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The one big thing Democrats and Republicans agree on

One of the few things Democrats and Republicans appear to agree on is that fiscal responsibility is for losers. As a result, the country’s looming financial breakdown gets barely a mention as this year’s elections approach. This month's bracing projections on the deficit from the Congressional Budget Office, for instance, passed almost unnoticed. How long this studied inattention can be sustained or what it will take to get Washington even talking about solutions is anybody’s guess. Meantime, the odds of an outright fiscal crisis within the next few years are rising steadily.

The CBO now expects a deficit of $1.6 trillion, or 5.6% of gross domestic product, for the current fiscal year. That’s for an economy at full employment and growing pretty well. Under current law, the gap between spending and taxes keeps widening over the next decade, rising to $2.6 trillion, or 6.2% of GDP, by 2034. Despite steady economic growth, debt will rise from 97% of GDP this year to 116%. From there, it just keeps going up.

Believe it or not, this is a rosy scenario in at least two ways. First, the outlook includes no recession. The pandemic crushed output and demanded strong fiscal stimulus — a combination that added 20 percentage points to the debt ratio in a single year. The next economic setback is a matter of when, not if. Even a much milder reversal than that of 2020 would push the numbers forcefully in the wrong direction.

Second, the CBO’s “current law” forecast includes an unlikely degree of scheduled tightening. The projection assumes that caps on discretionary spending introduced last year will be maintained and that the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts will expire in 2025 as the law promised. A more plausible “current policy” forecast might let public spending grow in line with the economy (as it usually does) and assume that tax rates won’t rise automatically (as they usually don’t). In that scenario, debt climbs to more than 130% of GDP by 2034 and keeps climbing more steeply thereafter, again assuming uninterrupted economic growth.

Didn’t Congress pass the Fiscal Responsibility Act last year — proving, in fact, that it recognizes the problem and is willing to do something about it? Well, the FRA did help, a bit. The aforementioned spending caps and other tweaks (if maintained) lower the deficit by about $150 billion a year. In other words, without the FRA, the ten-year deficit would not be roughly $19 trillion, as the CBO projects, but a little more than $20 trillion. The measure failed to restore any semblance of balance. If Washington can’t summon a lot more fiscal responsibility than this, the economy really is in trouble.

The crux of the matter is that the parties have very different fiscal preferences, except when it comes to the need to curb borrowing. Republicans want lower taxes and lower spending. Democrats want higher spending and higher taxes (on companies and the rich). How to strike a deal? Easy. Cut taxes and raise spending — hence higher borrowing. This appeals to voters and offers, forgive the expression, the default option.

An impressively large bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives recently passed a bill that encapsulates the problem. It combined a big increase in the Child Tax Credit with more generous corporate-tax treatment of R&D and other capital spending. The first gives poor families a “refund” of taxes they aren’t required to pay — public spending disguised as tax reform — and was long sought by Democrats. The other is a tax preference for some kinds of investment, which Republicans think is good for growth. Taken in isolation, both parts are actually good policy. The CTC reform is an effective, well-targeted anti-poverty measure; accelerated depreciation is good for investment, and investment is good for growth. But the package will increase public borrowing and debt, and it needs to be paid for.

The signature move was for the House to pretend it had taken care of that. The fiscal gimmickry involves deeming the CTC expansion and the corporate-tax relief temporary, while offsetting their costs with savings from payments of the pandemic-era Employee Retention Credit. Yet the CTC and corporate-tax changes aren’t really intended to be temporary, whereas the ERC savings are necessarily once and for all. It’s the old “current law” versus “current policy” ploy, one of the main devices that policymakers have used to set aside disagreements and get things done, as they claim — thereby digging the country into this ever-deepening fiscal hole.

The consensus supporting fiscal irresponsibility is embedding rising public debt into the very structure of the U.S. economy. Every year’s delay in addressing the problem makes it harder to solve. At some point, the fiscal outlook will start to drive long-term interest rates higher, which adds to the debt, which worsens the outlook, and so on. In the end, without strong action, the result will either be a fiscal collapse of the kind seen elsewhere but not in the U.S., or else the dreaded “fiscal dominance” through which the Federal Reserve inflates away the debt burden by letting prices rip.

It's worthy of discussion, don’t you think?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics. Previously, he was deputy editor of the Economist and chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times.

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