solvent for its own sake without relying on general revenue transfers or borrowing. To be self-sufficient, the program would need changes to bring spending in line with revenues.

Although Social Security is excluded from on-budget calculations, most economists consider the unified budget deficit to be a more meaningful measure of the government’s fiscal health because it better measures the budget’s impact on the economy. The Social Security system has been contributing to unified budget deficits on a cash-flow basis since 2010 and will continue to do so indefinitely. The federal government will have to borrow more, cut other spending, or raise taxes to make up for the Social Security system’s cash-flow deficit.

The Trustees noted the impact of the Social Security program on the federal budget in their recent report:

The trust fund perspective does not encompass the interrelationship between the Medicare and Social Security trust funds and the overall federal budget ... From a budget perspective, however, general fund transfers, interest payments to the trust funds, and asset redemptions represent a draw on other federal resources for which there is no earmarked source of revenue from the public. In the past, general fund and interest payments for Medicare and Social Security were relatively small. These amounts have increased substantially over the last two decades, however, and the expected rapid growth of Medicare and Social Security will make their interaction with the Federal budget increasingly important.

Myth #8: Social Security can be saved by ending waste, fraud, and abuse.

Fact: Even eliminating Social Security fraud would close only a tiny portion of the shortfall.

One popular idea to reduce Social Security spending is to eliminate improper and fraudulent payments made by the program. Certainly, some beneficiaries are fraudulently collecting Social Security retirement and (perhaps more frequently) disability benefits, and policymakers should do whatever they can to prevent this. However, even eliminating all fraud would not significantly improve the solvency of the program.

Simply put, there is not nearly enough waste, fraud, and abuse in the system to significantly impact its costs. The Social Security Administration estimates that improper payments – or payments made to the wrong person, for the wrong amount, or with insufficient documentation – total about $3 billion per year. By comparison, benefits would need to be cut by about $150 billion per year to make the program solvent.

This means that even assuming that the government could fully eliminate improper payments and do so with no additional spending on anti-fraud efforts – an impossible task – it would only close 2 percent of the program’s solvency gap. More realistic anti-fraud efforts would save only a fraction of that.

Myth #9: Raising the retirement age hits low-income seniors the hardest.

Fact: Raising the normal retirement age has roughly a proportional effect on benefits that actually affects the benefits higher earners slightly more.

One common proposal to improve Social Security’s finances – raising the normal retirement age – has been criticized as disproportionally affecting lower-income seniors. This claim makes intuitive sense, since workers with higher incomes tend to live significantly longer than those with lower incomes. However, the claim is based on a misunderstanding of how the retirement age works.

Social Security actually has several retirement ages, including an earliest eligibility age (62), a normal retirement age (headed to 67), and a delayed retirement age (70). Raising the normal retirement age – the only policy of the three that would significantly improve solvency – does not change eligibility but rather reduces the benefits one can receive at any age. In other words, raising the normal retirement age does not affect when people can claim benefits; it only affects when people can claim full benefits or how much they are penalized for claiming early.

Thus, an increase in the normal retirement age would result in a roughly proportional cut in scheduled benefits (both annual and lifetime) for all beneficiaries regardless of how old they are when they retire and when they pass on. The fact that higher earners are living relatively longer over time reduces the overall progressivity of the Social Security program but has virtually no impact on the progressivity of changing the normal retirement age.

Social Security experts from the left and the right agree on this fact. Former Social Security Administration Deputy Commissioners Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute has explained multiple times that raising the normal retirement age does not impact lower-income beneficiaries any more than higher income seniors. Social Security Advisory Board Chairman Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution recently made a similar point, noting that “’raising the full benefit age from 67 to 70’ is simply a 24 percent across-the-board cut in benefits for all new claimants, whatever their incomes and whatever their life-expectancies.”

Indeed, actual analysis of raising the normal retirement age shows it is actually likely to be somewhat progressive relative to benefit levels. For example, CBO finds raising the retirement age by one year would reduce lifetime benefits for the highest earners by 5 percent but only reduce benefits by 3 percent for the lowest earners. Similarly, the Urban Institute finds annual benefits would fall 5.9 percent for the top quintile of earners compared to 2.9 percent for the bottom quintile. The main reason for this progressivity is that workers on the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program – who are disproportionally lower income – are unaffected by changes in the retirement age even after they enter the old-age program. Studies that find the policy to be literally across-the-board generally exclude these workers.


One caveat is that some proposals to raise the normal retirement age would also increase the earliest eligibility age. Enacting these policies together leads to complicated distributional outcomes that could be viewed as progressive or regressive depending in part on which measure of distribution one views as most important (annual, initial, or lifetime benefits), how one accounts for behavior, and whether one takes into account non-Social Security benefits.

In any case, it would be a mistake to look at the distributional impact of only one aspect of a comprehensive Social Security plan in insolation. Many plans that raise the retirement age would make the system much more progressive overall.

Read a summary of the new myths relelvant to the 2016 Campaign as a printer-friendly PDF. (2 pp.)

Read the full document as a printer-friendly PDF. (10 pp.)

