U.S. 2015 Budget Gap $519.7B Under Accrual Accounting

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By Jonathan Nicholson

Feb. 25 — The federal government ran a $519.7 billion deficit in 2015, the Treasury Department said, using an accounting method similar to that used by publicly-traded U.S. companies.

The new deficit figure was contained in the Treasury Department's annual Financial Report of the United States released Feb. 25. Unlike the annual budget figures released each October by the Treasury, which mostly reflect government receipts and spending on a cash-only basis, the financial report uses an accrual accounting method closer to that used by public companies that also takes into account federal assets and liabilities as they are incurred. In 2014, under the accrual method, the deficit was $791.3 billion.

The difference between the two kinds of deficit figures can be significant. Under the more widely-watched cash basis, the 2014 deficit was $483.4 billion and the 2015 deficit was $438.9 billion. Many budget experts believe the accrual method gives a fuller picture of the government's fiscal health than the cash basis method.

Another GAO Disclaimer

While the report, which has been compiled since 1997, attempts to put the government's books on a closer footing to the accounting used in the private sector, it has yet to be able to receive a clean sign-off from its auditor, the Government Accountability Office. For years, the GAO has said problems with federal accounting, particularly at the Pentagon, have meant it was unable to render a judgment on whether the report could be relied on.

“The federal government could not reasonably estimate or adequately support amounts reported for certain liabilities. For example, DOD was not able to estimate with assurance key components of its environmental and disposal liabilities. In addition, DOD could not support a significant amount of its estimated military postretirement health benefits liabilities included in federal employee and veteran benefits payable,” the GAO said in its disclaimer letter.

The report included a grim picture of the government's long-term. In addition to the government's official public debt that recently topped $19 trillion, the report said the potential liabilities in the form of projected Social Security, Medicare and other social insurance benefits totaled $41.487 trillion over 75 years. That was down slightly from the 2014 figure of $41.916 trillion, but up substantially from $33.830 trillion as recently as 2011.

Ryan: Budget Up to Caucus

In related developments on Capitol Hill, Republicans continued to be dogged by questions on whether they will pass a budget resolution. A Republican-controlled Congress has not passed a joint House-Senate budget since 2000. This year, the Senate is under no pressure to adopt a budget, having approved language in 2015 allowing it to simply “deem” a budget adopted and allowing it to move to appropriations bills.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at his weekly press conference said he hoped the House would pass a budget, but said he would not force the issue.

“Like I said, I'm not the top-down, cram-it-down-your-throat kind of guy. We're going to leave this up to the membership, and the membership will be making that decision,” Ryan said. “Do I believe we should pass the budget, we should have a fully functioning appropriations process? Of course I do. I think that's very important. But this is a decision we'll make jointly, as a House Republican caucus.”

Ryan and House Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) face an intraparty rebellion from members of the House Freedom Caucus, who have objected to passing a budget with the fiscal 2017 appropriations caps approved in 2015 with mostly Democratic votes. Finding a way to bring net 2017 funding lower, as the Freedom Caucus group wants, that will not make it impossible to pass appropriations bills has been a sticking point.

The odds House Republicans will be able to push through a budget resolution appeared to grow longer late Feb. 25 when another intraparty group, the Republican Study Committee, adopted a stance similar to that of the Freedom Caucus. Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), the chairman of the study committee, said in a statement the group had decided the budget should not have an appropriations limit for fiscal 2017 above $1.040 trillion, some $30 billion below the limits adopted in 2015.

“We must make concrete spending reductions, either in non-defense discretionary spending or through enacted mandatory savings, to offset any spending in excess of $1.040 trillion,” Flores said.

Appropriators have said adopting a spending limit below the $1.070 trillion agreed to in 2015 would effectively sabotage the effort to pass annual appropriations bills for the year.

By Jonathan Nicholson

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

For More Information

The report is available online at http://src.bna.com/cTQ.