What Is the Current US Federal Budget Deficit?

The federal budget deficit is projected to reach a new record

The United States Capitol Building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
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The U.S. federal budget deficit is projected to reach a record of $3.3 trillion in 2020. This increase is largely a result of government spending in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. federal outlays for 2020 total $6.6 trillion, which is $2.2 trillion more than in 2019. Revenue for 2020 is projected to be $3.3 trillion, too, which leaves the deficit at $3.3 trillion.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that this deficit for 2020 will be 16% of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), which is the largest it's been since 1945.

Key Takeaways

  • The current U.S. federal budget deficit is projected to be $3.3 trillion, according to the CBO.
  • Congress increased the deficit by more than $2 trillion by passing stimulus packages to fight COVID-19.
  • It is projected that the deficit will be 16% of U.S. GDP, the largest it's been seen 1945.

Before the pandemic, President Trump's budget projected a $1.1 trillion deficit for 2020, with government spending of $4.8 trillion and revenue of just $3.7 trillion. 

The pandemic's impact will hopefully diminish by 2021. If it does, the deficit may be down to 8.6% of GDP, which is a level that has only been exceeded twice since 1946. The deficit for 2021 was projected to be $966 billion, with government spending at $4.8 trillion and revenue at $3.9 trillion.

Factors Impacting the Federal Budget Deficit

Many people blame the federal budget deficit on mandatory spending, but that's just part of the story. The biggest contributors to the current federal budget deficit have been COVID-19, tax cuts, mandatory programs (including entitlement programs), and military spending.

COVID-19

In March and April, Congress passed four laws to offset the damage done by the coronavirus pandemic

  1. The Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act provided $8.3 billion to federal agencies to respond to the pandemic.
  2. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided $3.5 billion for paid sick leave, insurance coverage of coronavirus testing, and unemployment benefits.
  3. The largest, at over $2 trillion, was the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). It sent $1,200 stimulus checks to eligible taxpayers and also expanded unemployment insurance, assisted small businesses, and funded state and local governments.
  4. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Health Care Enhancement Act allocated $483.4 billion for small businesses, hospitals, and testing.

This spending largely increased the federal budget deficit, but it was necessary to keep the U.S. economy afloat during stay-at-home orders throughout the country.

Tax Cuts

Tax cuts immediately reduce revenue and add to the national debt. For example, the Bush tax cuts added $5.6 trillion to the national debt between 2001 and 2018. The national debt and the federal deficit are related because the national debt is the accumulation of each year's deficit. So every year, tax cuts add to the deficit by reducing revenue.

The Trump tax cut reduced revenue by lowering taxes on personal income, small businesses, and corporations. These cuts are projected to add $1.5 trillion to the debt between 2018 and 2027, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. 

Some economists say that tax cuts boost the economy so much that additional revenues in the long-term will offset short-term losses. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that in the long run, only 17% of revenue from income tax cuts may be regained, while half of the revenue from corporate tax cuts may be regained.

Unfunded Mandatory Spending

Congress has mandated spending on some programs without raising taxes to pay for them. Some of these are also known as "entitlement programs," like Medicare, where people have paid taxes into the program while they were working. They are entitled to those benefits once they retire.

The most expensive mandatory program is Medicaid, which provides health care to those who can't afford it. About $448 billion is budgeted for Medicaid in 2021.

Next is Medicare, which is projected to cost $722 billion in 2021. However, only 40% of its cost go toward the deficit. The remaining 60% of it is paid for by payroll taxes and premiums. 

The mandatory budget also includes $645 billion for a variety of programs. These include welfare programs like TANF, EITC, and Housing Assistance. Other programs are entitlements, such as unemployment benefits and federal retirement programs.

Some people mistakenly point to the $1 trillion that Social Security spends on an annual basis as a contributor to the deficit. However, that's funded through payroll taxes and the Social Security Trust Fund until 2034, so it's not a factor.

U.S. Military Spending

The War on Terror and related defense spending have added trillions to the national debt between 2001 and 2020. That includes increases to the budgets of the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Overseas Contingency Operations. Unfortunately, it's difficult to reduce the budget deficit without cutting U.S. military spending.

U.S. military spending is greater than the next 10 largest government expenditures combined. It's almost three times greater than China's military budget, and 10 times bigger than Russia's defense spending. It plays a large factor in the federal budget deficit because of its size.

Government Spending, GDP, and the Budget Deficit

A budget deficit occurs when government spending exceeds revenue. The federal government's revenue is the income it collects from taxes, fees, and investments. When spending is less than revenue, it creates a budget surplus.

The president and Congress overspend on purpose. They realize that the more the government spends, the more it stimulates the economy. Government spending is itself a component of GDP. It is the country's total economic output for a year. In the second quarter of 2020, GDP decreased at an annual rate of 31.7%. The deficit increased for 2020 and is projected to be 16% of GDP, which is the largest it's been since 1945. This is because of the increase in government spending this year and the decrease in GDP.

Should You Be Concerned About the Budget Deficit?

A budget deficit is not an immediate crisis. In moderation, it can actually increase economic growth. It can help put money in the pockets of businesses and families so that they spend money, which then helps create a stronger economy. However, if the debt-to-GDP ratio reaches a certain point, it could actually slow the economy.

If the debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds a tipping point of 77% for an extended period of time, it slows the economy. Every percentage point of debt above this level costs the country 1.7% in economic growth. It's even worse for emerging markets. In such markets, each additional percentage point of debt above 64% could slow growth by 2% each year. 

You should also be concerned when the economy is doing well. The government should be reducing the deficit in an effort to lower the national debt. Deficit spending in a healthy economy could make it overheat and that could create a boom and bust cycle, which could lead to a recession. 

Article Sources

  1. WhiteHouse.gov. “A Budget for America's Future, Fiscal Year 2021.” Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  2. Congressional Budget Office. "An Update to the Budget Outlook: 2020 to 2030." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  3. U.S. Congress. "Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  4. U.S. Congress. "H.R. 6201 - Families First Coronavirus Response Act." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  5. U.S. Congress. "H.R. 748 - CARES Act." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  6. U.S. Congress. "H.R.266 - Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  7. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "The Legacy of the 2001 and 2003 'Bush' Tax Cuts." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  8. Joint Committee on Taxation. "Estimated Budget Effects of the Conference Agreement for H.R.1, The 'Tax Cuts and Jobs Act'." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  9. The National Bureau of Economic Research. “Dynamic Scoring: A Back-of-the-Envelope Guide,” Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  10. KFF. “A Primer on Medicare: Key Facts About the Medicare Program and the People It Covers,” Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  11. Social Security Administration. "Fact Sheet: Social Security." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  12. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "Global Military Expenditure Sees Largest Annual Increase in a Decade—Says SIPRI—Reaching $1917 Billion in 2019." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  13. Bureau of Economic Analysis. "Gross Domestic Product, 2nd Quarter 2020 (Second Estimate); Corporate Profits, 2nd Quarter 2020 (Preliminary Estimate)." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.

  14. World Bank Group. "Finding the Tipping Point - When Sovereign Debt Turns Bad." Accessed Sept. 3, 2020.