CBO’s Analysis of the President’s FY 2017 Budget

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its estimate of the President’s FY 2017 budget, using its own economic and technical assumptions to evaluate the President’s policy proposals. While CBO estimates lower near-term deficits and debt than the President’s own Office of Management and Budget (OMB), it projects that after 2018, deficits and debt will both rise slowly but more or less continuously as a share as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), ultimately in excess of OMB’s estimates.

Specifically, CBO estimates debt held by the public under the President’s budget would fall modestly, from 75.4 percent of GDP in 2016 to 74.1 percent in 2018, before rising to 77.4 percent of GDP by 2026. By contrast, OMB estimates that debt would remain roughly stable over the decade, reaching 75.3 percent of GDP by 2026. This higher estimated debt is in part due to higher nominal-dollar debt but also because OMB uses economic projections that include the economic effects of the President’s policies (most significantly, immigration reform), while CBO does not.

Other major findings from CBO’s estimates include:

  • Deficits would total $6.9 trillion over the next decade under the President’s budget, $2.4 trillion below current law (but $776 billion above OMB estimates)
  • Net savings in the President’s budget are entirely attributable to $2.7 trillion of gross tax increases, partially spent on new spending and tax breaks.
  • Annual deficits under the President’s budget would fall from $529 billion (2.9 percent of GDP) in 2016 to a low of $383 billion (1.9 percent of GDP) by 2018, before rising nearly continuously to $972 billion (3.5 percent of GDP) by 2026.
  • Under the President’s budget, trillion-dollar deficits would likely return by 2027, five years later than under current law.
  • Both revenue and spending under the President’s budget would be above ten-year current law and historical averages. Revenue would average 19.3 percent of GDP, compared to 18.1 percent under current law, while spending would average 22.3 percent of GDP, compared to 22.1 percent under current law. Over the last half-century, revenue and spending have averaged 17.4 and 20.2 percent of GDP, respectively.

Ultimately, CBO shows that while the President’s budget responsibly offsets new spending and produces additional deficit reduction to put the debt on a better path, it does not go far enough to reduce debt from its current post-war record-high level as a share of GDP. The budget needs to go further, particularly by slowing the growth of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, to ensure a sustainable fiscal future.

Spending, Revenue, Deficits, and Debt under the President’s Budget

CBO estimates that under the President’s budget, debt would fall modestly from 75.4 percent of GDP in 2016 to 74.1 percent by 2018 before rising to 77.4 percent by 2026. In dollar terms, debt would rise from $13.9 trillion today to $21.4 trillion by 2026, a $7.5 trillion increase. CBO’s estimates are somewhat worse than OMB’s, which project debt levels of 75.3 percent of GDP by 2026, but CBO’s projections represent a significant improvement over CBO’s current law baseline, which estimates debt levels of 85.6 percent of GDP by 2026.

CBO’s projection of a rising debt path occurs because deficits would widen in the later years of the ten-year window, while they estimate economic growth would fall short of OMB’s projections. After declining to a low of 1.9 percent of GDP in 2018, deficits would rise to 2.5 percent of GDP just one year later and 3.5 percent by 2026. These deficits are an improvement over CBO’s current law deficit in 2026 of 4.9 percent by 2026 but higher than OMB’s estimated deficit of 2.8 percent of GDP in 2026.

CBO projects deficits would also fall and then rise under the President’s budget when measured in dollar terms. Specifically, they would fall from $529 billion in 2016 to $383 billion by 2018 before rising gradually to $972 billion by 2026. Trillion-dollar deficits would return by 2027.

Rising deficits in the President’s budget are the result of both spending and revenue growth over time. Spending would grow from 21.1 percent of GDP in 2016 to 23.0 percent of GDP by 2026, while revenue would rise from 18.2 percent in 2016 to 19.5 percent by 2026. Spending increases are driven by built-in growth under current law (mainly due to population aging and rising interest rates), while revenue increases are the result of policies put forward in the budget.

CBO projects spending under the President’s budget to be 0.1 percent of GDP lower than current law in 2026 (though above current law in all other years), while revenue is projected to be 1.3 percent of GDP higher than current law. Both spending and revenue would also be higher than historical averages of 20.2 percent and 17.4 of GDP, respectively.

Policy Changes in the President’s Budget

Excluding the drawdown of war spending, the President’s budget contains a total of $1.7 trillion of net deficit reduction through 2026, based on CBO’s estimates, which is about $800 billion less than the $2.5 trillion estimated by OMB. The total deficit reduction is the net result of about $2.7 trillion of new revenue, nearly $300 billion of spending reductions, $100 billion from immigration reform, and $250 billion in interest savings to pay for more than $1.2 trillion of new spending and $435 billion of new tax breaks.

We described the changes proposed in the President’s budget in our initial analysis of the budget in February (read the analysis in full here). Some of the biggest differences between CBO and OMB’s estimates come from CBO having lower revenue raised from the budget’s tax increases. These include the 28 percent limit on the value of tax preferences ($104 billion lower revenue), the one-time tax on un-repatriated foreign income ($104 billion lower), the other international tax changes ($52 billion lower), and the $10.25 oil tax ($46 billion lower)1. Some other differences include higher estimated costs for Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program policies ($63 billion higher), lower estimated savings from Medicare Advantage changes ($51 billion lower), and a lower estimated cost for the clean infrastructure proposal ($38 billion lower).

