The Incredible Shrinking Issue

New projections show the deficit is plunging.

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In this April 8, 2013, photo, copies of President Barack Obama's budget plan for fiscal year 2014 are prepared for delivery at the U.S. Government Printing Office in Washington. Obama is sending Congress on Wednesday, April 10, his long-awaited budget, an effort to achieve an elusive "grand bargain" to tame run-away deficits that have soared above $1 trillion for each of the past four years.

Republicans gleeful over the recent slew of scandals afflicting the Obama administration – some imagined and some worthy of the name – should be thanking their lucky stars that they have new issues to wield as political cudgels. After all, their favorite of the last few years, the federal deficit, is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.

The Congressional Budget Office – Washington's nonpartisan number crunchers – released new projections Tuesday showing that the deficit will fall to $642 billion this fiscal year, a 24 percent drop in its projection from just a few months ago. The improvement is primarily due to increasing revenue and fewer expected outlays to government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

If this holds, it will be the smallest the deficit has been since President Barack Obama took office. As a percentage of the economy, the deficit will have been cut by more than half over Obama's first five years, from 10.1 percent in 2009 to 4 percent in 2013.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

And the incredible shrinking deficit doesn't stop there, falling to 2.1 percent of gross domestic product by 2015, which, as the New York Times David Leonhardt noted, is "a level many economists consider healthy." (For comparison's sake, the much-ballyhooed Simpson-Bowles budget plan called for a deficit in 2015 of 2.3 percent of GDP.)  It's also worth noting that the CBO assumes perpetual levels of both war spending in Afghanistan and aid for Hurricane Sandy victims, so the projections for future years will certainly be lower than they appear now.

This report is one more piece of evidence showing that the economic discussion that has gripped Washington recently is absurdly backwards. The short-term deficit is barely a problem, while the long-term issue for the nation's finances remains, as everyone has known for years, spiraling health care costs (but there's reason to believe they are also coming down).

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

What the dropping deficit has not done is spark the sort of economic growth or job creation that will bring down America's still-too-high unemployment rate; lack of jobs, not the deficit, is the actual crisis with which Congress should be trying to grapple. In fact, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' Jared Bernstein notes, the deficit is coming down too fast considering the country's current economic doldrums:

The deficit is falling quickly when it shouldn't be and rising later when it shouldn't be.

Certainly, if facts drove the day, this update would be a fire hose for the hair-on-fire austerity crowd re: the near-term deficit.  The patient is checking out of the hospital while Drs Cantor, Ryan, and McConnell are still preparing for major surgery.

Considering that Republicans on the House Budget Committee claim that the CBO report "provided a fresh reminder of Washington's out-of-control spending," chances seem slim that those pushing austerity will change their tune anytime soon.  So perhaps the silver lining in lawmakers focusing on what they see as today's hottest "scandal-gate" is that it will distract them from doing any more to undermine the economic recovery or to cut a deficit that doesn't need to be cut anymore.

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