The U.S. Budget Deficit

Since the beginning of World War II the national budget has grown immensely, in part because of increased defense expenditures. Revenues have not kept pace with expenditures, and the federal budget has had annual deficits since 1969. During the 1960s and 70s, the overall economy grew faster than the deficits. In the 1980s, however, annual deficits grew to over $200 billion, reaching a record high of $290 billion in 1992.

Budget reforms passed in 1974 mandated congressional budget resolutions to serve as alternatives to the president's proposed budget, and budget impasses became common. The 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act tried to control America's escalating deficits by giving the U.S. comptroller general the right to order spending cuts if the president and Congress did not reduce the deficit, but the bill was ultimately declared unconstitutional. There have been repeated calls for balanced budget and line-item veto amendments to the Constitution, but no such measures have been passed. In 1996 a law establishing a limited presidential line-item veto was passed by Congress, but it was ruled unconstitutional in 1998. In the late 1990s budget-tightening measures—aided by the U.S. economic boom—reduced the deficit and led to two consecutive federal budget surpluses (1998–99); back-to-back surpluses had last occurred in 1956–57. In 1998, President Clinton presented to Congress a balanced federal budget, the first such budget since 1969. A balanced budget was maintained through late 2001, but tax cuts, the cost of President Bush's war on terrorism, increased defense and other spending, and the effects of an economic recession produced a deficit again beginning with the 2002 budget. The 2004 deficit reached a new record level, $412.6 billion, a figure that did not include tens of billions spent on the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, but it dropped in subsequent years until a financial crisis and severe recession caused it to rise to $455 billion in 2008 and soar to $1.4 trillion in 2009. It subsequently dropped to $438 billion in 2015, due in part to spending controls agreed to by President Obama and the Republican Congress, but then gradually increased until it rose sharply, to above $1 trillion, in 2019, due in large part to the effects of tax cuts enacted in late 2017 under President Trump and increased spending.

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