New CBO Report Projects Much Larger Debt Under Plausible Assumptions

Blog Post
Wednesday, September 04, 2019

In a follow-up to the new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline projections, the CBO released a report last week analyzing the effect that select policy alternatives would have on budget deficits and federal debt. CBO also produced an “alternative scenario” that combines some of these different policy assumptions to create what we view as a more plausible budget baseline because it better reflects current policy rather than a strict application of current law. 

The alternative scenario makes two major changes to the official baseline; one on the spending side and the other on the revenue side. 

On spending, the main difference is that in making their baseline the CBO convention is to assume that discretionary spending -- the spending on defense and non-defense programs controlled by the annual appropriations process -- will increase only to keep pace with inflation when there are no existing spending caps in place (the caps were eliminated in the August budget deal). The alternative scenario assumes higher discretionary spending over the next ten years such that it remains constant as a share of the economy (6.3 percent of GDP) compared to the baseline’s assumption where spending drops to 5.6 percent of GDP by 2029. It’s a plausible assumption given the August budget deal and the fact that discretionary spending has never dropped below 6 percent of GDP.

The revenue difference between the alternative scenario and the baseline is the assumption that a future Congress and President will extend a number of different tax policies that are currently scheduled to expire. For example, the alternative scenario assumes that the major individual income tax provisions of the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act that are currently scheduled to expire after 2025, will be extended. In addition, the alternative assumes further delays in taxes created by the Affordable Care Act that have been extended over-and-over again by Congress. Assuming that this behavior with regard to tax policy continues creates a more plausible revenue scenario. 

The differences in assumptions leads to outlays being about $1 trillion higher and revenues $1.7 trillion lower over the 2020-2029 period. As a result, debt would grow from 79 percent of GDP to 104 percent in 2029, surpassing 100 percent of GDP in 2028 for the first time since immediately after World War II (1946). The debt in 2029 would be 8.8 percentage points of GDP higher than in the baseline. Deficits over the 10-year period would average 1 percent of GDP higher than in the baseline (5.7 percent instead of 4.7 percent).

While the numbers are sobering, nothing in the CBO’s report is groundbreaking. Instead, it should serve as a reminder that under current law the budget situation is getting worse and is unsustainable over the long term. And that even assumptions made about current law are likely too optimistic -- because policymakers’ current policy preferences will tend to make things worse.