President Obama and Congress suffered a massive budget relapse over the last year, sending the deficit soaring by a staggering 34 percent in fiscal year 2016, according to the final numbers released Friday.
Debt piled up at rates unseen since the early years of the Obama administration, and the deficit increase was the latest since the depths of the Great Recession.
The Treasury Department said the government ended the year $587 billion in the hole, up from $438 billion in 2015.
The problems came on both sides of the ledger: Revenue rose by less than 1 percent, as the economy continued to sputter after more than seven years of recovery. And that was nowhere near enough to keep up with politicians’ appetites for more spending, which surged 5 percent.
Big raises in health care spending coupled with a rise in interest payments on the national debt powered the spending raises.
The 2016 numbers mark the final full year under President Obama. Compared to fiscal year 2010, the first full year of his tenure, spending has grown about $400 billion, while revenue has grown $1.1 trillion.
Obama administration officials blamed the rising deficit, in part, on Congress, saying last year’s “tax extenders” package wasn’t offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, deepening the deficit hole this year.
But Mr. Obama and fellow Democrats have put pressure on the spending side, demanding more funding for domestic programs.
Mr. Obama’s top lieutenants insisted they’ve left the budget in decent shape for whoever follows them.
“We have built a solid foundation for continued investment in economic growth and opportunity for all, while maintaining fiscal discipline and using fiscal space appropriately to grow the economy,” said Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Mr. Lew’s optimism is not shared by budget watchdogs.
“The era of declining deficits is officially over,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, who said by both cutting taxes and boosting spending, Washington is headed in the wrong direction.
“And there’s no end in sight: Deficits are on track to top $1 trillion as soon as 2024. Now that deficits are back on the rise, it’s hard to imagine a more compelling reason for demanding significant reforms to our long-term debt trajectory,” she said.
Deficits have been a problem for the government dating back decades. Save for a brief bright spot at the end of the Clinton administration, when the government ran surpluses from 1998 through 2001, the government has been awash in red ink.
However, the Wall Street collapse was a defining moment, as government cut taxes and went into spending overdrive, determined to try to blunt the worst of the economic pain. The deficit surged to $1.4 trillion in 2009, then slowly dropped until it hit $438 billion in 2015 — close to a manageable level when compared to the size of the economy.
This year’s deficit reverses that progress.
Health care led the spending spike, with total costs for the Department of Health and Human Services reaching $1.1 trillion — about double the Defense Department’s $565 billion. Social Security came in at $977 billion, and interest on the debt was the next-largest top-line item at $430 billion.
The health and Social Security costs are reminders that the aging population is responsible for the growing budget imbalance.
Democrats say the solution is tax increases, while congressional Republicans call for spending restraints in Medicare and Social Security. But the GOP’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, opposes those restraints.
He’s also called for bigger spending on other domestic priorities, including outbidding Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by two to one when it comes to infrastructure spending.