Yesterday, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office published their first long-term budget outlook since the passage of last year’s tax cuts and February’s spending increases. In contrast to April’s budget and economic outlook, which made budget projections only for the next decade, the long-term budget outlook offers budget projections over the next 30 years – and it shows a significantly worse picture. The projections should dissuade policymakers who want to extend or double down on the unaffordable policies enacted by the Trump administration and Congress over the past year.
Over the next 30 years, CBO projects the that our national debt relative to the size of the economy will nearly double – from 78 percent of gross domestic product today to 152 percent of GDP in 2048. This would be well over the all-time high reached at the end of World War II, when our national debt topped out at 106 percent of GDP.
But there’s a big difference between our fiscal situations in 1946 and today. Back then, our debt was the result of temporary borrowing to respond to a national emergency. After the war ended, the federal government ran balanced or near-balanced budgets almost every year for the next three decades. That, combined with a post-war boom in economic growth, resulted in the national debt plummeting to just 23 percent of GDP in 1974. Our current and future debts, however, are caused not by temporary borrowing but by a structural mismatch between revenue and spending that will only grow worse as time goes on. And with potential economic growth projected to be just half of what it was in the aftermath of WW2, this structural mismatch is one that will be virtually impossible to grow our way out of.
The main problem is the unsustainable growth of social insurance programs that provide health care and retirement benefits. As our population ages, CBO projects that annual spending on these programs will increase by 5.4 percent of GDP over the next 30 years – four fifths of which is attributable to growth in just two programs: Social Security and Medicare. Because federal revenue will grow more slowly than spending on these programs, the government must borrow more and more money each year to help finance them – and that comes with a higher cost of debt service.
In 2018, the federal government will spend about $316 billion on interest payments (equivalent to 1.6 percent of GDP). By 2048, CBO projects that interest on the debt would consume 6.3 percent of GDP under current law – nearly five times today’s levels. In contrast, CBO projects that discretionary spending (the portion of the federal budget appropriated annually by Congress) will shrink from 6.3 percent of GDP in 2018 to 5.5 percent of GDP in 2048, which means that interest on the debt will eventually cost more than all discretionary spending combined.
To put these figures in perspective, discretionary spending – which is divided evenly between defense and non-defense programs – has never fallen below 6 percent of GDP since the end of WW2. CBO warns that could change as soon as 2021. The crowding out of discretionary spending has significant ramifications for our ability to invest in the future, as discretionary spending funds critical public investments such as education, infrastructure, and scientific research. These investments help to spur innovation and productivity which are essential to long-term economic growth and future prosperity. Meanwhile, CBO estimates that allowing our irresponsible fiscal policy to continue could reduce the size of our economy by $2500 per person come 2048.
As concerning as these projections are, they could be even worse if the policies enacted over the past year are allowed to remain in place. In December, Washington Republicans rammed through a package of tax cuts that will cost almost $2 trillion before much of them are scheduled to expire by the end of the next decade. A bipartisan budget deal just two months later then paved the way for nearly $300 billion in additional spending over the next two years, but these elevated spending levels are assumed by CBO to expire after 2019. Although these laws will result in debt levels that are significantly higher in the near term, neither has a substantial impact on the long-term budget outlook after 2041 because most of their policies won’t be in effect for over the latter two thirds of the projection period.
But extending current policies – or making them permanent – would dramatically worsen our fiscal situation. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that doing so would result in the national debt surpassing its post-WW2 record by 2029 (echoing PPI’s estimates from earlier this year). And by 2048, CRFB projects the national debt would be almost double the size of the economy. Simply put, we cannot afford to maintain the policies put in place during the first year of the Trump administration, let alone double down on them as many Congressional Republicans have proposed.
Instead, policymakers need to heed CBO’s warning and reverse course immediately. If they permanently increase revenue by 11 percent, cut spending by 10 percent, or adopt some combination of the two beginning in 2019, policymakers could stabilize our debt at current levels for the foreseeable future. If they wait another 10 years to act, however, the size of the policy changes needed to stabilize the debt at today’s levels would increase by half. That translates into an additional cost of over $600 (in 2019 dollars) per person per year. With unemployment at historically low levels, there is little justification for continuing to rack up massive debts today at the expense of taxpayers tomorrow.