Differences Between CBO and OMB Estimates

In total, CBO estimates 2016-2026 deficits under the President’s budget would be $689 billion higher than OMB’s estimate. This difference, along with 2.3 percent lower nominal GDP, is responsible for the 2.1 percent of GDP higher debt ratio projected by CBO. There are at least three ways to understand the source of the differences between OMB and CBO.

One way to understand the difference between CBO and OMB estimates is to determine how much is attributable to differing estimates in policy changes versus how much is attributable to differences in baseline projections prior to policy action. By our estimate, more than the entire difference – $808 billion – is attributable to policy change estimates. In fact, excluding policy changes, CBO’s baseline deficits would be $119 billion lower than OMB.2

Another way to understand the differences is to look at them by budget category. CBO estimates that the budget will have $1.6 trillion of lower revenue, $612 billion of lower primary spending, and $298 billion of lower interest spending than OMB estimates. In other words, CBO’s higher deficits are more than entirely driven by lower revenue estimates, with lower spending offsetting about half of that effect.

Finally, one can look at the source of the differences in assumptions. CBO’s more pessimistic economic projections – including GDP that is 2.3 percent lower in 2026 – explain $490 billion of higher deficits. Technical differences – which include things like demographics, program enrollment, and average benefits – increase CBO’s deficits above what OMB estimated by another $199 billion. Some of these differences are due to different conventions. For instance, OMB projects what the economy would look like with the President’s policies in place; CBO does not take them into account.


CBO’s analysis of the President’s budget generates similar findings to OMB’s, but it suggests a somewhat bleaker fiscal outlook – particularly in later years.

CBO shows that the President’s budget would commendably pay for all of the initiatives it proposes with real savings and include significant deficit reduction to prevent the sharp rise in debt that CBO projects over the next decade.

However, CBO’s analysis also shows that the budget includes too little net savings to reduce debt below today’s post-WWII record-high as a share of GDP. In fact, unlike OMB’s estimates, CBO finds the President’s budget would result in a small but continuous rise in deficit and debt levels after 2018, with trillion-dollar deficits returning by 2027.

While the President’s budget does include some important health reforms, it does not go far enough to put entitlement spending on a sustainable long-term path. It is particularly disappointing that even in his final budget, the President has no plan to shore up Social Security, a program within 15-20 years of insolvency.

On a positive note, the budget offers helpful deficit reduction policies and may set a minimum standard (roughly stable debt) for the next President to build from. We hope that many of the policies put forward by the President will be used by policymakers to address the unsustainable growth of the national debt – not simply to pay for new costly initiatives. And we would encourage policymakers to go beyond what the President’s budget proposes and pursue serious structural entitlement reforms that would help the long-term debt situation. This means not only identifying further health care reforms but also making Social Security sustainably solvent over the long term. In addition to tax reform and other spending cuts, these reforms will be necessary to put the country on a sustainable fiscal course for this and future generations.

Read the full paper as a printer-friendly PDF. (6 pp.)

1This paper originally cited CBO not counting savings from reducing the tax gap as one of the differences with OMB. However, CBO does count those savings; they are just considered non-scoreable for budget enforcement purposes. Both the text and Figure 3 have been modified to correct the original error.
This assumes identical baseline conventions. Our “baseline assumptions” figure does not include policies which are included in the baseline (such as the Administration’s war drawdown) or the treatment of sequestration after 2021. Those differences in policy estimates are counted with the other changes in policy.

Adding Up Senator Cruz's Campaign Proposals So Far

Senator Ted Cruz's campaign promises to date would cost more than $12 trillion over a decade, according to the central estimate calculated as a part of our Fiscal FactCheck project . As a share of the economy, debt under these policies would grow from roughly 75 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) today to 131 percent of GDP in 2026 (compared to 86 percent of GDP under current law).

Read the full explainer on our Fiscal FactCheck website. 

Because of widely varying estimates of his consumption tax from outside organizations, there's a wide range of potential costs from $3 trillion to $21 trillion. Under the high-cost estimate, debt could reach as high as 163 percent of GDP and under our low-cost estimate – assuming significant economic growth – debt would remain on roughly its current course relative to the economy and reach 84 percent of GDP. However, even at the lowest estimate, debt would be be at record-high levels and increasing unsustainably.


Read the full explainer on our Fiscal FactCheck website.

Analysis of the President’s FY 2017 Budget

The President has released his final budget today, laying out his priorities and proposals for fiscal year 2017 and years to come. The budget includes proposals to reform immigration, taxes, and Medicare, expand education and infrastructure, reduce middle- and working-class taxes, repealing a portion of future sequester cuts, raise new revenue and make other tax and spending changes.

