Andrew Taylor, Published March 20 2009
White House insists flood of red ink won't derail costly agenda
The Congressional Budget Office figures released Friday predict Obama's budget will produce $9.3 trillion worth of red ink over 2010-2019. That's $2.3 trillion worse than the administration predicted in its budget just last month.
Worst of all, CBO says the deficit under Obama's policies would never go below 4 percent of the size of the economy, figures that economists agree are unsustainable. By the end of the decade, the deficit would exceed 5 percent of gross domestic product, a dangerously high level.
The latest figures throw a major monkey wrench into efforts to enact Obama's budget, which promises universal health care for all and higher spending for domestic programs like education and research into renewable energy.
The dismal deficit figures, if they prove to be accurate, inevitably raise the prospect that Obama and his allies controlling Congress would have to consider raising taxes after the recession ends or else pare back his agenda.
White House budget chief Peter Orszag said that CBO's economic projections are more pessimistic than those of the White House, private economists and the Federal Reserve and that he remained confident that Obama's budget, if enacted, would produce smaller deficits.
Even so, Orszag acknowledged that if the CBO projections prove accurate, Obama's budget would produce deficits that could not be sustained.
"Deficits in the, let's say, 5 percent of GDP range would lead to rising debt-to-GDP ratios that would ultimately not be sustainable," Orszag told reporters.
Deficits so big put upward pressure on interest rates as the government offers more attractive interest rates to attract borrowers.
"I think deficits of 5 percent (of GDP) is unsupportable," said economist Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. "It will lead to higher interest rates to the point where it will force policymakers to make changes."
Republicans immediately piled on.
"This report should serve as the wake-up call this administration needs," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "We simply cannot continue to mortgage our children and grandchildren's future to pay for bigger and more costly government."
But Obama insisted on Friday that his agenda is still on track.
"What we will not cut are investments that will lead to real growth and prosperity over the long term," Obama said. "That's why our budget makes a historic commitment to comprehensive health care reform. That's why it enhances America's competitiveness by reducing our dependence on foreign oil and building a clean energy economy."
"It doesn't change what the president's focus is, in terms of his objectives in making critical investments, and doesn't change his ability to halve the deficit in four years," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Obama's $3.6 trillion budget for the 2010 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 contains ambitious programs to overhaul the U.S. health care system and initiate new "cap-and-trade" rules to combat global warming.
Both initiatives involve raising federal revenues sharply higher, but those dollars wouldn't be used to defray the burgeoning deficit and would instead help pay for Obama's health plan and implement Obama's $400 tax credit for most workers and $800 for individuals.
Many Democrats were already uncomfortable with Obama's budget, which promises to cut the deficit to $533 billion in five years. The CBO says the red ink for that year will total $672 billion.
Most disturbing to Obama allies like Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., are the longer term projections, which climb above $1 trillion again by the end of the next decade and approach 6 percent by 2019.
Among about a dozen major changes to Obama's budget, Conrad is looking to curb Obama's 9 percent increase for non-defense appropriations to show short-term progress and insists that the long-term deficit and debt crisis will have to be addressed via a special bipartisan commission.
"The budget that I'll submit will cut the deficit by more than two-thirds over these first five years," Conrad. "These imbalances are just absolutely unsustainable."
The worsening economy is responsible for the even deeper fiscal mess inherited by Obama. As an illustration, CBO says the deficit for the current budget year, which began Oct. 1, will top $1.8 trillion, $93 billion more than foreseen by the White House. That would equal 13 percent of GDP, a level not seen since World War II.
The 2009 deficit, fueled by the $700 billion Wall Street bailout and diving tax revenues stemming from the worsening recession, is four times the previous $459 billion record set just last year.
The CBO's estimate for 2010 is worse as well, with a deficit of almost $1.4 trillion expected under administration policies, about $200 billion more than predicted by Obama.
Long-term deficit predictions have proven notoriously fickle — George W. Bush inherited flawed projections of a 10-year, $5.6 trillion surplus and instead produced record deficits — and if the economy outperforms CBO's expectations, the deficits could prove significantly smaller.
Republicans say Obama's budget plan taxes, spends and borrows too much, and they've been sharply critical of his $787 billion economic stimulus measure and a just-passed $410 billion omnibus spending bill that awarded big increases to domestic agency budgets.
The administration says it inherited deficits totaling $9 trillion over the next decade and that its budget plan cuts $2 trillion from those deficits. But most of those spending reductions come from reducing costs for the war in Iraq.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.