Congress reached a deal on Feb. 9 to fund the government and avoid a shutdown. How did this happen? It happened because both Republicans and Democrats agreed to spend a lot more money.
Democrats have professed deep concern that the recent Republican tax cut will add more than $1 trillion to the federal debt over the next 10 years. They have displayed outrage at this fiscal irresponsibility. Now, as the price for their support of the budget deal, they have demanded an additional $63 billion a year in non-military spending.
Added to the proposed Republican increase in defense spending, to which Democrats have assented, this totals close to $150 billion per year in new spending. Though the agreement is only for two years, this new spending will surely become a permanent part of future budgets, adding roughly a trillion dollars to the federal debt over the next decade. It seems that Democrats do not really dislike debt; they just do not like debt that comes from tax cuts.
And Republicans? Republicans complained long and loud about the $9 trillion of new debt during the Obama years. Now that they are in charge, they seem to have forgotten this. It seems that Republicans do not dislike debt, either; they just do not like debt that comes from domestic spending increases.
This is precisely the kind of hypocritical partisanship that drives ordinary Americans crazy. Can’t the political parties get over themselves and their stale talking points and work together to solve problems? Where is the bipartisanship?
Americans should be careful what they wish for. When the political parties get together, it is not always to solve the nation’s problems. Sometimes it makes them worse.
The fact is that the political parties have found a way to work together on fiscal issues. Democrats don’t want to cut domestic spending, and Republicans don’t want to raise taxes. The bipartisan solution: borrow the money. Both parties seem to find the government’s ever-increasing indebtedness perfectly acceptable. This bipartisan understanding is not written down anywhere, but it might as well be.
It was once widely accepted that as a rule the government should not spend more money than it raises, with exceptions for crises such as the Civil War or World War II. Midway through the 20th century, this view gave way to the Keynesian notion that it is good to run deficits during periods of economic slowdown. The other half of Keynes’ view, however, was that the government should run surpluses in periods of economic growth and expansion. Over time, all will balance out.
Today, we have discarded Keynes’ view — or at least the inconvenient second half of it. We are now in the seventh year of a robust economic expansion, and the federal deficit for this year is projected to approach $700 billion. We are on course to add another $10 trillion to the debt during the coming decade, even before the recent budget agreement. We are in deep structural imbalance. The government simply borrows the money it doesn’t raise.
What is the solution? It does not consist of replacing one set of politicians with another; both political parties like this arrangement. Whatever their limitations, politicians are pretty good at sensing what the American people want, and the bad news is that Americans want more government than they are willing to pay for.
It is not a matter of draining the Washington swamp; on this issue, the American people are deep in the swamp themselves. Most Americans want no reductions in Social Security, Medicare or military spending, and they want no new taxes.
George Washington warned against “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” But there is no one at the table who speaks for posterity when the parties agree to borrow ever more money to solve their short-term political problems.
The government has borrowed without significant consequences for nearly four decades, and at an ever-increasing pace. No doubt the government can continue to do so for a while longer. But sooner or later, posterity will pay for our bipartisan self-indulgence. Too bad those who vote for these measures will not be around to reap the consequences.
Jeff Bergner worked in the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. He currently lives in Norfolk, Virginia.
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