It could have been a heartfelt conversion or sheer effrontery, but whatever the reason, there was President Bush making a balanced budget a priority in his State of the Union address.
“First, we must balance the federal budget,” said the president who inherited a $236 billion surplus when he took office and promptly proceeded to rack up record deficits. “We can do so without raising taxes,” said the president whose tax cuts contributed to those deficits.
“What we need to do is spending discipline in Washington, D.C.,” said the spendingest president since Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society.
To hear Bush tell it, we’re halfway there already. “The deficit has been cut in half three years ahead of the president’s 2009 goal,” boasted a White House briefing paper that accompanied his address.
Actually, no. The 2004 deficit was $412 billion and the 2006 deficit, $248 billion. By our pre-No Child Left Behind math, that’s $42 billion short of half. According to the latest Congressional Budget Office forecasts, the president may hit his target in the current fiscal year, when the projected deficit is $209 billion, but then the red ink will rise steadily and, in 2012, by which time the president promises a budget in balance, the deficit will be $367 billion.
The CBO does show how the budget could be in balance — indeed, have a surplus of $170 billion, in 2012 — but in ways that are politically impossible and economically improbable.
It assumes that all of Bush’s tax cuts will expire; that the Alternative Minimum Tax will be adjusted annually as it usually is; that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will get no more expensive; and that congressionally approved domestic spending will grow no more than 1.9 percent a year (under Bush, federal spending has grown an average of 7.3 percent per year).
But as folks like the Heritage Foundation like to point out, this is basically meaningless without reform of the major off-budget entitlements, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The big three are expected to grow $367 billion by 2012, meaning all other federal spending would have to be cut by $71 billion to achieve balance.
As Bush said in another context, it’s really hard.