Congress Gone Wild: Why Lawmakers Fail to Prioritize the National Debt

October 22, 2018 Topic: Economics Region: Americas Tags: EconomicsFinanceDebtRepublicansElection

Congress Gone Wild: Why Lawmakers Fail to Prioritize the National Debt

National politicians keep abandoning fiscal restraint and their constituents seem fine with it.

I’ve noticed something strange lately. When friends or acquaintances are discussing politics, an addendum is usually attached if I am in the room.

“Oh yes,” someone will inevitably say, gesturing toward me, “also fiscal issues.”

While I appreciate the consideration, and perhaps the grim realization that I have become synonymous with silent screams of rage about the budget, something more is going on here.

Those of us who are full-time taxpayer advocates are fond of saying that the country is on our side.

But is it? Well, somewhat.

To understand the issue requires separating two issues that are lumped together in most discussions—the debt/deficit, and government spending. Put simply, caring about one does not mean caring about the other.

In September, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation released the most recent in-depth study of Americans’ attitudes about the national debt, finding that people are increasingly concerned and think Congress and the president should have “addressing the national debt” among their top three priorities. (The full survey and methodology can be read here.)

When it comes to government spending, the Pew Research Center surveyed the country in Spring 2017, finding that a growing portion of Americans (48 percent) wanted “bigger government providing more services.” There is a deep partisan divide on this overall question, though, with 74 percent of Republicans and right-leaning independents who say they want a smaller government.

Drilling into the details makes the picture a little murkier, with large majorities in both parties who want to increase spending on big-ticket items. While Republicans are generally less likely to support increasing spending on certain items than Democrats are, a majority of Republicans support reducing spending on only one item: economic assistance for foreigners.

Put in context, the broadest definition of foreign aid makes up about 1 percent of U.S. federal spending. Or put in more context, many people want to fix the debt but not by actually doing anything about it.

At this point, some readers are likely already typing an angry comment about the recent deficit-straining tax cuts. Opinions on tax policy are predictably varied and driven by partisanship, but screaming at each other over whether tax cuts will make things worse because of the deficit impact or make them better (or at least keep them about the same) because of economic growth obscures one fact: there is no way to tax our way into balance in the first place.

It is fundamentally, mathematically impossible.

Taxing the rich? As Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl has pointed out , financing Social Security and Medicare on taxes alone would require a rate of almost 200 percent on wealthy families.

Simply stabilizing debt levels requires hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit reduction over future years, and yet with looming bankruptcy in major trust funds, Congress is running in the opposite direction.

Government is on a spending spree , with even modest reforms abandoned and forgotten as gimmick-filled, massive spending packages are forgotten almost as soon as they are passed.

Increasingly for Republicans, fiscal conservatism is less a plank of Reagan’s famous three-legged stool as an afterthought that doesn’t make it into the same room. Meanwhile, budgetary dysfunction undercuts the other two legs. One need only look at continued funding for Planned Parenthood, or the real and documented strain on readiness and future planning that comes when defense spending is never more permanent than the next last-minute budget deal.

It is easy to point fingers at Washington, but as national politicians keep abandoning fiscal restraint, their voters seem fine with it. As we head into another election season, those of us (or maybe it is just me) who care about the budget should do what we can to ensure these “single-minded seekers of reelection” feel the only pressure most of them care about.

We must hold them accountable. Thanks to technology, we have the receipts , so use them. Refuse to donate to any candidate who won’t take the debt seriously. Organize your friends. Stop crying wolf about unnamed disasters, but talk about the real economic consequences of spending like drunken teenagers—scream it from the rooftops. Ask questions, publicly but also privately. Discuss your concerns with staffers who make most of the policy work happen anyway.

It is easy to blame Congress, but whether electoral consequences will come as a result of their failures is up to us—the voters who care about the issues that still matter, if only we make them.

Rebekah Bydlak is executive director of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, a single-issue organization dedicated to reducing spending and debt.

Image: Reuters