by James A. Bacon
With yesterday’s elections, the Republican Party has taken control of the United States Senate and padded its lead in the House of Representatives, assuring a markedly different political dynamic in the two years ahead. The big question on everybody’s minds is, “Can Republicans govern?” Or will we see two more years dominated by Ted Cruz trying to shut down government?
My sense is that Republicans are very serious about governing, certainly more serious than was outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the one-man algae bloom who rendered the Senate a dead zone for new legislation over the past four years. Republicans are likely to pass a passel of new laws. The question then will be, “Is President Barack Obama serious about governing?” Will he work with Congress or will he veto everything that comes across his desk?
While the last four years have been a big battle over nothing, rest assured that the next two years will grapple with issues of fundamental importance. As the United States hurtles toward Boomergeddon, Republicans will tackle budgetary issues that Obama has been studiously avoiding since he disavowed the recommendations of his own Bowles-Simpson budget-balancing commission. The issues will be debated in a way they haven’t been for far too long.
This year, the budget situation looks relatively benign. Economic growth is puttering along and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the deficit will shrink to its smallest size since 2007, equivalent to about three percent of the economy. That’s roughly equal to the rate of economic growth, so the national debt, while growing, is not growing as a percentage of the economy. But the CBO does not expect this balmy scenario to last. Says the CBO:
The pressures stemming from an aging population, rising health care costs, and an expansion of federal subsidies for health insurance would cause spending for some of the largest federal programs to increase relative to GDP. Moreover, CBO expects interest rates to rebound in coming years from their current unusually low levels, raising the government’s interest payments. That additional spending would contribute to larger budget deficits—equaling close to 4 percent of GDP—toward the end of the 10-year period spanned by the baseline, CBO anticipates. Altogether, deficits during that 2015–2024 period would total about $7.6 trillion.
That sounds bad but not Boomergeddonish. But there’s a big caveat. At some point, says the CBO, government spending crowds out economic growth in the private sector.
The large amount of federal borrowing would draw money away from private investment in productive capital in the long term, because the portion of people’s savings used to buy government securities would not be available to finance private investment. The result would be a smaller stock of capital and lower output and income than would otherwise be the case, all else being equal.
Translation: Under the current policy framework, as government spending crowds out the private sector, economic growth will slow. Slower economic growth reduces tax revenues, which increases budget deficits. I’m not certain, but I don’t believe that the CBO cranks that lower economic growth into its long-term budget forecast, which, by its own admission, is highly conjectural and based upon long-term assumptions that likely will not prove to be accurate.
Under a more pessimistic set of assumptions, the federal debt, instead of rising to 111% of Gross Domestic Product by 2039, would reach 180%.
When discussing climate change, Democrats invoke the “precautionary principle.” While we cannot know with certainty that global temperatures will increase by 4° Fahrenheit by the end of the century, as some climate models forecast, the consequences would be so disastrous that we must act to forestall the possibility. I would invoke a fiscal precautionary principle. While we cannot know with certainty that the national debt will approach 180% of GDP within twenty-five years, the consequences will be so potentially disastrous that we must act to forestall the possibility.
Republicans will be animated by the fiscal precautionary principle in the next two years. If past is precedent, the Obama administration will be driven by the desire to protect government spending at all costs. Americans will engage in the most serious debate over the size and scope of government spending, unclouded by distracting side issues, that we have seen in a generation.