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Budget deficit may drop this year
The New York Times
By Edmund L. Andrews
The New York Times
July 9, 2006

WASHINGTON — An unexpectedly steep rise in tax revenues from corporations and the wealthy is driving down the budget deficit this year, even though spending has climbed sharply because of the war in Iraq and hurricane relief.

On Tuesday, White House officials are expected to announce that the tax receipts will be about $250 billion above last year's levels and that the deficit will be about $100 billion less than what they projected six months ago.

The rising tide in tax payments has been building for months, but the increased scale is surprising even seasoned budget analysts and making it easier for both the administration and Congress to finesse the big run-up in spending over the past year.

Tax revenues are climbing twice as fast as the administration predicted in February — so fast that the budget deficit could actually decline this year.

The main reason is a big spike in corporate tax receipts, which have nearly tripled since 2003, as well as what appears to be a big rise in individual taxes on stock-market profits and executive bonuses.

On Friday, the Congressional Budget Office reported that corporate tax receipts for the nine months ending in June hit $250 billion — nearly 26 percent higher than the same time last year — and that overall revenues were $206 billion higher than at this point in 2005.

Congressional analysts say that the surprise windfall could shrink the deficit this year to $300 billion, from $318 billion in 2005 and from an all-time high of $412 billion in 2004.

Republicans already are contending that the revenue jump proves their argument that tax cuts, especially the 2003 tax cut on stock dividends, would spur the economy and ultimately increase revenues.

"The tax relief we delivered has helped unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of America and kept our economy the envy of the world," President Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday.

Democrats and many independent budget analysts note that revenues have barely climbed back to the levels reached in 2000, and that the government has spent trillions of dollars from Social Security surpluses just as the first of the nation's baby boomers are nearing retirement.

"The fact is that revenues are way below what the administration said they would be a few years ago," said Thomas Kahn, staff director for Democrats on the House Budget Committee. "The long-term prognosis is still very, very bleak, and the administration doesn't have any kind of long-term plan."

The increase in tax receipts looks good because the past five years looked so bad. Revenues are up but have lagged behind economic growth.

The surge also could evaporate as quickly as it appeared. Over the past decade, tax revenues have become much more volatile, alternately soaring and plunging in the wake of swings in the stock market and repeatedly defying government projections.

Nevertheless, the short-term change has been striking. At the beginning of the year, the Congressional Budget Office projected that this year's deficit would be $371 billion, and the White House Office of Management and Budget put the figure at $423 billion.

Corporate tax payments are expected to exceed $300 billion, up from $131 billion three years ago. The other big increase is an extraordinary jump in individual taxes that were not withheld from paychecks, usually a reflection of taxes on investment income and executive bonuses.

The jump in receipts is providing Bush and Republicans in Congress with a new opportunity to assert that tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 are working and should be made permanent.

Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative political fundraising group, said: "The supply-siders were absolutely right."

Spending still climbed

But budget analysts, supporters and critics of Bush alike, cautioned that this year's windfall would do little to improve the government's long-term budget woes.

Government spending under Bush continued to climb rapidly this year, more than twice as fast as the economy. Spending on the Iraq war has accelerated, to about $120 billion this year.

Far more ominously, the nation's oldest baby boomers will be eligible for Social Security benefits in two years. Conservatives and liberals alike predict a huge escalation in costs of Social Security and Medicare in the next several decades.

"The long-term outlook is such a deep well of sorrow that I can't get much happiness out of this year," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and a former White House economist under President Bush.

Despite almost five years of economic growth, individual tax receipts have yet to reach the levels of 2000. Even with surging payments for investment profits and business income, individual tax payments in 2005 were only $972 billion — below the $1 trillion reached in 2000, even without adjusting for inflation.

Overall, individual and corporate taxes have lagged well behind the economy's growth over the past five years. Government spending, by contrast, mushroomed far faster than the economy.

And federal debt has ballooned to $8.3 trillion, up from $5.6 trillion when Bush took office. Republicans are trying to raise the authorized debt ceiling to $9.6 trillion.

War costs for Iraq and Afghanistan have totaled more than $300 billion since 2003, and the Bush administration has not included any war costs in its budget estimates beyond next year.

Domestic discretionary programs, like education and space exploration, have slowed their growth after climbing in Bush's first term. But entitlement programs, particularly Medicaid and Medicare, are climbing rapidly as a result of rising medical prices and Bush's prescription-drug program.

Outlays for Medicare have climbed 15 percent this year and are expected to hit $300 billion. About half of that increase results from the new prescription-drug program, which is expected to cost nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

"Even if spending is not going up as fast as it was before, it's not coming down," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group that advocates budget discipline.

Despite a public outcry this year over pork-barrel spending sought by individual lawmakers for local projects, Bixby said, the main causes of higher spending stem from the war in Iraq and entitlement programs.

Volatility in tax revenue

Both supporters and critics of Bush cautioned against attributing much long-term significance to the recent fiscal improvement, in part because tax revenues have become more volatile.

In the late 1990s, revenues exceeded predictions by more than $100 billion a year. After the recession of 2001, revenues plunged about $100 billion below what could be explained by slower economic growth and higher unemployment.

One reason for the increased volatility may be that a large share of income taxes is now paid by the nation's wealthiest families, and their incomes are based much more on the swings of the stock market than on wages and salaries.

About one-third of all income taxes are paid by households in the top 1 percent of income earners, who make more than about $300,000 a year.

"These people have incomes that fluctuate much more rapidly, so when the economy is doing well and the stock market is doing well, tax revenues will be up," said Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization. "Rapidly fluctuating tax revenues will continue to be the norm for years to come."

Compared to the size of the economy, tax revenues are still below historical norms and far below what the administration predicted as recently as 2003.

Tax receipts amounted to about 17.5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product in 2005, far below the level five years ago and slightly below the average of 18 percent since World War II. Spending, by contrast, is at about 20 percent of gross domestic product.

"Spending has not been restrained," Riedl said. "One hundred percent of the reduced deficit is because taxpayers are sending more money to Washington."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

Original Text

Commentary:
The largest deficit under Reagan (the previous worst president in history) was $290 billion. Bush has already created more debt than all the presidents from Washington through Reagan combined. Any reporter who says Bush's policies are working or quotes right wing nuts who say so, should be fired on the spot. There is truth and reporters shouldn't be afraid to report it.