Many politicians and members of the public who are frustrated with the inability of Congress and the president to make responsible fiscal choices have proposed a seemingly simple solution: Amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget. While the sentiment behind this idea is understandable, it would be very difficult in practice to compel a balanced budget each year, and attempting to enforce it through the courts would be all but impossible.
A common excuse for inaction on federal deficits is that relative to the size of the economy, they aren’t abnormally large and are projected to stay that way for a few more years. Furthermore, current projections may prove to be overly pessimistic, the argument goes, so what reason do today’s policymakers have to act immediately?
When The Concord Coalition was founded in 1992, the national debt was on a sharp upward trajectory. Yet just five years later, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed legislation passed by a Republican Congress that implemented the first balanced budget in decades. By the time Clinton left the White House, the Congressional Budget Office was projecting a 10-year surplus of over $5 trillion and there was even discussion about whether the national debt could be paid off entirely.
This past Saturday marked 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (BBA). The act was the result of an agreement with the Republican-controlled Congress designed to balance the budget by 2002.
It’s Important to Distinguish Between Short-Term Cyclical Deficits and Long-Term Structural DeficitsJuly 27, 2017
Not all deficits are created equal. In designing policy responses, it is important to distinguish between “cyclical” and “structural” deficits. Cyclical deficits are caused by a weak economy. Recessions drive down government revenue because many workers and businesses are no longer earning as much taxable income. At the same time, government spending rises because more people need assistance through programs such as Medicaid, unemployment benefits and food stamps.
Every year the trustees of Social Security and Medicare issue detailed reports on the financial status of these programs. While the trustees’ reports consistently warn that both programs face serious shortfalls, the urgency of this warning is often undercut by undue attention to the years in which the Social Security trust funds and the Medicare Hospital Insurance (HI) trust fund are projected to become insolvent.
Social Security is the largest program in the federal budget, accounting for almost 24 cents out of every dollar spent by the government in 2016. The program consists of two main components: Old Age and Survivors Insurance, which provides benefits to 49 million retired individuals and their dependents, and their survivors; and Disability Insurance, which pays benefits to 11 million workers with disabilities and their dependents.
Health care programs are the largest and fastest growing in the federal budget. These programs include Medicare (providing health insurance for older Americans), Medicaid (providing health insurance for lower-income Americans), the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies for individuals to purchase private health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Currently they comprise almost 30 cents out of every dollar spent by the federal government.
The Concord Coalition is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. From the beginning, we have been more than “deficit hawks” with an eye only for balanced budgets.
The American People, If Presented With Credible and Understandable Information, Can Make Tough Fiscal Policy Trade-offsJuly 06, 2017
Over the past 25 years, The Concord Coalition has hosted hundreds of events with lawmakers, universities, civic organizations, trade associations and many others to focus attention on the nation’s long-term fiscal challenges. Our goal has been to present these audiences with straight-forward facts in programs that are free of partisanship and ideology. The message has been simple: Whether you prefer a smaller or larger government, it must be paid for.