Our main findings from the budget are:

  • The President’s budget includes sufficient revenue and spending cuts to pay for his new initiatives and reduce projected deficits. The administration estimates net deficit reduction of $2.9 trillion through 2026, which would be about $2.5 trillion relative to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scoring conventions.
  • The President’s estimates show debt remains relatively stable as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), settling between 75 and 76 percent of GDP after 2021. In dollar terms, debt would rise from $13.7 trillion today to $21.3 trillion by 2026.
  • Deficits under the President’s budget would grow in dollar terms from $438 billion in 2015 to $793 billion in 2026. As a share of GDP, deficits will grow modestly – from 2.5 percent of GDP in 2015 to 2.8 percent by 2026.
  • Between 2015 and 2026, spending will grow from 20.7 percent of GDP to 22.8 percent and revenue from 18.3 percent of GDP to 20.0 percent. Historically, they have averaged 20.2 and 17.4 percent, respectively.
  • Interest costs alone will triple in dollar terms, doubling relative to GDP from $223 billion (1.3 percent of GDP) in 2016 to $787 billion (2.8 percent of GDP) in 2026. As a share of the budget, interest would double from 6 percent to 13 percent.

The President’s budget should be commended for not only responsibly paying for new initiatives, but identifying significant deficit reduction to stabilize the debt. Preventing the debt from growing faster than the economy is an important first step to achieving sustainable fiscal policy.

Unfortunately, the President’s budget does not go far enough in terms of actually reducing the debt from its current record-high levels, nor does if sufficiently address the long-term growth of entitlement spending, particularly Social Security.

As the economy continues to normalize, high debt levels are likely to slow the growth of wages, increase cost-of-living, and leave the government less prepared to react to future needs or crises. Failure to address Social Security, in particular, will leave the program unable to pay full benefits as soon as 2029, when today’s newest retirees are reaching age 75 and today’s 54 year-olds are retiring at 67.

Spending, Revenue, Deficits, and Debt in the President’s Budget

Based on its own estimates, the President’s budget would roughly stabilize the debt as a share of GDP while allowing it to grow in nominal dollars. Specifically, debt would grow from less than $13.7 trillion today to $21.3 trillion by 2026 under the President’s budget. As a share of GDP, debt would grow from 73.7 percent of GDP last year to 76.5 percent of GDP this year, and stabilize between 75 and 76 percent of GDP between 2021 and 2026.

At 75.3 percent of GDP in 2026, debt is significantly below Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) baseline of 87.6 percent of GDP and our “PAYGO baseline” of 83.4 percent.1  Still, debt remains near post-World War II record highs, nearly twice the historical average.

Under the President’s budget, annual deficits decline for the next couple of years before growing modestly in the future. Deficits fall from $616 billion in 2016 to $454 billion in 2018, before rising to $793 billion in 2026. As a share of GDP, deficits fall from 3.3 percent in 2016 to 2.4 percent by 2021, but then rise to 2.8 percent by 2026. By comparison, OMB’s baseline projects deficits of 5.0 percent of GDP by 2026, and our PAYGO baseline projections deficits of 4.2 percent. 

Both spending and revenue rise under the President’s budget in order to maintain deficits below 3 percent of GDP. Spending would grow from 21.4 percent of GDP in 2016 to 22.8 percent by 2026 while revenue would grow from 18.1 percent of GDP in 2016 to 20.0 percent by 2026.

Spending growth is due in part to new spending initiatives, but more significantly to rising interest rates and growing entitlement costs baked into current law. As the population ages and health costs grow, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid together under the President’s budget grows by 1.3 percent of GDP over the next decade, while interest spending grows by 1.5 percent of GDP. The remainder of the budget shrinks by a combined 1.4 percent of GDP.

On the other hand, while built in “real bracket creep” explains part of the rise in revenue, growing revenue is largely the result of the significant tax increases proposed in the President’s budget.

At 20.0 and 22.8 percent of GDP in 2026, respectively, revenue and spending would both grow to well above their 50-year historical averages of 17.4 and 20.2 percent of GDP. Revenue would be higher than if the administration’s proposals were not enacted and spending about the same; under current law with the President’s war drawdown, revenue and spending would be 18.5 and 22.8 percent of GDP, respectively. A portion of this difference – 0.3 and 0.2 percentage points of GDP, respectively – is due to the higher revenue and spending from immigration reform.

Proposals in the President’s Budget

The President’s budget includes a large number of tax and spending proposals reflecting the Administration’s many priorities. Among these changes include over $3.1 trillion of tax increases, $170 billion from immigration reform, and more than $460 billion of health and other mandatory savings in order to pay for nearly $1.6 trillion of new initiatives.

Relative to our “PAYGO baseline,”^ which reflects current law with a war drawdown, net deficit reduction totals $2.5 trillion with interest. As the Administration estimates it, that number climbs to $2.9 trillion, or $3.6 trillion including the war drawdown. Below we describe some of the major policies proposed in the budget.

New Spending Initiatives – The President’s budget includes several major new initiatives that increase spending by about $1.2 trillion over the next decade. Most significantly, the budget reverses a large portion of the “sequestration” cuts which are in effect on the mandatory side and scheduled to return in FY 2018 on the discretionary side. Through 2026, this would cost $201 billion on the mandatory side and relative to CBO’s budget conventions would cost $325 billion on the discretionary side (which is $440 billion less than a full repeal of the sequester caps).2

The budget further proposes a major $312 billion increase in infrastructure spending, focusing on transportation and clean energy infrastructure. In addition, the budget proposes more than $150 billion to fund universal pre-K and expand access to child care, over $60 billion to expand access to community colleges and fund minority-serving institutions, another $60 billion to reform unemployment insurance, and nearly $30 billion to help meet climate change goals agreed to in the Paris Climate Change Conference. Many of these initiatives are paid for with specific offsets – for example the infrastructure spending with an oil tax and a deemed repatriation tax and the universal pre-K with a cigarette tax increase.

