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America’s fiscal headache

By Christine Rifflart

Before next December 13th, the Budget Conference Committee must present the results of the discussions begun following the shutdown and debt crisis in October 2013. The objective of the negotiations is to enable Congress to approve the 2014 Budget, for which the fiscal year began on October 1 [1], and find an alternative to the automatic cuts in federal spending that are to take effect on 1 January 2014. An agreement does not seem out of reach. Even if sharp opposition between Republicans and Democrats remains, reason should prevail and the risk of a new budget crisis seems excluded. At worst a new Continuing Resolution [2] will be passed that allows institutions to continue to function and the arbitrary nature of automatic budget cuts in structural expenditure to guide government policy. At best, the negotiations will lead to reasoned cuts in expenditure, and even to increases in some revenues that will then curb the violence of the adjustment, a violence that is amplified by the ending of the exceptional measures to support income and activity that were enacted at the heart of the crisis.

There is little room for negotiation. In fiscal year 2013, the deficit for the entire public sector reached 7% of GDP (after 12.8% in fiscal year 2009), and the federal deficit came to 4.1% of GDP (after 9.8%). The federal debt currently comes to 72.7% of GDP, and is rising. Moreover, growth remains weak: 2.2% at an annual average since the 2010 recovery, with 1.8% expected in 2013, which in particular is insufficient to revitalize the job market. How then is it possible to come up with a budget policy to support growth in a context of fiscal austerity and deficit reduction while complying with the commitments previously made by Congress[3], in particular the Budget Control Act of 2011? Following the crisis concerning the federal debt ceiling in July 2011, on 2 August 2011 President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which conditioned any increase in the federal debt ceiling on a massive reduction in government spending over 10 years. In addition to the introduction of caps on discretionary spending [4], 1200 billion dollars in automatic cuts (sequestrations) in expenditures were planned for the period 2013 to 2021 based on a principle of parity between defense and non-defense budgets. A number of social programs (pension insurance, Medicaid, income guarantees, etc.) were exempted, while cuts to the Medicare program for the elderly were limited to 2%. In total, the cuts will apply to a little less than half of federal spending and will represent 109 billion per year in savings on the deficit, i.e. 0.6% of GDP.

For the 2014 fiscal year, according to the CBO the combination of these two measures (capped discretionary spending and automatic cuts in unprotected budgets) as well as the renewal of the amount of credits from 2013 to 2014 (i.e. a constant nominal budget) will lead to cuts in discretionary spending of 20 billion dollars that will have to be borne entirely by the Pentagon. On this basis, if the cuts are maintained, discretionary spending in the defense and non-defense budgets will have declined by 17% and 17.8%, respectively, in real terms between 2010 and 2014.

But in addition to these brutal cuts, other programs, in particular those primarily intended for low-income households, will experience a reduction in their budget in 2014 because of the expiration of the exceptional measures they previously enjoyed. Thus, the program to extend unemployment benefits created on 30 June 2008 for unemployed people who had exhausted their rights (Emergency Unemployment Compensation) ends on 1 January 2014. In the absence of other plans, this will hit 4 million people.

This is also the case of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which had benefited under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 from additional funding that elapsed on 1 November. Yet 47.7 million beneficiaries (15% of the population) received food stamps this year. According to the CBPP, the 7% cut in the program’s funds should result in a decrease of 4 million in the number of beneficiaries.

Another example: the housing benefits for the 2.1 million families who cannot find decent housing will also be affected by the termination of the budget extensions introduced in 2009 and the automatic cuts. If the budget is not renewed, from 125,000 to 185,000 of the families receiving benefits at end 2012 will no longer receive aid at end 2014.

According to the information currently available, a minimum agreement on the Budget Conference Committee seems to be emerging. The cuts in the defense budget could be approved [5], while eventual increases in public utility charges would be used to fund budget extensions for some social programs and lighten the impact of the automatic cuts. Last April, President Obama presented his Draft 2014 Budget to Congress. At that time he proposed to remove the procedures for automatic cuts, to reduce the debt in the long term through an extensive fiscal reform, and in the shorter term to defer a portion of the 2014 budget cuts to fiscal years 2015 and 2016 in order to boost growth. The agreement, which is likely to be presented to Congress by 13 December, will undoubtedly not be this ambitious. Faced with Republican (the majority in the House of Representatives) partisans of additional savings, the Democrats (the majority in the Senate) will find it difficult to defend an increase in public spending in 2014 and to adopt a fiscal policy that is less harmful to growth this year than it was in 2013.


[1] After not having been adopted by Congress, the 2014 budget has been financed since 16 October by a Continuing Resolution (see note 2) on the basis of the 2013 budget amounts. The Resolution is retroactive from the 1st day of the 2014 fiscal year, i.e. 1 October 2013, until 15 January 2014.

[2] A Continuing Resolution is a temporary resolution passed by Congress that is used to extend the appropriations made the previous fiscal year to the current fiscal year, while waiting for new measures to be approved.

[3] According to the CBPP, if all the deficit reduction measures adopted since 2010 in the 2011 Budget, the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 are taken into account, the cumulative impact on the deficit would be 4000 billion over the period 2014-2023, i.e. the equivalent of 24% of 2013 GDP.

[4] Discretionary spending (33% of federal spending) is spending for which the budgets are voted on an annual basis, unlike mandatory spending (61%), which is based on programs covered by prior law. The spending side of the government’s fiscal policy rests mainly on changes in discretionary spending, which are structural expenditure.

[5] Expenditure related to defense had already fallen by 13.1% in real terms between Q3 2010 and Q3 2013.


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