Many Republican members of Congress, including all six members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation, have signed the Americans for Tax Reform’s pledge not to raise taxes, and mostly they stick to it. Many Democrats have signed a pledge not to mess with Social Security. But there’s no group asking members of Congress to pledge to reduce the national debt.
Much as I hate all these pledges, maybe there should be.
This past week, Congress rushed through two legislative packages that will make the national debt bigger. One was a package that permanently extended tax breaks that, in fairness, mostly were being routinely extended temporarily before. We’re now assured of adding $700 billion to the national debt over 10 years, whereas before we at least argued about it every year. All four members of Arkansas’ House delegation voted for the deal, which was consistent with the pledge they have signed.
And that wouldn’t be a problem, if Congress had voted to cut spending elsewhere to offset the tax cuts. Just as you and I ought to cut back on spending if we decide to take a job that pays less, Congress ought to cut spending if it cuts taxes.
Instead, Congress also voted this week for a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending package that increases spending by $50 billion. The 2,000-page bill is full of provisions that range from the important (allowing the U.S. to compete in the oil exporting market) to the mundane ($65 million for salmon restoration). It was negotiated by congressional leaders behind closed doors and then presented to the membership with little time for them to read it and nothing else on the table to avert a government shutdown.
To their credit, Arkansas’ senators, Sen. John Boozman and Sen. Tom Cotton, voted against both packages, which were combined in the Senate into one vote. In the House, Rep. Rick Crawford and Rep. Bruce Westerman get credit for voting against the spending package. Meanwhile, I can’t blame the two House members who voted for that package, Rep. French Hill and Rep. Steve Womack. Time was running out, there was no alternative, and many Republicans want to give new Speaker Paul Ryan, who helped broker the deal, a chance to succeed.
Also, the tax deal isn’t that much of a break from past policy. It mostly extended tax breaks permanently that were being extended temporarily year after year. Now at least we have clarity.
The problem is that once again, members of Congress voted to cut taxes, increase spending, and add to the debt because they don’t have enough motivations to behave differently. People often complain about “tax-and-spend liberals.” The truth is that most members of Congress often are “tax-cut-and-spend Republicans and Democrats.” And that’s why the national debt is creeping toward $19 trillion, or $58,000 for every American.
In signing the combined packages into law Friday, President Obama said, “I think the system worked.”
He’s right. The system worked perfectly. It did exactly what it was designed to do: Cut taxes, increase spending, and make the numbers work because the costs will be borne by future generations who don’t yet vote.
This has been going on for almost all of America’s history. According to the U.S. Treasury’s website, the national debt was $71 million in 1790, and then it dipped to less than $34,000 at the beginning of 1835, and it’s been pretty much rising ever since, until recently, when it exploded under your and my watch. It took about 191 years for it to reach $1 trillion and then needed 20 years to reach $6 trillion. Under the last two presidents, it’s grown another $13 trillion. As of Dec. 16, it was $18,796,279,678,290.28.
Two things can change this dynamic.
One is voluntary. Voters can elect fiscally responsible candidates. In office, those lawmakers must place as high a priority on future generations as they do on cutting taxes and increasing spending today. Would signing a pledge to reduce the debt help? It’s helped elsewhere.
More likely, there must be a mechanism, such as a balanced budget amendment, that makes it easier for elected officials to make responsible choices because, if they don’t, they’re breaking or at least skirting the law.
That way the system would work only when it does right by everyone – those who vote, those who don’t, and those who can’t because they’re too young or not yet born.