Budget Deficit

Whatever Happened to a Balanced Budget?

Deficits aren't in the trillion dollar range anymore so that's supposed to be good.


White House

The federal government is projected to run a deficit of $534 billion in fiscal year 2016, and that's supposed to be a good thing. President Obama boasts that he's seen "deficits cut by two-thirds,"—because in 2009, the deficit topped $1.4 trillion. By comparison, it was $458 billion in 2008.

"There are 1011 stars in the galaxy," physicist Richard Feynman said more than thirty years ago. "That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers."

The federal government used to run deficits largely only during wartime and financial crises, although that changed after World War II. In recent times, the only balanced budgets were from 1998 to 2001, under Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress, and the federal government went right back to deficit spending when Republicans took control of Congress and the White House under George W. Bush.

Balanced budgets used to, at the very least, be an issue that got exposure during the election cycle. Not so this time. In the dozen or so primary debates I watched this season, I don't think I heard a balanced budget come up once in a substantive way.

The Republican party platform calls for a Balanced Budget constitutional amendment, but such an amendment would be even more difficult to pass than anything resembling a balanced budget. That makes it more of a rhetoical flourish than a serious policy goal. The Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, meanwhile, rarely talks about balancing budgets. His idea for reducing the national debt (to which annual deficits contribute) is negotiating for the federal government's creditors to accept less. When it comes to spending, he says the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, doesn't go far enough—Trump's response to her $275 billion infrastructure spending plan was promising he would spend twice as much.

There is a candidate who is expected to be on the ballot in all 50 states who has made reducing spending a cornerstone of his campaign—Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, who has repeatedly said he'd be open to any proposal to cut spending that came out of Congress. His fiscal record as two-term governor of New Mexico (where the state constitution mandates a balanced budget) isn't good enough for some "Never Trump Republicans," who appear more interested in fighting more battles in the culture war and fighting more real wars than getting behind the only candidate taking trillion-plus dollar government spending seriously.