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Douglas Elmendorf, chief budget cruncher for Congress, got to play the role of bad-news bear before the president's bipartisan fiscal commission on Wednesday.
His job: Present the Congressional Budget Office's latest assessment of the long-term federal budget.
The gist of his testimony went something like this: The outlook is bad under current law and daunting if many current policies are extended as expected. And even that may understate the fiscal problem the country faces, because it doesn't factor in potential effects of debt on economic growth.
Under the rosiest scenario painted by Elmendorf, the debt held by the public is on track to rise to 80% in 2035 from 62% at the end of this year. At that point, interest payments on that debt would jump to 4% of GDP, up from roughly 1% today. That's the equivalent of a third of all federal revenue.
From there, the increases are stark under an alternative policy scenario, which includes an extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for most people, permanently protecting the middle class from the Alternative Minimum Tax and a permanent increase in Medicare payments to doctors.
Based on current policies, debt held by the public would hit 185% of GDP in 2035. And interest payments on that debt would jump to nearly 9% of GDP.