Thirty Years of Deficit Disaster

The national debt has just passed $14 trillion. It’s approaching the so-called “debt limit” of $14.3 trillion, and members of Congress face a vote on raising the limit that doesn’t limit. President Obama will no doubt stress his commitment to reducing deficits in his speech tonight, but it’s unlikely that he will propose any actual budget cuts or any serious entitlement reforms. And we’re told that he will propose new spending on infrastructure, education, and research in the face of trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see.

We’ve become so used to these stunning, incomprehensible, unfathomable levels of deficits and debt – and to the once-rare concept of trillions of dollars – that we forget how new all this debt is. In 1980, after 190 years of federal spending, the national debt was “only” $1 trillion. Now, just 30 years later, it’s sailing past $14 trillion.

Historian John Steele Gordon points out how unnecessary our situation is:

There have always been two reasons for adding to the national debt. One is to fight wars. The second is to counteract recessions. But while the national debt in 1982 was 35% of GDP, after a quarter century of nearly uninterrupted economic growth and the end of the Cold War the debt-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled.

It is hard to escape the idea that this happened only because Democrats and Republicans alike never said no to any significant interest group. Despite a genuine economic emergency, the stimulus bill is more about dispensing goodies to Democratic interest groups than stimulating the economy. Even Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) – no deficit hawk when his party is in the majority – called it “porky.”

Annual federal spending rose by a trillion dollars when Republicans controlled the government from 2001 to 2007. It has risen another trillion during the Bush-Obama response to the financial crisis. So spending every year is now twice what it was when Bill Clinton left office. Republicans and Democrats alike should be able to find wasteful, extravagant, and unnecessary programs to cut back or eliminate. They could find some of them here in this report by Chris Edwards.

Tea Partiers and other taxpayers should listen carefully tonight, to both speeches. Is either party prepared to require the government to live within its means? Or will both parties continue to spend with abandon and raise the “debt limit” every few months?