WASHINGTON—Since President Donald Trump took office, the federal budget deficit has jumped more than 50 percent and is expected to overtake $1 trillion in 2020. The total federal debt, meanwhile, has surpassed $23 trillion. Congress appears to be on a bipartisan trek toward government bankruptcy, and the latest federal budget does little to correct the course.
In 2012, then–Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who later served briefly as chief of staff for Trump, proclaimed the GOP platform represented “a party that is unified and dedicated to the most important issues of our day: getting the economy back on track and restoring fiscal responsibility.”
In 2016, the party platform contained fewer references to fiscal conservatism, but it still warned that “the [Obama] administration’s demands have focused on significantly expanding government spending and benefits for its preferred groups, paid for through loans that our children and grandchildren will have to pay. This is the path to bankrupting the next generation.”
More than three years later, programs like Social Security and Medicaid are fast approaching insolvency. Next year, Social Security might have to reach into its trust fund to pay out full benefits. It is expected to fail to pay the full value of its benefits by 2035, according to a report published earlier this year by the program’s trustees. Medicaid could reach insolvency even sooner—by 2026. At that point, the program will be able to pay just under 90 percent of its bills. In response to those factors, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a grim prediction that the national debt will rise to nearly 93 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product by 2029.
The mammoth spending plan for 2020, split into two “minibus” bills, amounts to $1.43 trillion. Suspending the debt ceiling for two years, the bipartisan legislation increases government funding by nearly $50 billion from the 2019 budget. The week before Christmas, the House passed the two bills—comprising more than 2,000 pages of text—less than 24 hours after they were introduced. The Senate followed suit. Some Republican senators, 23 in all, voted against it, including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who called the bills “a fiscal dumpster fire.”
Congress and the White House balanced the budget during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton thanks to a variety of factors, including tax increases, spending cuts, and economic growth. Since then, other forces have made running into the red more expedient for politicians.
On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump pledged to eliminate the $19 trillion national debt over eight years. He also vowed to protect Social Security. In 2017, Republicans cut taxes and agreed to bust spending caps that the GOP pushed for in 2011. In April 2019, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, himself a fiscally conservative congressman during the Obama years, said the national debt “doesn’t seem to be holding us back from an economic standpoint.”
Alex Brill, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the change in lawmakers’ posture toward the national debt and deficit “is less economic and more political. … It may be that everyone has gotten used to these budget deficits … but the economics of them are the same.”
According to a January Pew Research Center survey, only 48 percent of Americans said reducing the deficit should be a priority compared to 72 percent in 2013.
Brill said that during the Obama years, people justified borrowing on the basis that the deficits would be temporary until the economy recovered. When the economy recovered, “people started saying, oh, it’s OK to borrow a trillion dollars a year,” he said.
Justin Bogie, a senior policy analyst on fiscal affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said the booming economy has made people discount the effects of high debt and deficits.
“What we see now, with the stock market doing so well, unemployment so low, economy growing at a good pace—people have put this on the backburner,” he said.
Brill predicted big government spending would continue until public attitudes change: “It’s important to people, but it’s never important enough to people. They’d rather we not borrow a trillion a year, but they’re more concerned about judges or healthcare or the economy.”