WASHINGTON - In any other time and place, $642 billion would qualify as a lot of money. But in the Washington of 2013, it has been reduced to pocket change.
When the Congressional Budget Office announced that it has cut its projected 2013 federal deficit to $642 billion - compared with 2012's deficit of $1.1 trillion and an earlier 2013 estimate of $845 billion - there was an almost-palpable sigh of relief.
The budget problem is taking care of itself. Congress and the White House can relax.
No more self-destructive budget brawls. No more unpopular choices between tax increases and spending cuts.
Can we get real? For starters, $642 billion is serious money, and despite the modest improvements of the latest CBO report, the basic trends in federal finances remain the same.
From 2014 to 2023, the government will spend $6 trillion more than it collects in taxes. The budget never comes close to balance.
Expanding spending on the elderly and health care continues to strangle the rest of government.
As a share of the economy (gross domestic product), military and domestic discretionary programs (examples: drug approval, environmental regulation, Head Start, federal courts) drop about 40 percent from 2010 to 2023.
Nothing of consequence has changed. A few numbers have shifted slightly. That's all.
They moved in a favorable direction. Next time, they might go the other way.
What's also constant is the unwillingness of leaders of both parties, beginning with the president, to discuss budget choices candidly.