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Another debt ceiling showdown is coming in Congress, and I don’t care.
Coming from me, this may sound a bit surprising, given how often I use my column to rail against excessive spending and debt, and demand our feckless leaders do something to address our unbalanced government books. Actually, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who is more concerned with the nation’s yearly deficit and overall debt burden than me. My ever-increasing disgust with the failure of Washington to deal with this problem is turning me into something pretty close to a one-issue voter, actually.
The sad thing, though, is that as I care more and more about the issue, it has become clear to me that I don’t really have anyone to vote for. Democrats are an absolute train wreck on spending, but their supposed right-wing rivals have demonstrated time and time again that they are nearly as bad, if not occasionally worse. There is no recognition of that fact in either, though, as they lob ridiculous claims at one another seeking to deflect blame.
Democrats like to claim that Republican presidents have added more debt than Democrats, while their own chief executives have demonstrated a more responsible approach to the budget. This analysis conveniently ignores the role that Congress, which has the constitutional authority to initiate spending bills and pass a budget, has in the presidential record books.
Ronald Reagan, for instance, met resistance from House Democrats during his eight years in office in his desire to pair defense spending increases with government reform elsewhere. Likewise, the decreasing deficit and eventual surplus seen under Bill Clinton coincided with an adversarial Republican Congress demanding fiscal discipline that Clinton objected to.
Republicans, on the other hand, like to pretend that they are deficit hawks, but their fiery rhetoric is nothing more than theater. President George W. Bush campaigned on a fiscally conservative platform, and then proceeded to plunge the nation deeply into debt to fight the war on terrorism. After Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, presided over an even more troubling increase in debt, the tea party movement swept an entire generation of Republican leaders to power with promises to do something about it. They did absolutely nothing.
The most recent Republican president, Donald Trump promised in his 2016 campaign to tackle the debt head-on. “We’ve got to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt,” he told journalist Bob Woodward in April of that year. “I think I could do it fairly quickly,” he continued, “I would say over a period of eight years.” Nothing of the kind happened, as the deficit soared under Trump, with the assistance of Republican and Democratic congresses. It increased to roughly $1 trillion before COVID-19, and spiked to more than $3 trillion the next year.
The failure compounds itself every time a new president is sworn into office. Joe Biden proposed a $4 trillion spending bill within his first 100 days of taking office. In just the first six months of fiscal year 2023, the federal deficit has already eclipsed $1 trillion, with projections forecasting it will hit $1.4 trillion or more by the end. Count on more.
Enter the looming debt ceiling fight.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made a speech to the New York Stock Exchange on Monday outlining the Republican priorities for negotiations with the White House. You heard the same things you always hear: Debt is bad, we have to do something about it, “the other guy” isn’t serious, but we are. Undoubtedly Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress will say much the same.
Eventually, they will come to some sort of agreement to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling. They always do. The speaker will pat himself on the back for exacting “real concessions” that make the debt situation better. The president will say much the same, probably lauding the parties involved for coming to “compromise” and working together.
But I’ve seen this movie before, and it never makes anything better. The debt ceiling was created in 1917, when the debt was $5.7 billion (which is about $130.7 billion in today’s dollars). Since it was instituted, the debt has now ballooned to nearly $31.5 trillion.
All the debt ceiling debate has done is give politicians the opportunity to lie to us and grandstand about an issue they like to pretend they care about, but do nothing to fix. Honestly, we would probably be better off without it.