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September 3, 2020

The National Debt Virus

Relief for the government-mandated COVID shutdown is only a small part of the story.

Once upon a time, it appeared that the American people were beginning to wake up to the threat of the national debt. But now the heady days of the Tea Party seem like a distant memory.

When George W. Bush took office, the total national debt stood at a now-quaint $5.8 trillion. He (and the Republican Congress) doubled it. When Barack Obama took office, the debt was $11.6 trillion. He too nearly doubled it. When Donald Trump became president, the debt stood just shy of $20 trillion. Not yet to the end of his first term, we’re fast approaching $27 trillion.

Just read those numbers again.

And maybe sit down for these.

The Congressional Budget Office reported Wednesday that the annual deficit for fiscal year 2020 is $3.3 trillion, or 16% of total Gross Domestic Product. According to the CBO, publicly held federal debt will reach 98% of GDP this year and it will surpass 100% of GDP in 2021. For perspective, it was 35% of GDP in 2007. The double whammy? “CBO’s public debt estimates don’t include entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, which are political promises rather than binding contracts,” says the Wall Street Journal editorial board. “They also exclude the liabilities of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the housing giants guaranteed by taxpayers.”

Furthermore, the CBO doesn’t project anything for the budget busters on the Democrats’ agenda if they take control of Washington.

How are Capitol Hill’s two parties debating the debt crisis? They’re bickering over whether to spend another $3 trillion, as the House Democrats’ bill does, or rein that back in to “only” $1 trillion, as Senate Republicans and the White House counter.

The difference between 2010 and 2020 couldn’t be more stark. When Democrats controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue back then, many Americans suddenly cared so much about our spiraling debt that they marched — actually peacefully — in protest against such reckless spending. In fact, Republicans regained the House in 2010 by promising to put the brakes on the outrageous $1.4 trillion deficit.

In 2020, as governments at every level shut down the economy and as radical leftists have taken to the streets to burn down what’s left of it, the two parties are squabbling only about how much more to spend.

And most Americans couldn’t care less.

Donald Trump wasn’t elected to reduce spending. In fact, he won on promises to increase major line items (like defense) and to stop any restraint on the main drivers of our debt — Social Security and Medicare, which the Boomers who are now retiring by the millions (understandably) want to preserve. CBO now says the Social Security “trust fund” will run out by 2031.

Until all the warnings about debt actually turn into a tangible catastrophe, most voters will continue not caring. And politicians will continue kicking the can down the road, pitching even more spending in exchange for votes.

In one sense, this deficit bug is only a symptom of the real virus. Today’s federal government bears almost no resemblance to the one established by our Founders in the Constitution. As that document’s author, James Madison, warned in 1792, “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one.” We now have an indefinite government in Washington that is bound not by the Constitution or even a dollar amount but only by whatever can get a majority vote.

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