When Congress and the President are negotiating some fiscal bargain we always hear about a certain number of billions of dollars in “spending cuts” (more like spending growth rate reductions) that will be included in the package. What doesn’t get mentioned as often is that these “cuts” don’t take place immediately. Most of the time they’re scheduled to take place over a 10-year window, with the heaviest cuts almost always taking place at the end of the window rather than the front.
It’s a neat political gimmick that allows politicians to throw around big numbers for spending cuts without actually having to worry about spending getting cut any time soon. The truth is, because Congress passes a budget every single year rather than once a decade, that most of these cuts don’t happen.
Case in point, via Jim Pethokoukis, here’s the Congressional Budget Office’s 10-year budget forecast from 2002 which predicted that national debt would only be 7.4% of GDP in 2012 (it was 32.7% of GDP in 2002):
Obviously, that’s not what happened. Not only did our national debt, in terms of the economy, not shrink to less than 10% it actually more than doubled, ballooning to 72.8%:
Why didn’t our national debt shrink in proportion to the economy? Part of the problem is the economy itself. We’ve had a major contraction thanks to the economic collapse in 2008 and 2009. But part of the problem too is that Congress and the President didn’t stick to that 10-year plan for spending they created in 2002. Instead they created new budgets every year. They created new programs and entitlements (most notably the prescription drug entitlement) and padded bills with all the pork they needed to satisfy parochial interests and keep themselves in power.
So when you hear this Congress, and this President, talk about 10 years worth of spending cuts a part of some “fiscal cliff” bargain, don’t believe them. It never really happens that way.