The U.S. economy is improving, yet Congress seems still to be in the grip of the delirium that shrinking the deficit in the near term is still a matter of paramount urgency.
That's what's prevented lawmakers from dealing with their real task, which is to jolt the miserable jobs recovery into a higher gear and lift the budget sequester, one of the outstanding examples of mass insanity the country has ever seen.
Consider the sequester as exhibit A. That's the package of mandated budget cuts enacted as part of the deal to raise the debt limit in 2011. They were supposed to be so draconian that Republicans and Democrats would have to come to the negotiating table for a budget deal. That didn't happen, so the cuts went into effect this year. They're expected to pare anywhere from a half a percentage point to a full point from 2013 growth projections. Since projections for 2013 growth have been hovering in the 2% range, that's real damage.
It's only fair to point out that deficit delirium is strongest in one corner of the house — the tea party wing of the Republican Party. But they're not alone. Plenty of other Republicans, and some Democrats, are still focused on imposing austerity in the federal budget, even though economic signals have been turning green.
The federal deficit is down, spending is down, revenues are up, and the balance sheets of Social Security and Medicare are stable or improving. As a share of gross domestic product, the national debt is down too. In a rational world, this would be seen as providing breathing room to create job-creating programs of real value to the overall economy.
"This is the time to embark on a major boost in infrastructure investing," observes Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee — programs that could be funded with cheap debt, given that interest rates are near a historic low.
Austerity's drag on the economy is visible in the jobs numbers. Since employment bottomed out in February 2010, just over a year into Obama's first term, the private sector has added an average of 214,000 nonfarm jobs per month. But that's been offset by consistent job losses in the public sector, which have totaled 854,000 jobs since the peaks at the three levels of government (March 2011 for the federal government and the summer of 2008 at the state and local levels). That's the harvest of the inadequacy of federal stimulus and of the sequester.
Millions of Americans and their political representatives still talk as though the federal budget and the deficit are both still exploding. The numbers, as compiled by the Congressional Budget Office last month, disagree.
The federal budget deficit will shrink this year to $642 billion, its lowest level since 2008 and $200 billion smaller than what the CBO projected as recently as February. That deficit will be 4% of gross domestic product, less than half its ratio in 2009. Revenues will increase 15% this year, a third higher than the CBO expected in February. Spending is expected to be stable as a share of the economy at least through 2021, keeping in the range of 13.1% to 13.5% of GDP.
These figures indicate not merely that deficit fever has lasted too long in Washington, but that it may have been based on a misdiagnosis to begin with. The speed at which the CBO's projections have changed over just a few months is a reminder that the major cause of deficit growth from 2008 through 2012 was the economic slump, which simultaneously reduced government revenues and necessitated a surge in government spending for unemployment relief and other stimulative programs. Recovery reversed both those trends naturally.
Indeed, as Michael Linden, managing director for economic policy at the Center for American Progress, observes, the latest projections on the deficit reduction are lower than they were in 2011 even without the sequester.
"Those reductions the sequester was supposed to achieve we would have achieved even without it," he says. "In a rational world, we would just get rid of it."
That's on the center's wish list, embodied in a paper Linden released last week proposing that Washington "hit the reset button" on the fiscal debate. The paper calls for enactment now of three Obama budget initiatives: a $20-billion down payment on the president's early-childhood education program for five years, $50 billion in infrastructure development and $12 billion for the Pathways Back to Work Fund, which would provide employment assistance for the long-term unemployed and young and low-income workers.
Republican centrists like Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute are sounding similar notes.
Hassett has been the economic advisor to four Republican presidential campaigns, including Mitt Romney's. Yet there he was in April, telling the Congressional Joint Economic Committee that the long-term unemployed (those jobless for more than six months) have become so numerous and faced such grim prospects that it was time to expand spending on jobs programs now. His proposals included direct hiring of the long-term unemployed into federal jobs, expansion of relocation assistance and tax incentives for firms that hire from this group.
No one at either end of the political spectrum is suggesting that we shouldn't be concerned about the deficit in the long term. The error was in elevating deficit reduction to a near-term imperative. One reason for the ebbing of deficit fever may be that the dire consequences of austerity have become inescapable. That's especially true in Europe, which hasn't learned the lesson that cutting government spending during an economic contraction is a good way to turn a slump into a Slump with a capital "S."
Only two weeks ago the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development lowered its 2013 growth forecast for the Eurozone — expecting a 0.6% shrinkage, compared with the 0.1% decline it was forecasting only six months ago. By contrast, the OECD expects U.S. gross domestic product to grow 1.9% this year, rising to 2.8% in 2014.
Can anything make Congress absorb economic reality and reverse absurd policies like the sequester? Van Hollen is hoping that as sequester-driven cutbacks bite, the fiscal extremists might soften their position. That could even start happening today, when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel addresses the budget committees of both chambers about the sequester's impact on the military.
But he's not hoping for more than an agreement to reverse the sequester for perhaps three of its 10 years, and then to return to the table after the midterm elections next year.
"The policy arguments in our favor are stronger than ever," he says, "but the political head winds remain the same."
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.