Here’s a simple request of our elected officials when they gather in Washington next year with Republicans in charge of everything: If you’re going to cut taxes, please cut spending, too.
I make that request for the future because I am not reassured by the past – not the past year, or the last 35, or the last 200.
Since 1790, the United States has been in a continual state of debt. There was a brief period in the mid-1830s when the debt was very small – it even briefly was paid off in 1835. But it reached $1 billion in 1863 during the Civil War and has never looked back. It has grown smaller at times as a percentage of gross domestic product, but the overall trajectory has been ever higher. In fact, the last time the United States owed less one year than the previous one was 1957, according to the government’s own Treasury Department website.
It took almost 200 years for the national debt to reach $1 trillion – in other words, 1,000 billions. It crossed that point somewhere around late 1981. By 1990, it was $3.2 trillion; by 2000, it was $5.7 trillion; by 2009, $11.9 trillion; and today, it’s $19.9 trillion. That’s more than $61,000 for every American.
So that’s almost 200 years to reach $1 trillion and then 35 years to reach $20 trillion. This is beginning to look like a death spiral.
That’s a discouraging couple of centuries. Then came this year. President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on large tax cuts while barely mentioning spending cuts. He said he wants to spend more on the military, spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, build a wall along the Mexican border, and leave the growing Social Security and Medicare programs alone.
When he comes into office next year, he will be working with a Republican Congress that will want to act quickly to enact some of its long-suppressed priorities while it controls both the executive and legislative branches. They will want to do big things fast while they still can. In 2001, when Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress, they passed a tax cut and then went on an extended spending spree along with their Democratic counterparts. In 2009, Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress, so they quickly passed their big thing, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
If Republicans want to cut taxes, that’s fine, but that big thing also must be accompanied by another big thing, which is cutting spending by at least an equal amount.
History suggests they won’t do that – that they will focus on the tax cuts and spend more on defense without really cutting spending elsewhere, because Americans like tax cuts and more spending, and elected officials’ jobs depend on being liked.
If tax cuts come first without spending cuts, elected officials will justify it by arguing that the tax cuts will spur so much economic growth that they will pay for the same old spending. And it’s true that tax cuts do spur growth, as does deficit spending. When you have more money, your standard of living improves. It makes no difference, for a time, if that money is borrowed from someone else. But someone eventually has to pay the bill.
So I have this simple request of Arkansas’ congressional delegation: Don’t let history repeat itself. Please, Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, and Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill, Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman – don’t make the assumption that tax cuts will spur so much growth that corresponding spending cuts can be put off for another time. Have the political will to do both at the same time, and if you don’t possess that will, at least do neither. If your tax cuts more than pay for themselves, then apply the new revenues to paying down the debt, which has not been done since the Eisenhower administration. And if they don’t, then you will have cut taxes and cut spending, which is what you’ve said you wanted to accomplish all along, without adding to the debt.
I make this request on behalf of myself, but also because I have two daughters and eventually expect to have grandchildren too. I’d like to give them an inheritance, not hand them a bill.