New Tax Breaks – The President’s budget proposes to expand several existing tax breaks while creating a few new ones as well. Perhaps most significantly, the budget expands the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless workers and create a $500 “second earner” tax credit, costing $150 billion combined. The budget would consolidate and expand tax breaks for college students and double the maximum child care tax credit. On the business side, the President’s budget would increase the amount of investments that small businesses can immediately expense, simplify and increase the research credit, and expand clean energy tax breaks.

Revenue Increases – To pay for new initiatives and reduce the deficit, the President’s budget includes nearly $3.2 trillion in tax increases. New to this budget is a $10.25 per barrel oil tax that raises almost $320 billion for infrastructure projects and a proposal to apply the 3.8 percent Medicare investment surtax to pass-through businesses, which when combined with other closing related loopholes would raise more than $270 billion. The budget also raises over $900 billion from higher earners by limiting tax expenditures to the 28 percent bracket, enacting a 30 percent minimum tax(“Buffett rule”), increasing the top capital gains and dividends rates by 4.2 percent, and taxing capital gains at death. The budget would generate more than $225 billion by increasing the estate tax in a variety of ways, $110 billion from a fee on financial institutions, $115 billion from higher tobacco taxes, and a number of other tax increases and loophole closers. 

On the business side, the budget raises $300 billion from a one-time 14 percent “deemed repatriation” tax and proposes to raise $550 billion more to retroactively pay for the business portion of last year’s tax extender bill. This includes more than $480 billion from international tax reform – largely generated from a 19 percent minimum tax – and over $225 billion from closing domestic corporate tax breaks. Of that revenue, about $160 billion would be used for new (or expanded) tax breaks.  The Administration continues to support using additional business revenue to finance reducing the corporate tax rate.

Health Care Reforms – Overall, the budget would reduce projected health spending by about $375 billion, with even larger savings in Medicare and a modest expansion of Medicaid. Nearly $175 billion of this savings comes from reducing prescription drug costs, mainly by requiring drug companies to effectively offer Medicare Part D’s discounted prices through “drug rebates.” The budget saves nearly $100 billion from reducing payments to post-acute care facilities, building on small reductions enacting in last year’s “doc fix” legislation. The budget also builds on that legislation by further expanding Medicare’s income-related premiums and reforming its cost-sharing (saving over $50 billion on a combined basis). And finally, the budget saves over $75 billion from Medicare Advantage by setting rates through competitive bidding. These and other savings are primarily used to reduce health care cost growth, but also to increase Medicaid spending – most significantly by removing the cap on Medicaid funding to expand eligibility and increase federal support to Puerto Rico and other territories. Additional savings are used to allow states that have not yet expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to take advantage of the 3-year 100-percent matching rate that was available to states that expanded earlier.

Other Mandatory Savings – Outside of the above proposals, the budget finds savings in other mandatory programs by reducing subsidies in the crop insurance program, allowing the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to raise multiemployer premiums, and improving program integrity. The President’s budget would also enact various reforms to the Postal Service that would improve operations and increase revenue, such as increasing the authority for the Post Office to increase the price of stamps and reducing delivery from 6 to 5 days per week, to save the Postal Service from financial default. Finally, the budget includes a small amount of Social Security savings – largely from reducing fraud and overpayments. Sadly, these changes will do little to improve the solvency of Social Security, which is currently projected to exhaust its trust funds as soon as 2029, according to CBO.

Immigration Reform – The President’s budget calls for comprehensive immigration reform, supporting the approach in the 2013 Senate-passed bill. That reform would increase the size of the population and labor force, both increasing spending on those individuals as well as revenue collected from them. As a result, OMB assumes revenue would rise by $420 billion over the next decade and spending by $250 billion, resulting in $170 billion of total savings.

War Spending –The President’s budget requests $73.7 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO) for FY 2017, the same amount as for last year and the amount specified in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. Beyond 2017, the budget assumes a placeholder of $11 billion of war spending per year through 2021, acknowledging that the placeholder does not reflect decisions about future year’s funding. Although this placeholder is consistent with the Administration’s long-standing policy to limit total OCO spending between 2013 and 2021 to $450 billion, it is likely unrealistically low and therefore unlikely to materialize. Technically, these numbers would generate about $640 billion of savings over ten years relative to OMB’s baseline. However, this number is a combination of policy changes that are already in effect (the war drawdown) and policy changes that are unlikely to occur (the steep drop in spending starting in FY 2018) – and as a result should not be considered deficit reduction when generating savings estimates.

Economic Assumptions

Ultimately, fiscal and economic choices are intertwined. Manageable debt levels and smart tax and spending policies can promote economic growth, while strong economic growth can improve the budget picture. In the President’s budget, unlike estimates made by CBO, the presumed economic impact of the President’s policies are baked into OMB’s economic assumptions.

