Disappearing deficit

Friday, July 15, 2005

Why is it that the dreaded federal budget deficit only commands screaming headlines when it's rising, not falling? And why is it that the deficit is portrayed as a fire-breathing, hydra-headed monster only when the press can portray the villain as "irresponsible tax cuts," not runaway federal spending? We ask these questions in the wake of the great unreported fiscal story of 2005: the shrinking federal deficit. It's down by at least $100 billion because federal tax receipts have skyrocketed this year by 14.6 percent (or $204 billion) through June. Private economic forecasters now believe the budget deficit may come in at about 2.5 percent of GDP, which is in line with the historical average for the past 40 years. Given that we're fighting an expensive, must-win war on terror, these deficit numbers aren't too shabby.

Not even the most unbridled supply-sider predicted that President Bush's investment tax cuts would unleash such a spurt of tax receipts this year. But thanks to sustained economic growth, more Americans working and improved business profits, individual income tax receipts have shot up by 17.6 percent. Even more astonishing is the nearly 41 percent spike in corporate revenues. There's a fiscal lesson here that bears repeating: The best way to grow tax revenues is to grow the tax base, and that is what has happened this year.

Alas, what hasn't happened in Washington this year is federal spending restraint.

Despite pious pledges from Mr. Bush and Republicans in Congress to trim spending growth to 4 percent this year, so far total nonmilitary spending is up 7.3 percent.

Thanks to a 10 percent boost in Medicare (even before the prescription drug program hits next year), we now devote a larger share of the budget to health care than national defense - notwithstanding that Congress has a clear Constitutional mandate to spend money on national security, but not so when it comes to funding gall bladder operations or Viagra.

During last year's presidential campaign, Democrats ripped Mr. Bush for underfunding education - which is incredible given that the Department of Education budget has jumped by a gravity-defying 20 percent this year and has more than doubled over Mr. Bush's tenure.

One gets the sense that Republicans have thrown up their hands in despair and are pleading: Stop us before we spend again.

All of this is to say that Washington doesn't have a budget deficit problem, it has a spending problem. Thank goodness for Mr. Bush's tax cuts or things would be much worse.

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