Can the US federal budget be balanced? It is obviously physically possible to balance the budget by either lowering spending, raising taxes, or a bit of both. But can the budget be balanced in a manner that is fiscally prudent while maintaining adequate funding for government’s most important operations?
I have attempted to balance the 2008 budget below while obeying the following constraints:
- No tax increases
- No spending shifts between departments, only spending cuts
- All spending, including entitlements spending, is fair game
The actual federal deficit for 2008 was $459 Billion, which forms the goal for the cost cutting exercise outlined in the table below .
|Category||2008 Spending ($Billions)||Proposed Cuts||Proposed Spending|
|Defense||612||Cut by $150 Billion, maintaining US defense spending at a level that exceeds the entire World excluding NATO. ||462|
|Social Security||612||Phase out social security benefits for upper income seniors, cutting roughly $110 Billion annually. ||500|
|Medicare + Medicaid||587||Introduce 20% coinsurance for medical spending above $40,000 per year for Medicare and Medicaid recipients, saving $110 Billion. End Medicare Advantage subsidies, saving $17 Billion. ||460|
|Non-defense Discretionary||508||Make an across-the-board 9% cut in non-defense discretionary spending, saving $46 Billion. ||462|
|Other Mandatory Programs ||411||End agricultural commodity subsidies and crop insurance subsidies, saving $15 Billion. Modify student loan programs to cut out private middlemen, saving $9 Billion. ||387|
|Interest Payments||253||This cannot be cut without a US government default.||253|
As the table shows, the US federal budget cannot be balanced without deep cuts in Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, and the Department of Defense. Roughly 60% of the budget is allocated to these major programs, making a balanced budget impossible without reductions here.
A rationale for each major budget cut is provided in the footnotes below. I invite readers to share their balanced budgets as well, or to suggest changes in the cuts that I’ve suggested. Just make sure that the numbers add up, as cutting $459 Billion from the federal budget is harder than it looks!
 The core budget data for the table comes from Table S-3 of the US Budget Summary Tables. The 2010 budget document is used, as actual spending for 2008 is not available in earlier versions. The 2009 fiscal year data is incomplete, and also has significant one-time items like TARP and Stimulus package spending, so I chose to focus on the finalized 2008 numbers instead.
 The US defense budget represents almost 50% of the entire world’s defense spending, leaving ample room for cuts without jeopardizing US security. Over time the US defense apparatus has become particularly bloated, and cuts may actually improve the DoD’s efficiency over time. It’s worth noting that the US won the Cold War with much lower defense budgets than today.
 Social Security was enacted to ensure that American seniors did not starve in their last years, but later grew into a mandatory retirement program. Cutting Social Security payments to upper income seniors would bring the program closer to its original goal. There are 5 million senior households with income greater than $50,000, and they represent the top 20% of all seniors in income terms. These seniors likely draw maximum social security benefits, around 30k annually if there is slightly more than one senior per household on average. Phasing out these benefits for the wealthiest 20% of seniors would save around $110 Billion. Gross benefits reductions would be around $150 Billion (5 million * 30,000), with an offsetting loss of tax revenue from the reduction in benefits.
 Along with defense spending, Medicare and Medicaid are the fastest growing parts of the federal budget. Since government resources are limited, government benefits must also be limited. Medicare and Medicaid spending can be contained by requiring individuals to pay 20% of their own health care bills beyond $40,000 per year. This change would affect only 5% of Medicare recipients, but would yield huge savings as many patients would decline expensive treatments once cost became a consideration. 32% of all Medicare spending occurs above the $40,000 line; if requiring coinsurance cut this in half, roughly $110 Billion would be saved. This analysis assumes that the breakdown in Medicaid spending is similar to that of Medicare. An additional $17 Billion annually could be saved by ending subsidies to Medicare Advantage, which is part of current health care reform proposals under debate.
 Non-defense discretionary spending includes almost all other federal departments. A 10% across-the-board cut would force all departments to shrink and increase efficiency. Alternately, targeted cuts could be used to shrink certain programs, but these cuts would still have to total $51 Billion annually. Health care cost growth could be reined in through heavy cuts at the NIH, which heavily subsidizes health care and pharmaceutical research. Cutting NIH’s $30 Billion budget in half would enable other departments to get by with a 6% cut instead. One more alternative would involve eliminating Congressional earmarks, which would reduce spending by $20 Billion.
 Other Mandatory Programs includes federal funding for food stamps, unemployment insurance, farm subsidies, student loans, veterans’ benefits, and other miscellaneous programs written into law with automatic spending formulas. Farm subsidies in particular deserve heavy cuts, as they distort the economy while worsening Americans’ health. Eliminating commodity crop payment programs and crop insurance subsidies would save $15 Billion annually (see page 4). An additional $9 Billion in savings is possible through the removal of middlemen in federally-backed student loans. Since the federal government assumes all risk on these loans, there’s no reason to compensate private banks to issue the loans.