Fiscal Foolery

The fiscal year of the U.S. Government runs from October to September, preceding the calendar year by three months.  The 2011 fiscal year will start October 2010 and end September 2011.

By early February of each year, the President presents his budget proposal for the coming year, starting October 1st.  The proposal also includes an outline of spending priorities and income projections for the coming five years.  That proposal often becomes a starting point for budget committees in the House and Senate to craft a resolution, which is not a law but a framework of authority for various appropriations bills.  By April 1st the budget committees are supposed to present the resolutions to the full House and Senate for a vote.  Discrepancies between the House and Senate versions of the resolution then have to be worked out in the House, which passes the final resolution.  In 2006, despite majorities in both houses, Republicans were unable to reconcile and pass a budget resolution.

This year, the House Budget Committee passed their resolution to the full House on March 15th.  The Senate resolution didn’t make it out of committee till April 22nd.  On July 1st the House Budget Committee chairman filed a budget resolution that addresses only the coming fiscal year and does not contain a 5 year outline.

This past week Congressional Representatives headed home for the July 4th recess.  Republicans accused the Democrats of passing a budget resolution without an outline.  Democrats answered that the upcoming bipartisan President’s Fiscal Commission’s report, due in December, would outline long term budget proposals which both houses will be voting on. (WSJ article)

Paul Ryan, the Republican ranking member of the House budget committee, answered that the budget passed by House Democrats “does not set congressional priorities; it does not align overall spending, tax, deficit and debt levels; and it does nothing to address the runaway spending of federal entitlement programs.”  (Washington Post op-ed by David Broder)

With elections just a few months away, are Democrats unable to pass a resolution that clearly spells out the doom and gloom of the coming five years?  Probably.  Voters don’t respond well to bad news. A realistic appraisal of the coming years will involve the contradictory necessity of more government stimulus for the economy and spending reductions to bring the budget down.  Voters may say they want less government but many voters don’t want anyone to trim their particular handout, whether it be Social Security, Medicare, farm supports, unemployment payments or tax breaks.

Each month the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issues a report card on the current fiscal health of the Federal government, budget projections and the estimated effects of various legislative proposals on the budget in the coming years.  The good news is that the deficit this year is less than last year’s red ink.  The bad news is not only that the difference is slight but that the comparison hides some very troubling patterns. 

2009 included expenses for TARP and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the quasi-governmental mortgage giants.  Those expenses are significantly down in 2010, helping to hide the significant increases in spending this year – 11% higher than 2009.  TARP spending is actually a negative, a phantom income that artificially lowers this year’s deficit.  Receipts this year are a bit more than 2009 and spending on health and defense has decreased slightly but various domestic nutrition and food aid programs, collected under the label “Other Activities”, have increased by 9%.  Estimates for June reveal that federal unemployment benefits paid out so far this year have skyrocketed by 50%, from $84bn to $124bn.  

The unemployment rate is unlikely to decrease significantly this year, meaning that there will be pressure on Congress to continue unemployment extension benefits. In the long term, nutrition and food aid programs provide not only humanitarian relief commensurate with the ideals of this country but make budget sense, as they reduce health spending in the future.  As the population ages, Medicare spending is only going to increase.  Until the economy improves significantly, Medicaid spending will continue to grow.  That leaves two areas to reduce the deficit in the coming years.  One – spend less on defense.  Two – increase taxes.  That twin headed serpent is a harsh reality that no politician can ride on in the upcoming election and get elected.

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