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The Budgetary Process: Unraveling the Steps in Balancing the U.S. Federal Budget

The Federal Reserve Board Building in Washington DC on a bright spring morning. The building was completed in 1937. It was named after Marriner S. Eccles (1890–1977), a former Chairman of the Federal Reserve by an Act of Congress on October 15, 1982.

The U.S. federal budget plays a critical role in funding various government programs and services, affecting everything from infrastructure development to social welfare programs and defense expenditures. However, the federal budget deficit and the looming debt ceiling have become a growing concern for many Americans.

Learn more about the federal budget, including major contributing factors, steps to balance it and potential implications for economic stability, government programs and the overall well-being of the American people.

What is a Balanced Budget?

A balanced federal budget occurs when the government’s revenue from taxes and other sources matches its spending on government programs. These programs fall into two main categories: mandatory spending and discretionary spending.

Mandatory spending includes entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, veteran benefits and other spending that is required by law. This spending area typically accounts for over half of all funding.

Discretionary spending involves programs determined annually by Congress and the President, such as defense and domestic initiatives. This spending area typically accounts for roughly one-third of all funding.

Understanding the Federal Budget Deficit

The federal budget deficit measures the shortfall between government spending and revenue.

In the fiscal year 2022 (October 1, 2021 – September 30, 2022), the U.S. government spent $6.27 trillion but collected only $4.90 trillion in revenue, resulting in a deficit of $1.38 trillion. Economists gauge the deficit relative to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the measure of a country’s economic output. In 2022, the federal deficit amounted to 5.4% of GDP.

Factors Contributing to the Deficit

The current budget deficit can be attributed to three key factors.

Firstly, the COVID-19 pandemic led to business closures, unemployment and reduced tax revenue. Simultaneously, the federal government allocated over $6 trillion to combat the pandemic and support affected individuals and businesses. These circumstances resulted in record-high deficits of $3.1 trillion in 2020 and $2.4 trillion in 2021.

The second factor involves tax cuts and program changes enacted in recent years. The 2017 tax cuts, including reductions for wealthy individuals and corporations, decreased government revenue by approximately $1.3 trillion over a decade. 

Furthermore, recent legislation allocated substantial funds for infrastructure projects, technology initiatives, clean energy and healthcare subsidies. However, it also aimed to offset these expenses through spending reductions and tax increases.

The Impacts of Budget Deficits

Economists generally believe that small or temporary deficits have minimal influence on economic conditions like growth, unemployment and inflation. However, if the national debt becomes too substantial, problems may arise. A rising debt diverts funds that could otherwise be used for productive capital investments, leading to increased interest rates. This crowds out private investment as government borrowing competes for limited national savings. Additionally, interest payments on the debt reduce available funds for vital areas like veterans’ benefits, education, disaster relief and more.

Higher levels of government borrowing can also result in elevated interest rates, hindering businesses’ abilities to secure loans. This can negatively impact exports and overall economic growth. However, during economic downturns like the COVID-19 pandemic, deficits can play a positive role by stimulating demand and boosting economic growth.

Steps to Balance the Federal Budget

Achieving a balanced federal budget requires a careful approach. It can be accomplished through a combination of increasing tax revenue and reducing spending. When it comes to spending cuts, policymakers must consider which programs should be exempt from deficit-reduction efforts to prioritize essential services.

Exploring a Balanced Budget Amendment

One proposed solution is the implementation of a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget. This amendment would serve as a federal-level counterpart to the Balanced Budget Requirements (BBR), which is already in place in most American states. A balanced budget amendment would enforce fiscal discipline on legislators as they allocate funds to different programs.

The main advantage of a balanced budget amendment is its ability to limit spending and restrict the accumulation of debt, but it’s also important to consider the potential drawbacks. A constitutional requirement like this may make the government less responsive to unforeseen emergencies like natural disasters or wars. During economic recessions or downturns, strict adherence to a balanced budget could hinder the government’s ability to spend and stimulate the economy effectively.

To address this concern, some proposals suggest automatic waivers during times of national crisis or when supported by a significant majority in Congress. However, this raises questions about the effectiveness and credibility of the constitutional amendment. If waivers become common, the issue of continuous deficits and escalating national debt may persist.

Additionally, adhering strictly to a balanced budget amendment could lead to reduced benefits and stimulus programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid. This could potentially increase the tax burden on the American people and diminish the support available to them.


The U.S. federal budget is a complex process involving the allocation of funds for various government programs and services. Balancing the budget is crucial to ensure financial stability and responsible fiscal management.

While most economists agree that small or temporary deficits have limited impact, the long-term implications of a growing national debt necessitate attention and action. 

As the United States navigates the intricate realm of budgetary decision-making, finding a sustainable path toward a balanced federal budget remains a critical goal, ensuring financial well-being for both present and future generations.

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