At least in part as a result, OMB projects a somewhat more optimistic economic picture over the next decade than CBO. For example, OMB projects average real growth to total 2.3 percent per year, compared to CBO’s estimate of 2.1 percent. That gap is even more significant late in the budget window, when OMB projects annual growth of 2.3 percent and CBO only 2.0 percent. As a result of these differing growth projections – as well as differences in inflation -- OMB projects nominal GDP to be 2.3 percent higher than CBO.

This difference is due to a number of factors, including that OMB projects more robust growth over the next few years than CBO (likely due to the President’s proposed policies), assumes the economy reaches potential (CBO assumes it remains modestly below potential to account for the likelihood of a recession), and assumes faster growth in potential GDP – due largely if not entirely to its immigration reform policy.

As a result of this growth, OMB projects the unemployment rate to dip further from 4.9 percent today to 4.5 percent by 2017 and then stabilize at about 4.9 percent.  By comparison, CBO projects the unemployment rate will settle around 5.0 percent.


By reducing Medicare cost growth, reforming the immigration system, and enacting a large number of tax increases, the President’s budget would not only pay for his new initiatives, but reduce projected deficits in order to stabilize the debt as a share of the economy.

It is encouraging that the budget would stem the growth of the debt, yet disappointing it does not go further. At 75 percent of GDP, debt would remain at record-high levels not seen other than during and just after World War II, and more than twice as high as in 2007. Such high levels of debt will tend to slow economic growth and perhaps more importantly would leave the federal government under prepared to face the next recession, war, or other national emergency.

The budget takes important steps to control Medicare cost growth, but does not go far enough on this front and fails to address the looming insolvency of the Social Security program altogether.

Though the President deserves much praise for paying for all of his new initiatives – and we strongly urge Congress to follow his lead – his budget simply doesn’t do enough to put our record-high debt levels – or our entitlement programs – on a sustainable long-term path.

We hope that Congress and the President will work together over the next year, combining the best parts of this budget with other reforms to restore the country’s fiscal and economic health.

See a printer-friendly version (8 pp.)


1 CRFB’s “PAYGO Baseline” adjusts OMB’s baseline to remove claimed savings from a drawdown of OCO and to treat the so-called “sequester” under CBO’s conventions by assuming discretionary levels continue at sequester-levels, adjusted for inflation, beyond 2021.

^ PAYGO baseline assumes continuation of current law, including inflation adjustments of the 2021 post-sequester discretionary levels, along with a drawdown in war spending as in the President’s budget.

2 The Administration estimates discretionary sequester relief will save $77 billion over ten years, rather than costing $325 billion; their “baseline” projections assume that after budget caps and sequestration disappear in 2022, spending jumps roughly $100 billion to pre-sequester levels. By contrast CBO assumes that spending continues to grow with inflation from post-sequester levels based on a long-stranding convention of discretionary spending projections.

Report: Analysis of CBO’s January 2016 Budget and Economic Outlook

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its January Budget and Economic Outlook, today, adding more detail to a brief summary released on January 19. These budget projections show that the era of declining budget deficits is over, with deficits projected to rise by over $100 billion this year and exceed $1 trillion by 2022. CBO also projects the debt will continue to rise well above today’s record-high levels, growing unsustainably. The report shows:

  • The deficit will grow from $439 billion (2.5 percent of GDP) in 2015 – the lowest levels since 2007 – to $544 billion (2.9 percent of GDP) in 2016.
  • By 2026, deficits will double as a share of GDP to 4.9 percent and more than triple in dollar terms to $1.37 trillion.
  • CBO projects debt will rise by $10.7 trillion between 2015 and 2026, from $13.1 trillion (73.6 percent of GDP) to $23.8 trillion (86.1 percent of GDP). Previously, CBO projected debt rising to $21 trillion (77 percent of GDP) by 2025.
  • These projections are significantly worse than previous projections, with deficits $130 billion higher in 2016 and $1.55 trillion higher through 2025.
  • About half of the deterioration in the fiscal outlook is from legislative changes, mainly December’s unpaid-for tax extenders and omnibus legislation.
  • Although fiscal irresponsibility has worsened the budget outlook, the long-term driver of rising debt remains the rapid growth of entitlement spending and interest on the debt. CBO projects 83 percent of the $2.7 trillion spending rise between 2015 and 2026 is from Social Security, health care, and interest.
  • The budget outlook could be even worse than projected if lawmakers continue to pass legislation without truly offsetting its costs. For example, if lawmakers fully repeal (and don’t offset) future “sequester” cuts, continue various temporary tax breaks, and repeal the Affordable Care Act taxes delayed last December, debt would rise well beyond the projected $23.8 trillion (86 percent of GDP) by 2026, to $25.5 trillion (92 percent of GDP) in that year.

Last year, lawmakers took for granted temporarily declining deficits and added significant new borrowing. In part as a result, rising deficits have now returned, and the debt is on an even more unsustainable path than previously projected. Hopefully, the newest projections will serve as a wakeup call for serious action on spending and tax reform in order to put the debt to a downward, sustainable path.

