WASHINGTON – The federal deficit is shrinking more quickly than expected, and the government’s long-term debt has largely stabilized for the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday, in a report that could strengthen the Obama administration’s hand in budget battles with Republicans.
The budget office continues to say the federal government faces a long-range budget problem – mostly caused by the costs of an aging population – but its new forecast pushes the crunch point for that problem off into a considerably more distant future – well after the 2020 presidential election.
The deficit projection for this year – $642 billion – is almost 25 percent smaller than the deficit the budget office had forecast as recently as February. At that level, the annual deficit would be back to where it was before President Barack Obama took office. It would continue to fall for the rest of Obama’s tenure, the budget office now projects. By contrast, the deficit for fiscal year 2012 came in at just over $1 trillion.
Three major factors account for most of the long-term improvement: a better economy; a continued slowdown in the rate of medical inflation, which reduces the cost of Medicare and Medicaid; and higher taxes that Congress approved as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal in January.
In addition, the automatic budget cuts that took effect earlier this spring have reduced spending in the short term.
The federal government’s annual deficit this year amounts to about 7 percent of the gross domestic product. By 2015, the budget office forecasts the deficit to fall to slightly more than 2 percent of GDP, a level most economists would consider relatively insignificant. At that point, the deficit would begin slowly to climb again, reaching about 3.5 percent of GDP by the end of the decade.
The numbers have an important political impact. Republicans have pushed for big reductions in government programs this year, arguing that the country could face a debt crisis if spending is not curtailed. The Obama administration and congressional Democrats have argued that big new reductions have less urgency because the budget picture was already getting better.
The new figures from the budget office, which both parties rely on as a nonpartisan arbiter, likely will give more impetus to the Democrats’ position.