WASHINGTON - The Office of Management and Budget yesterday slashed its projection of the fiscal 1992 deficit by $66.2 billion to $333.5 billion, rendering obsolete the agency's record-shattering and much-quoted estimate of nearly $400 billion earlier this year.
Meanwhile, House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta unveiled a long-awaited plan to eliminate the deficit by 1998 through a series of escalating, mandatory budget cuts and tax increases totaling $725 billion. The California Democrat and House leader had promised to come up with the plan after the defeat of the balanced budget constitutional amendment earlier this year.
While the OMB's dramatic reduction of its 1992 forecast had been anticipated because of a hiatus in borrowing for the thrift bailout since April, the revision is larger than expected and was accompanied by some unexpected news on the fiscal 1993 deficit.
The deficit next year is now projected to rise only $9 billion above the OMB's February forecast to $341 billion, the agency said in a mid-session update on the economy and budget that otherwise contained few other major revisions.
Many economists had expected the agency's 1993 forecast to jump by almost the same magnitude as its 1992 forecast fell, since the thrift resolutions for the most part are only being put off for awhile until Congress authorizes additional spending by the Resolution Trust Corp.
But the OMB said the outlook for banks and thrifts has improved since January because of the recovering economy, and the government may not have to close as many bankrupt institutions as expected. OMB's estimate of outlays for the takeover of failed banks, in particular, was sharply reduced by $22.3 billion in 1992.
Meanwhile, during the lull in thrift-related borrowing, the OMB said the government has taken in a "sizable" amount of cash from the sale of thrift assets already subsumed by the corporation.
Despite the better than expected revisions, the OMB is still forecasting that the deficit will attain levels never previously seen both this year and next. And without further action to reduce it, the agency is projecting that the deficit will not go below $200 billion in the next six years.
After falling to about $218 billion and leveling off there in 1985 and 1986, the deficit will head once again toward $300 billion by 1998, the OMB said.
The marked deterioration of the long-term deficit outlook presented by both the OMB and the Congressional Budget Office in recent months has led to increasing pressure in Congress for additional strong action to reduce the deficit. The fear that the deficit was spiraling out of control led to the near-successful attempt to pass a balanced budget amendment this spring.
Rep. Panetta's deficit elimination plan was designed to answer the calls for drastic action. It would require $166 billion of cuts in defense and domestic discretionary programs in the next six years beyond those already envisioned in the 1990 budget agreement.
In addition, it calls for $477 billion of cuts in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, or an equal amount of tax increases. If Congress and the President fall short of attaining the mandated cuts or tax increases each year, the plan would impose across the board spending cuts and automatic income tax surcharges to attain the reductions.
As an added enforcement measure, in the event of a "total collapse" of efforts to reduce the deficit, the Panetta bill would impose an automatic freeze in inflation adjustments for spending programs and in tax indexing, with a temporary rate increase for taxpayers with incomes over $250,000.
As Rep. Panetta predicted many times during the balanced budget debate, few members of Congress yesterday were willing to voice support for the draconian measures he said were needed to solve the deficit problem.
Though the plan was the product of weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations with both Republicans and Democrats on Rep. Panetta's committee, no Republicans and few committee Democrats joined him in unveiling it.
In a counterpoint to Rep. Panetta's plan, the OMB yesterday repeated its contention that the deficit could be eliminated by 1998 solely through economic growth and the imposition of a cap on entitlement spending such as Medicare. Enactment of the President's economic stimulus measures would be needed to stimulate growth to between 3% and 4% a year in the next two years, the OMB said.
The White House's revised economic projections call for slightly stronger growth than the administration had estimated in January, with real gross domestic product measured from the fourth quarter rising 2.7% in 1992. That figure is up from an earlier estimate of 2.2%. Growth in 1993 is put at 3%.
Michael Boskin, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters that the administration expects next week's preliminary estimate for second quarter GDP to be "somewhat below" the 2.7% rise in the first quarter. But, he insisted, growth will continue to come from increases in consumer and business spending in the second half of the year.
The White House said the average rate on 10-year Treasury bonds will be 7.3% this year, with 91-day Treasury bills averaging 3.9%. However, Mr. Boskin said, the estimate for bills was made before the Fed's last rate cuts, and actual rates may turn out to be "a few tenths" of a percentage point lower.
On inflation, the administration estimated the consumer price index will rise 3%, unchanged from its January estimate. The deflator for gross domestic product, another price measure, is also projected to rise 3%.
The unemployment situation should be slightly better by the end of the year, the White House said. Officials projected a civilian jobless rate of 6.9% in the fourth quarter of this year, which would be down from the current 7.8%.
Meeting with reporters, Mr. Boskin and OMB Director Richard Darman blamed Congress for the slow pace of the recovery by failing to enact the President's budget. They also said the economy is being slowed by sluggish economic growth abroad that crimps U.S. exports and by slow growth in the money supply.