Here, we have updated our January 19 analysis to also include information about the drivers of projected spending growth, CBO’s economic forecasts, and the drivers of the worsening fiscal outlook as compared to CBO’s August 2015 baseline.

Spending, Revenue, Deficits, and Debt

While deficits have declined considerably since their 2009 peak, that trend will reverse itself after 2015. The decline of deficits had been largely due to the economic recovery, continued low interest rates, and deficit reduction efforts. However, with borrowing on the rise, the era of declining deficits is now over, and trillion-dollar deficits will return by 2022.

Moreover, as a result of last year’s fiscally irresponsible legislation, a weaker economic outlook, and technical changes, deficits through 2025 are now expected to be $1.5 trillion higher than in CBO’s most recent projections from August.

According to CBO, the deficit will rise by more than $100 billion between 2015 and 2016 – nearly a quarter – and continue to rise every year thereafter. Specifically, the deficit is expected to rise from $439 billion (2.5 percent of GDP) in 2015 to $544 billion (2.9 percent of GDP) in 2016, $1.04 trillion (4.4 percent of GDP) in 2022, and $1.37 trillion (4.9 percent of GDP) in 2026. Thought of another way, deficits will double as a share of GDP and triple in nominal dollars.

Outside of the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath, the 2026 deficit will be the highest ever in nominal dollars and the third-highest deficit as a share of GDP since World War II.

CBO projects debt held by the public will also rise dramatically, from $13.1 trillion at the end of 2015 to $17.8 trillion by the end of 2021 and $23.8 trillion by the end of 2026 – a $10.7 trillion increase. As a share of the economy, debt will rise from below 74 percent of GDP in 2015 – more than twice what it was in 2007 – to almost 79 percent by 2021 and 86 percent by 2026. Debt would therefore reach more than twice its 50-year historical average of less than 40 percent and be significantly higher than at any point in history other than around World War II.

Underlying the increases in debt are higher spending and stagnant revenue projections. CBO estimates spending will grow from 20.7 percent of GDP in 2015 to 23.1 percent of GDP in 2026, much higher than the historical average of 20.2 percent. This spending growth is largely the result of an aging population, rising health care costs, and rising interest rates.

Based on CBO projections, Social Security, federal health care spending, and net interest are responsible for 83 percent of the $2.7 trillion growth in annual spending between 2015 and 2026. Social Security and health care by themselves represent about three fifths of this growth, while interest on the debt is responsible for over one fifth. This means that growth in all other areas of the government – including defense spending, welfare, food stamps, education, federal employment, farm subsidies, foreign aid, and others – are only responsible for less than a fifth of the nominal growth in spending.

As a share of GDP, this trend is even more pronounced, with Social Security, health spending, and interest responsible for far more than the entirety of the spending increase. Specifically, while total spending will grow by 2.4 percent of GDP between 2015 and 2026, Social Security will grow by 0.9 percent of GDP, health spending by 1.4 percent of GDP, and interest – the fastest growing part of the budget – will grow by 1.7 percent of GDP. All other spending will actually shrink as a share of the economy by a combined 1.6 percent of GDP.

Revenue, meanwhile, will remain virtually flat as a share of the economy over the next decade at around its current level of 18.2 percent of GDP. While individual income tax revenue will rise from 8.7 percent of GDP in 2015 to 9.6 percent by 2026, other sources of revenue will fall by an equal amount. Overall, revenue will remain modestly above the 50-year historical average of 17.4 percent of GDP.

Compared to the most recent baseline update in August 2015, the budget outlook is significantly worse in both nominal dollars and as a share of the economy. For example, debt in 2025 is projected to reach $22.4 trillion or 84.3 percent of GDP under current projections, compared to $21 trillion and 76.9 percent of GDP in CBO’s August projections.

Importantly, these projections are based on CBO’s current law baseline, which assumes Congress and the President do not continue to enact deficit-financed tax and spending packages like they have in recent years and did so especially in 2015. Were Congress to cancel future spending reductions from “sequestration,” continue those temporary tax breaks not made permanent in the recent extenders package, and permanently repeal the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) taxes delayed in the recent package, an additional $1.7 trillion would be added to the debt by 2026. As a result, debt would rise from 74 percent of GDP last year to 92 percent by 2026.

Economic Projections1

In addition to updated budget projections, today’s report also includes CBO’s latest economic projections, which similarly show a gloomier picture than their previous estimates. In turn, the lower projections increase cumulative deficit projections through 2025 by $437 billion. Economic growth will be lower than previously projected, but so will unemployment and inflation.

Although these projections do not incorporate the very latest data, CBO generally projects the pace of the economic recovery to be moderately healthy this year and next but to slow over the next few years. Thereafter, the economy will grow at a relatively slow and steady pace.

CBO estimates real economic growth of 2.3 percent in 2016, 2.6 percent in 2017, and an average of 2.1 percent over ten years. By 2023, CBO projects an annual growth rate of 2.0 percent, which is about 0.1 percent lower than in prior projections. With this change in economic growth and other changes in inflation, nominal GDP is projected to be 2.7 percent smaller in 2025 than projected in August.

