Why The Most Important Budget Event Of The Year Has Had No Impact
I'm willing to bet that most of you -- part of a readership that is far more interested in the federal budget than any group of typical Americans -- didn't know that the deficit was significantly lower in fiscal 2013 than it was in 2012.
For the record, the Treasury reported a little over a week ago that the 2013 deficit was $680 billion, a 38 percent drop from the approximately $1.1 trillion deficit in 2012 and 48 percent less than the $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009.
The 2013 deficit was 4.1 percent of GDP, the smallest since 2008. Fiscal 2013 was the fourth consecutive year the deficit has fallen as a percent of GDP. And the 4.1 percent-of-GDP deficit was almost a third less than the 6.0 percent that had been projected when the White House submitted its fiscal 2014 budget to Congress less than 6 months ago.
This actually was an extraordinary change in the deficit outlook and one that merited more than the perfunctory attention it received.
So why didn't you hear much about it?
1. Deficit numbers, especially good ones, are just not that interesting.
2. Objectively, the $680 billion deficit for 2013 definitely was an improvement. Politically, however, it presented problems for the White House. Even though it was greatly reduced from both previous years and earlier forecasts, $680 billion still sounds troubling to nonexperts, that is, to average Americans, who are likely to think of it as too high even when it wasn't.
3. Because of #2, the White House clearly didn't want to discuss the greatly improved deficit outlook and take the chance that it would have to talk about the budget, a topic it has generally tried to avoid. The report from the Treasury with the final figures from 2013 was released late on a Wednesday afternoon when it was likely to get little attention. There was no presidential press conference or any other type of event to take the political equivalent of a victory lap.
4. Congressional Republicans didn't want to discuss the report because the news on the deficit was so good that one of their most basic messages -- that federal spending needs to be cut -- would have been undermined. This was true even though a $680 billion deficit presented all kinds of opportunities to demagogue.
5. No White House bragging plus no GOP criticism meant that there was no controversy to report about the 2013 deficit and, therefore, little political news surrounding the results. That meant that the news was just the number and (see #1) that seldom get's much coverage.
Because of all this, the most significant federal budget news of the year -- almost a milestone event that should have had a material impact on everything else going on -- went largely unnoticed.