This is a poorly understood and underappreciated aspect of the federal budget debate. While it’s often talked about in pious tones with religious-like significance, the deficit typically is more a surrogate for other things — such as slow gross domestic product growth and high unemployment — than a separate issue. Scoring political points on the budget and getting credit for crafting or voting for a deal are almost always more difficult when the worry about those other things falls. That may be the case again next year.
The almost-certain smaller majorities in the House and Senate will also make a budget deal more difficult.
The majority party in each house will probably have fewer Members next year than it does this year. Not only will that translate into a more even ratio on committees and, therefore, make the already close-to-impossible fights to report out budget resolutions even tougher, it will also make it far more difficult to get a majority for anything having to do with revenues and spending in the full House and Senate.
The smaller majorities will mean that almost any group of Members will be in a position to make life more difficult on the budget for the leadership than has been the case the past few years. In fact, smaller majorities mean that a combination of even token opposition from the far right because spending is too high and revenues are not cut or opposition from the left because spending is being cut too much and revenues are not increased could doom any budget effort.
There’s also the strong possibility that the major changes in mandatory spending that, along with increased revenues, are often talked about as what’s needed to get the deficit under control will be put on hold until a consensus develops around a tax reform plan. It is increasingly admitted that tax reform will be a multiyear effort and that nothing concrete will emerge in 2013.
There are also factors that could make the deficit outlook worse rather than better. For example, the interest rates the federal government pays could be rising next year as the economy improves, the situation in Europe might still be unsettled and the tax cut decision that has to be made at the end of 2012 might reduce revenues below the baseline. It’s also possible that some new overseas situation will increase military spending above current expectations.
That’s why those who are putting their hopes for major progress on the budget in 2013 could find themselves doing the fiscal equivalent of sitting in the bleachers watching the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field with their heads in their hands.
Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”