The U.S. Capitol is seen at night after negotiators sealed a deal for COVID relief Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Washington. Credit: Jose Luis Magana / AP

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A trillion here, a trillion there. Who’s even counting anymore?

This week, news broke of a deal finally being brokered in Congress for a $900 billion COVID relief package, which would ostensibly provide support for Americans struggling in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The agreed upon package is actually part of a much larger $1.4 trillion ( not including COVID relief) omnibus spending package of 12 combined spending bills meant to fund government in fiscal year 2021.

And, as seems to be the norm these days, members of the House and the Senate were asked to review the nearly 5,600-page bill without actually reading it. “Congress is expected to vote on the second largest bill in US history today,” wrote Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter, “and as of about 1 p.m., members don’t even have the legislative text of it yet.”

She expanded on that point in another message sent shortly thereafter. “Members of Congress need to see & read the bills we are expected to vote on.”

It is a strange thing indeed when I agree with a sentiment expressed by Ocasio-Cortez, though I think our shared perspective ends there.

Regardless of how it ultimately becomes law, though, it is certain to happen. True, the president has threatened to veto the legislation, but if President Donald Trump gets his desired revisions to the bill, the spending would only rise higher.

In a message Tuesday evening, Trump highlighted roughly $4 billion in wasteful spending in the $2.3 trillion-spending package, including foreign aid and domestic spending on the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center.

These spending decisions are, in fact, concerning and should have no place in a bill like this. I share the president’s concern about money going to “lobbyists, foreign countries and special interests” in legislation like this.

The problem, though, is that while Trump was decrying wasteful spending, he was simultaneously calling for more spending. A lot more.

Trump demanded, for instance, that the individual stimulus payments to Americans be increased from $600 to $2,000, a proposal enthusiastically supported by the Democrats, which would amount to another $350 billion in spending.

No matter how you slice it, cutting $4 billion in wasteful spending while adding hundreds of billions of dollars in spending is going to result in a larger and more wasteful bill. And, of course, more debt, added to the $27.5 trillion we currently owe.

Which, by the way, begs a serious question: When, exactly, did we stop caring about the national debt?

When Ronald Reagan was president, the rising national debt became a political crisis, with Democrats screaming about the irresponsibility inherent in the rapid accumulation of debt. Back then, the highest single yearly deficit was $221 billion, which today would be worth $524.7 billion. That amount, while large, is still only about half of what the fiscal year 2020 budget deficit was prior to the trillions of dollars spent for the COVID relief bills.

Back then, debt was a mortal threat to the future of America. Every election cycle, candidates in both parties would rail against the deficit. Newt Gingrich and company arrived in 1994 promising to drag President Bill Clinton kicking and screaming into balancing the budget. Serious attempts were made at passing a balanced budget amendment, culminating in 1995 when the effort failed by a single vote in the Senate.

When Barack Obama became president, Republicans were so outraged by his spending binge that concern over the debt powered the Tea Party movement that swept the country in 2010. Back then, the deficit seemed like the most important issue in America.

Today? Today we seem to have arrived in a place where Republicans and Democrats have entirely given up. Republicans occasionally talk about the deficit, but never attempt to do anything about it, while Democrats now occupy a fantasy land where infinite spending priorities can be piled on top of our already broken federal budget, and the increased spending won’t ultimately matter because we’ll just get the rich to pay for it (even though the math doesn’t add up).

So now, our feckless leaders in Washington simply charge on forward, spending indiscriminately and playing with monopoly money, despite the now uncharted territory we are navigating as it relates to publicly held debt.

And some day, this bill is going to come due, and an economic crisis the likes of which we have yet to see will result. When it does, our leaders in Washington and the clueless voters who sent them there will look at each other with bewildered eyes, wondering how they could have let this happen.

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Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...