July 22, 2019

Does Anyone Care About the National Debt?

Congress and White House negotiators are working to spend ever more of your money.

“Nobody is a fiscal conservative anymore,” declared Rush Limbaugh last week. “All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around.” Limbaugh wasn’t being literal, but he was making a point that has become painfully clear over the last 20 years: Neither party can be trusted to rein in federal spending.

Negotiations are ongoing between Congress and the White House over a two-year spending deal, but reports indicate that in exchange for raising or suspending the debt limit, everyone will spend more money. Yes, you read that correctly.

To be fair, negotiators for President Donald Trump pushed for minor cuts, but even that was too austere for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She rejected cuts of $150 billion over 10 years, during which time the federal government is on track to spend $57 trillion. As Reason’s Eric Boehm notes, “In the context of a $50,000 annual household budget, that’s like cutting about $150 per year — the cost of a single lunch each month. That’s hardly enough to get the federal government out from under $22 trillion in debt.”

Oh, and by the way, The Daily Signal notes the bill for that debt “currently averages $67,000 for every single American.”

On the downside, Trump has essentially yawned as the annual federal deficit once again approaches $1 trillion. He has given vague instructions to aids about looking for big cuts in his second term, but what are the chances of those cuts coming to pass?

Why is the debt problem so intractable? Essentially, there are two reasons. First, the debt apocalypse so many have warned of has yet to materialize. We’ve argued that it’s gradual and then sudden, but few people pay it much mind until they feel the consequences. It’s like the fable about the slow-boiling frog.

Second, corruption in the Swamp is rampant. Political favors and graft for constituents in 435 congressional districts and all 50 states mean that someone is very invested in each part of the federal budget — especially the lobbyists who make sure it stays there. Cuts are only acceptable for the other guy’s priorities, which means those cuts never actually happen. Follow the money.

The House adjourns for a six-week recess Friday, while the Senate hangs around for another week. In any case, as long as Washington politicians — the president included — view the debt ceiling as a bigger problem than the debt itself, the American fiscal train will continue barreling ahead at full steam until it can’t anymore.

Update 7/23: Trump and congressional leaders reached a deal Monday evening. Fox News reports, “The deal … would increase spending caps by $320 billion relative to the limits prescribed in the 2011 Budget Control Act, whose spending-control provisions have been repeatedly waived since 2014. It also would suspend the debt ceiling and permit more government borrowing until July 31, 2021 — after the next presidential election.”

Manhattan Institute senior fellow Brian Riedl argues that “the election of President Trump — with the tea-party Senator Ted Cruz, among others, defeated in the process — may have finally killed the tea party as a whole.” And this budget deal, he says, puts the final nail in the Tea Party coffin.

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