Budget deal may not lower United States debt

Panel lowering expectations

WASHINGTON — A new congressional committee, working against a deadline for a budget agreement, most likely will turn to limited spending cuts and revenue increases while doing little to slow long-term growth of the nation’s debt.

Revisiting a three-decade history of failed attempts to force long-term debt reduction, the panel of House and Senate members will meet Wednesday, with little more than six weeks to reconcile their differences over taxes and spending.

Both sides are lowering expectations for a breakthrough on trimming the nation’s $17 trillion of debt, focusing instead on replacing the automatic spending cuts approved in 2011, known as sequestration, that are trimming funding for education, transportation and medical research.


‘‘If we shoot for a grand bargain we won’t get it,’’ Republican Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, said in an interview last week. ‘‘The question is if we can find smarter ways to cut spending to replace the sequester.’’

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The measures most likely to survive negotiations are a proposal from President Obama’s 2014 budget to slow the pace of Social Security’s cost-of-living increases paired with curbing of some tax credits and exemptions that don’t raise income tax rates, said Steve Bell, a onetime senior Republican Senate budget adviser.

Republicans and Democrats say it’s the best they can do after bitter partisan battles.

‘‘It is the abject failure of three years of work,’’ said Bell, drawing parallels to the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act, the model for the mandatory cuts created in 2011.

In the five years the Gramm-Rudman law was in effect, the triggers were activated twice — one of which was reduced by Congress and the other overridden by a subsequent budget agreement. The cuts under sequestration are also likely to be muted or overridden while the long-term debt grows unabated, he said.


‘‘More than a quarter-century apart and the same damn thing,’’ said Bell, now a senior director at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, federal debt held by the public is now 73 percent of the economy’s annual output, higher than at any other point in US history except a brief period around World War II.

If the sequestration cuts stay in place, such debt would decline slightly over the next several years before rising above its current level.

At least five similar bipartisan attempts to draft a broad debt-reduction bill have failed in the past few years. Now some analysts are even skeptical of reaching a smaller deal.