Washington — The federal government posted a $374.2 billion deficit in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, more than double the previous year's shortfall but less than anticipated, the Treasury Department reported Monday.
The 2003 deficit came in lower than the $455 billion figure projected by the Bush administration a few months ago. Treasury officials said that tax collections turned out to be better than expected and spending was less than anticipated in the final months of the year.
"The improvement in our budget picture since our forecast last July is an encouraging sign that the economic recovery is gaining momentum," said Joshua Bolten, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, in a statement accompanying the final tally.
The deficit is still expected to top $500 billion in 2004 -- even with an improving economy; Bolten said that the shortfall would decline by half over five years if Congress hews to President Bush's tax and spending prescriptions.
The 2003 deficit dwarfed the record of $290.4 billion set in 1992, when Bush's father was president, and the $157.8 billion shortfall recorded in 2002, when the government ended a four-year streak of budget surpluses.
The return to deficit spending reflects a combination of forces: the 2001 recession and the slow-paced recovery that followed, three successive tax-cut packages pushed by Bush and the cost of financing the war on terrorism and the military campaign in Iraq.
Administration officials said that the flow of red ink remains manageable and would begin to diminish when the recovery picks up speed and war-related spending subsides.
"As the economy grows, government revenues will go up, which will help keep the deficit under control," Treasury Secretary John Snow said.
Independent analysts were less sanguine. According to Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, an Arlington, Va.-based budget watchdog group, it appears unlikely that the deficit will decline much below current levels if economic trends continue and if Congress extends tax cuts and enacts a Medicare prescription drug benefit, as Bush has requested.
"The policies that are in place now and that Congress may enact shortly continue to pose a serious long-term budget challenge," said Bixby, whose group advocates balanced budgets and fiscal restraint. "This level of deficit, about 3.5 percent of GDP, looks like it may be locked in for the foreseeable future."
Analyst Isaac Shapiro at the Center for Budget & Policy Priorities, a Washington research organization against social services cuts, said the final figures for 2003 confirmed that the Bush tax cuts had contributed to a severe fiscal squeeze that would continue for years.
He said that $179 billion of the deficit announced Monday resulted from tax cuts. For fiscal year 2004, the tax cuts will cause $304 billion of the deficit, he said.
"The most striking fact when you really look at these numbers in historical perspective is how much revenues have dried up," Shapiro said. "Last year, individual income-tax receipts as a share of the economy dropped to their lowest level since 1942."
Congressional Democrats were quick to assail the president's priorities. "The administration's tax cuts and budget policies have not created the promised new jobs over the last three years, but they have created huge deficits that will stifle future growth and burden our grandchildren with debt," said Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.