Highest debt since WWII, looming fight on taxes: Takeaways from Joe Biden's budget

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WASHINGTON – The $6 trillion budget proposed by President Joe Biden on Friday gives a fuller fiscal picture than a preview in April, when he laid out his spending priorities. 

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The plan details taxes and spending for the fiscal year that begins in October. A 10-year outlook incorporates multiyear spending on infrastructure, education, child care and other domestic programs proposed through what Biden called the American Jobs and American Families plans. 

© Evan Vucci, AP President Joe Biden speaks at Sportrock Climbing Centers, Friday, May 28, 2021, in Alexandria, Va.

It’s up to Congress, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats, to decide what gets implemented. 

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Here’s a look at some of the highlights:

Record debt

The budget projects the federal debt would increase, relative to the size of the economy, to a higher level than during World War II.

That will give Republicans more fodder for their attacks on Biden’s “tax and spend” agenda.

During the World War II era, debt peaked at 106% of gross domestic product in 1946. Under Biden’s plan, debt is projected to rise to 117% of the size of the economy by 2031. Without changes, it’s expected to grow to 113% of GDP.

The administration argues that the level of interest payments, rather than the size of the debt, is the most relevant benchmark for whether debt burdens the economy. The government’s annual interest payments after adjusting for inflation would remain well below the historic average throughout the next decade, according to the White House.

© Provided by USA TODAY President Joe Biden discusses the economy, jobs and infrastructure in May in Cleveland.

Deficits improve

The government would spend $1.8 trillion more than it’s projected to take in next year.

By 2031, the deficit would decline, relative to the size of the economy, to a smaller share than it would be without Biden’s changes.

That’s in part because Biden proposed paying for some of his ambitious agenda through higher taxes on corporations and the wealthiest households.

The president’s plan does not address the structural deficit that existed before the pandemic. That imbalance is driven by an aging population, rising health care costs, compounding interest – and the lack of sufficient tax revenue to keep up.

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Trump tax cuts

Biden’s budget assumes that reductions in taxes approved in 2017 under President Donald Trump will expire in 2025, as is current law. If that happens, that would violate Biden’s campaign promise to not raise taxes on Americans making $400,000 or less.

White House acting budget director Shalanda Young said there’s time before 2025 for Biden to work with Congress “to continue reforming our tax code so that it asks the wealthy to pay their fair share, raises the right amount of revenue and protects the low- and middle-income families.”

Public insurance option

Although Biden campaigned on lowering the enrollment age for Medicare and creating a public insurance option, his plan does not include a way to do that. The proposal only calls on Congress to take action this year to lower prescription drug costs and expand and improve health coverage.

The plan notes that the money saved from reducing the amount Medicare pays for prescription drugs could be used for coverage expansion. Congressional Democrats are divided over how to address drug prices, as well as how to spend the savings. 

“We know there are proposals on the Hill being introduced, and we believe that it’s more productive to work collaboratively with Congress to develop and build consensus around specific policies that achieve his broad goals,” Young said. 

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Abortion funding

Biden angered anti-abortion activists and pleased abortion rights groups over something he did not include in his first budget request: a ban on federal funding of most abortions.

The real fight over the issue will be in Congress where Democrats may not be able to keep the ban, known as the Hyde amendment, from being added to spending bills as it has been for decades.

Biden’s decision was noteworthy as he was a longtime supporter of the ban until he reversed position during the 2020 campaign.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear a direct challenge to Roe vs. Wade, and abortion restrictions have increased in conservative states.

The ban limits coverage of abortion under Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, and under other federal programs.

When Biden became the last 2020 Democratic presidential contender to come out against the ban, he described his change in position as a matter of equity.

“If I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent” on others who are trying to limit abortion access in some states, Biden said at a Democratic National Committee event in 2019.

Anti-abortion activists argue Americans who oppose abortion shouldn’t be forced to share in the cost of abortion services through their tax dollars.

Spending priorities

Biden’s proposal is a reversal of priorities from Trump’s budget plans, which slashed domestic programs and asked Congress for much higher military spending.

Biden is asking for a nominal increase for the Pentagon but big boosts in spending on education, housing, public health, the environment and more. The administration argues that “disinvestment” in those areas hurt the nation’s ability to combat climate change, rebuild the economy and address racial inequities.

“I believe this is our moment to rebuild an economy from the bottom up and the middle out,” Biden said during a trip to Cleveland on Thursday, “not a trickle-down economy from the very wealthy.”

Mixed reaction

Congressional reaction predictably split along partisan lines. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the budget would make historic investments in the American workforce and economy.  House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called it “the most reckless and irresponsible budget proposal in my lifetime.”

Fiscal watchdog groups also had mixed reaction.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, praised Biden for raising revenue to cover some of the costs of his plan, but she said the budget would take too long to pay for the new initiatives and does little to address the high and rising debt.

“It is not the president’s fault he inherited such a precarious fiscal situation,” she said in a statement, “but as president, it is his responsibility to address it.”

Michael Peterson of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation said the nation needs to acknowledge “that much work remains to pay for all of the spending that we already have promised to our citizens.” 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Highest debt since WWII, looming fight on taxes: Takeaways from Joe Biden’s budget

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