WASHINGTON – The deficit for the current budget year will jump to about $250 billion under Congressional Budget Office figures released Wednesday, as a weaker economy and lower corporate profits weigh on the government's fiscal ledger.
And that figure does not reflect more than $100 billion in red ink from an economic stimulus measure in the works.
"After three years of declining budget deficits, a slowing economy this year will contribute to an increase in the deficit," the CBO report said.
The figure greatly exceeds the $163 billion in red ink registered last year. Adding likely but still unapproved outlays for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brings its "baseline" deficit estimate of $219 billion to about $250 billion, the nonpartisan CBO said.
House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt Jr., D-S.C., said the 2008 deficit might reach $379 billion once the costs of an upcoming economic stimulus measure under negotiation between the Bush administration and Congress are factored in.
The CBO crunches economic and budget data for lawmakers.
Unlike an increasing number of economists, CBO does not forecast a recession this year. It instead forecasts a growth rate of 1.7 percent, down from 2.2 percent real growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) last year.
"Although recent data suggest that the probability of a recession in 2008 has increased, CBO does not expect the slowdown in economic growth to be large enough to register as a recession," CBO said. The CBO economic forecast was completed last month, before a recent spike in unemployment and the release of disappointing holiday retail sales figures.
"A number of ominous economic signs have emerged since CBO finalized last month the forecast underlying today's report," Spratt said. "Today's new economic forecast thus adds to the growing evidence that the economy has weakened, and that policymakers in Washington must take action."
CBO Director Peter Orszag testified before the House Budget Committee. He warned them again that regardless of the short-term fluctuations in the deficit, the longer-term picture remains bleak due to expected spiraling costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as the Baby Boom generation retires.
"A substantial reduction in the growth of spending, a significant increase in tax revenues relative to the size of the economy, or some combination of the two will be necessary to maintain the nation's long-term fiscal stability," Orszag said.
Officially, CBO predicts the 2008 deficit at $219 billion, but that figure fails to account for at least an additional $30 billion in war costs and the likely infusion of deficit-financed economic stimulus measures such as income tax rebates, business tax breaks and help for the unemployed now under discussion on Capitol Hill and at the White House.
The deficit seems to be an afterthought as lawmakers race toward agreement with President Bush on a plan to pump perhaps $150 billion worth of deficit spending into the economy. The bulk of the plan would come as tax cuts, though Democrats are pressing for additional help for the unemployed and people on food stamps. Constituency groups in both political parties are pressing for even more, such as Democratic-sought aid to cash-strapped states and people with high heating bills.
"I am concerned that, in our rush to help, we will talk ourselves into a quick, feel-good hit today that will leave us with a bigger budgetary hangover tomorrow," said Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, top Republican on the Budget panel. "We simply cannot spend our way to prosperity ... (and) use the excuse of fiscal stimulus to push through a wish list of new spending, further worsening our budget outlook and our nation's economic future."
Most of any economic stimulus bill would be released before the Oct. 1 start of the 2009 budget year, with any benefits to the economy — and therefore federal revenues — lagging behind.
The White House is set to release its 2009 budget on Feb. 4, and Bush has promised a plan that would erase the deficit by 2012 if his policies are followed.
The 2006 deficit was $248 billion and had closed from a high of $413 billion registered in 2004.
The deficit picture remains worse than it was when Bush took office seven years ago. Then, both White House and congressional forecasters projected cumulative surpluses of $5.6 trillion over the subsequent decade.
But a revenue bubble burst, a recession and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks adversely affected the books. Several rounds of tax cuts, including Bush's signature $1.35 trillion 2001 tax cut, also contributed to the return to deficits in 2002 after four years of budget surpluses. The national debt has risen to $9.2 trillion.
"This guy will come close to doubling the debt of the country during his period of presidency," Conrad said.