Meanwhile, CBO projects the unemployment rate to continue its rapid fall in 2016 and 2017 bottoming out at 4.4 percent, notably lower than the 5 percent bottom predicted as recently as last August, though higher than its potential. By 2020, CBO assumes unemployment will return to just above its natural rate over the business cycle – at 5.0 percent – rather than the 5.3 percent level projected in August.

For inflation, CBO estimates the price index for personal consumption expenditures – which grew only 0.5 percent in 2015 – to grow by 0.9 percent in 2016 and by 2.0 percent per year from 2018 onward.

Finally, interest rates will begin to rise once again after the Federal Reserve announced in December that they would start raising the targeted federal funds rate, but they will do so at a slower pace than previously projected. CBO projects rates on three-month and ten-year Treasuries to rise from 0.1 and 2.2 percent, respectively, in 2015, to 3.2 and 4.1 percent in 2020 and throughout the rest of the ten-year window. This is lower than in previous projections; for example, in August, CBO projected the ten-year rate to reach 4.3 percent.

The report’s economic estimates were completed late last year and exclude some positive economic reports that were published since December, as well as the enactment of a year-end bill setting discretionary spending and continuing many expired tax breaks. If these economic effects were included, GDP would likely be slightly larger in the near-term, while long-term economic growth might be very slightly slower.

Changes in the Budget Projections

CBO’s latest budget projections are significantly worse than prior estimates. Ten-year deficit projections are now $9.38 trillion, nearly $2.4 trillion higher than in CBO’s August report. Perhaps more meaningful is the change in projections over a fixed budget window. From 2016 through 2025, deficits are projected to be $1.55 trillion higher than in CBO’s August projections as a result of $1.23 trillion less in revenue and nearly $325 billion more in spending.

About half of this deterioration – roughly $750 billion – is the result of legislative changes. In particular, the tax extenders package added $680 billion to deficits – before interest – through reduced revenue and increased spending on refundable tax credits. Discretionary spending increases enacted in the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) and omnibus appropriations bills added more than $105 billion to spending. In addition, the defense authorization’s reforms to the military retirement system will add $30 billion to spending, though they are expected to reduce spending over the long term. Other legislative changes – including changes in spending on overseas contingency operations and offsets from the BBA and the highway bill – reduced CBO baseline deficits by about $205 billion, though most of this change is due to gimmicks and baseline quirks.2  All of these changes come on top of a permanent and largely unpaid for “Doc Fix” bill, passed in April, which added roughly $160 billion to the debt but was incorporated into the August baseline.

Changes in economic projections are also responsible for a large share of the deterioration in the deficits – more than $435 billion through 2025. With GDP growth about 0.1 percent slower per year and inflation slightly slower during the next two years, CBO now projects about $770 billion less in revenue. Partially offsetting this loss is about $335 billion less in spending. Nearly $230 billion of this is the result of lower projected interest rates, while the remainder largely stems from lower health care payment updates, lower unemployment benefits, and lower cost-of-living adjustments.

Finally, CBO estimates that technical changes will raise ten-year deficits by about $365 billion, primarily due to increasing outlays. Most of the increased spending – $340 billion – comes from higher-than-expected enrollment in Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act and an expanded population of veterans who are eligible for veterans’ disability benefits.


In many ways, CBO’s latest projections confirm what should have been expected at the end of 2015: ignoring fiscal responsibility in order to pass tax extenders and other policy preferences without paying for them will drive up the debt. But due to economic changes and other factors, debt is now projected to rise even faster than the passage of irresponsible legislation alone would suggest.

Whereas prior projections suggested the debt would rise from just below post-war record-high levels of 74 percent of GDP last year to 77 percent by 2025, CBO now projects debt will grow to 86 percent of GDP by 2026 – and deficits will reach near their all-time record levels of $1.4 trillion in that year.

Such debt growth is ultimately unsustainable, and it could have serious economic consequences in the meanwhile. Moreover, the debt situation could be even worse if lawmakers continue on the path of fiscal irresponsibility undertaken in 2015. By one measure, debt could reach 92 percent of GDP by 2026 under that scenario.

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Update 1/26/16: The initial version of this paper stated the percent of nominal spending growth that is due to Social Security, health care programs, and interest as 90 percent. That was for gross health care programs. The paper has been updated to reflect offsetting receipts and now refers to net health care spending.  The correct figure is 83 percent.

Update 2/1/16: While we previously corrected for net health care spending (see below) we neglected to update the rest of the statistics in the paragraph in the “Spending, Revenue, Deficits, and Debt” section that relied upon that change. That has now been corrected.


1 In updating this section, CRFB switched from presenting fourth quarter over fourth quarter data to instead presenting fiscal year averages.

2  For example, CBO’s baseline assumes unfinanced highway spending continues and war spending grows with inflation regardless of the drawdown underweight – and therefore counts what is essentially an increase in war spending as a reduction while not counting an increase in current law highway spending. As another example, CBO counts a transfer of reserve from the Federal Reserve to Treasury – which it describes as increased “remittances to the Treasury from the Federal Reserve” – as deficit reduction.

Interest Rates and the Debt

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This paper was updated on 12/16/15 to correct a typo

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