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CBO: Debt crisis looms absent major policy changes

Douglas Elmendorf is director of the Congressional Budget Office. (Associated Press)Douglas Elmendorf is director of the Congressional Budget Office. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A new report says the national debt is on pace to equal the annual size of the economy within a decade, levels that could provoke a European-style debt crisis unless policymakers in Washington can slam the brakes on spiraling deficits.

The Congressional Budget Office study released Wednesday offers a fresh reminder of what's at stake in ongoing talks led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. that are aimed at slashing more than $2 trillion from the federal deficit over the coming decade as the price for permitting the government to take on more debt to pay current obligations.

CBO, the nonpartisan agency that calculates the cost and economic impact of legislation and government policy, says the nation's rapidly growing debt burden increases the probability of a fiscal crisis in which investors lose faith in U.S. bonds and force policymakers to make drastic spending cuts or tax increases.

"As Congress debates the president's request for an increase in the statutory debt ceiling, the CBO warns of a more ominous credit cliff — a sudden drop-off in our ability to borrow imposed by credit markets in a state of panic," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, who is House Budget Committee chairman.

The findings aren't dramatically new, but the budget office's analysis underscores the magnitude of the nation's fiscal problems as negotiators struggle to lift the current $14.3 trillion debt limit and avoid a first-ever, market-rattling default on U.S. obligations. The Biden-led talks have proceeded slowly and are at a critical stage, as Democrats and Republicans remain at loggerheads over revenues and domestic programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

With Republicans insisting that the level of deficit cuts at least equal the amount of any increase in the debt limit, it would take more than $2 trillion in cuts to carry past next year's elections. House GOP leaders have made it plain they only want a single vote before the elections.

That $2 trillion-plus goal is proving elusive, and a top Senate Democrat warned Wednesday that it would be insufficient anyway.

"While I am encouraged by the bipartisan nature of the leadership negotiations being led by Vice President Biden, I am concerned by reports the group may be focusing on a limited package that will not fundamentally change the fiscal trajectory of the nation," said Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee. "That would be a mistake."

Democratic leaders, however, held a news conference Wednesday to argue for more economic stimulus measures such as a proposal floated by the White House to extend a payroll tax cut enacted last year. The move demonstrates the continuing appeal of deficit-financed policy solutions — suggested even as warnings of the dangers of mounting debt grow louder and louder.

"We absolutely need to reduce our deficit. We know that," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, "but economists tell us that reducing spending is only half the equation. The other half is measures to create jobs."

With the fiscal imbalance requiring the government to borrow more than 40 cents of every dollar it spends, CBO predicts that without a change of course the national debt will rocket from 69 percent of gross domestic product this year to 109 percent of GDP — the record set in World War II — by 2023.

CBO's projections are based on a scenario that anticipates Bush-era tax cuts are extended and other current policies such as maintaining doctors' fees under Medicare are continued as well.

Economists warn that rising debt threatens to devastate the economy by forcing interest rates higher, squeezing domestic investment, and limiting the government's ability to respond to unexpected challenges such as an economic downturn.

But most ominously, the CBO report warns of a "sudden fiscal crisis" in which investors would lose faith in the U.S. government's ability to manage its fiscal affairs. In such a fiscal panic, investors might abandon U.S. bonds and force the government to pay unaffordable interest rates. In turn, the report warns, Washington policymakers would have to win back the confidence of the markets by imposing spending cuts and tax increases far more severe than if they were to take action now.

"Earlier action would permit smaller or more gradual changes and would give people more time to adjust to them, but it would require more sacrifices sooner from current older workers and retirees for the benefit of younger workers and future generations," CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf said in a blog post.

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