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The federal government keeps two sets of books.
The Clinton administration reported a surplus of $559 billion in its final four budget years. The audited numbers showed a deficit of $484 billion.
In addition, neither of these figures counts the financial deterioration in Social Security or Medicare. Including these retirement programs in the bottom line, as proposed by a board that oversees accounting methods used by the federal government, would show the government running annual deficits of trillions of dollars.
As bad as that is, it’s currently worse:
The set the government promotes to the public has a healthier bottom line: a $318 billion deficit in 2005.
The set the government doesn’t talk about is the audited financial statement produced by the government’s accountants following standard accounting rules. It reports a more ominous financial picture: a $760 billion deficit for 2005. If Social Security and Medicare were included — as the board that sets accounting rules is considering — the federal deficit would have been $3.5 trillion.
Congress has written its own accounting rules — which would be illegal for a corporation to use because they ignore important costs such as the growing expense of retirement benefits for civil servants and military personnel.
Last year, the audited statement produced by the accountants said the government ran a deficit equal to $6,700 for every American household. The number given to the public put the deficit at $2,800 per household.
The Bush administration opposes including Social Security and Medicare in the audited deficit. Its reason: Congress can cancel or cut the retirement programs at any time, so they should not be considered a government liability for accounting purposes.
The audited financial statement — prepared by the Treasury Department — reveals a federal government in far worse financial shape than official budget reports indicate, a USA TODAY analysis found. The government has run a deficit of $2.9 trillion since 1997, according to the audited number. The official deficit since then is just $729 billion. The difference is equal to an entire year’s worth of federal spending.