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September 27, 2013

Facts and myths about federal deficit

FRANKFORT — Inasmuch as we’ll hear little else from Washington for a while except the budget and debt limit, I thought a little research might help me — and you — sift through all that rhetoric.

Some of the information I uncovered surprised me and may surprise you.

A February Bloomberg News Survey found 62 percent of respondents thought the federal deficit continues to grow; 28 percent thought it’s holding about the same; and 6 percent thought it has fallen. The 6 percent were correct.

Surprised? I’m not surprised if you are because the media do such a poor job of providing hard information on complicated political issues. And politicians frequently and deliberately mislead us on those issues.

In George W. Bush’s last fiscal year, 2009, the federal budget deficit reached $1.4 trillion, pushed upward by the great recession. The recession also affected Barack Obama’s deficits, especially in the first two years.

But it’s most dramatic under Bush, whose deficits soared as the recession set in: $161 billion in FY 2007, $458 billion in 2008, and $1.4 trillion in 2009.

(Federal fiscal years end on Sept. 30 so presidents operate the first nine months of their terms under their predecessor’s budget after being inaugurated in January. Bush’s first nine months were governed by Clinton’s final budget and Obama’s first nine by Bush’s. The same will be true for Obama’s successor.)

Obama’s deficits were never quite that high, starting at $1.29 trillion in fiscal year 2010, rising to $1.3 trillion in 2011, falling in 2012 to $1.08 trillion, and to $973 billion last year. (Source: www.usgovernmentspending. com/federal_deficit_chart.html)

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the current year deficit will be $642 billion when the fiscal year ends Monday at midnight. (The deficits include annual interest payments on the national debt.)

Now smaller deficits are still deficits and that means the national debt (the accumulation of all deficits plus interest over the course of our history) continues to grow. It now stands at $16.7 trillion, the highest in our nation’s history.

(According to the same source from which I took the annual deficit data, the national debt increases faster than the size of annual deficits because borrowing by “quasi-government agencies” isn’t reflected in the federal budget — but again, that’s true for previous presidents. The debt grew even in the Clinton surplus years, for instance.)

You’ve been told or read that Obama has accumulated more debt than all of his predecessors combined. A little basic arithmetic demonstrates pretty clearly that isn’t true.

The sum of five fiscal year deficits under Obama totals $5.296 trillion. If you subtract that amount from $16.7 trillion you’re left with $11.4 trillion.

According to “The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases” by economic analysts for the Congressional Research Service (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/ misc/RL31967.pdf), “Since March 1962 Congress has enacted 77 separate measures that have altered the limit on federal debt.”

Some argue the 14th Amendment grants the president power to raise the debt limit unilaterally, but a lot of people disagree, including presumably Obama given he’s said he won’t invoke it. Section 4 says: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

Finally, in 2011 when we delayed increasing the debt limit it added $1.3 billion a year to the national debt because of increased interest rates after rating agencies lowered the U.S. credit rating.

This likely won’t change your mind about who is right or wrong in the present fight, but it may help you make a more informed evaluation.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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