Politics & Policy

Profligacy Still Carries the Day in Washington, D.C.

( Vladimir Solomyani/Unsplash)
As Congress prepares to pass a massive spending package, worries about our out-of-control national debt are nowhere to be found.

It probably won’t be celebrated at the White House, but the Trump administration passed a major milestone last week: It added its first $1 trillion to the national debt.

Of course, the administration can take solace in the fact that it took President Trump 14 months to reach this dubious mark, while President Obama hit it in just seven months. But then again, President Obama was in the middle of a recession as opposed to an economic boom. President George W. Bush, hardly an exemplar of budgetary restraint, took nearly five times as long to run up his first trillion dollars of red ink.

We now owe more than $21 trillion in debt, more than 100 percent of GDP, and roughly $65,000 for every man, woman, and child in this country. With annual deficits projected to exceed $1 trillion for as far as the eye can see, the debt is expected to top $33 trillion within a decade. From there the sky is the limit as the unfunded liabilities of programs such as Social Security and Medicare kick in.

One might hope that this rising flood of red ink would concern someone in Washington. Instead, Congress is preparing to pass an omnibus spending bill that will make things dramatically worse.

The $1.3 trillion spending bill will fund much of the federal government for the fiscal year that began October 1 of last year. Yes, you read that right: Congress is voting on a funding bill for a year that is already half over. And if the bill fails to pass by Friday, we will once again face the prospect of a partial government shutdown.

Concerns over the debt, spending, and the size of government are distinctly out of fashion in Trump’s Washington. But ignoring the consequences of government profligacy won’t make them go away.

But as ridiculous as the process may be, the omnibus bill is far worse. We likely won’t know everything that is in the bill until after it’s passed. Some items, such as funding for President Trump’s border wall, anti-abortion riders, and $900 million for a rail-and-tunnel project connecting New York and New Jersey that is opposed by President Trump, are still being negotiated, even as the House prepares to vote as early as today. It is unlikely that more than a handful of members will have actually read the bill before the vote.

That won’t stop the bill from passing on a bipartisan basis, of course, because it will be stuffed with plenty of goodies for both parties. Overall, it will increase federal spending by the largest amount since 2009. Democrats are reportedly set to get a $63 billion increase in domestic discretionary spending, including a $15 billion bailout for insurance companies under Obamacare. Meanwhile, Republicans will receive $80 billion in additional spending on the Pentagon. And the bill for all this will fall to our children and grandchildren.

Once the omnibus passes, we can expect a parade of members of both parties appearing on television to congratulate themselves for finally having done their job. The omnibus will be hailed as a model of bipartisan cooperation and example of what Washington can accomplish if Democrats and Republicans simply put aside inconvenient things like principles and work together. Then they can all hurry home to campaign. Let the good times roll.

Concerns over the debt, spending, and the size of government are distinctly out of fashion in Trump’s Washington. But ignoring the consequences of government profligacy won’t make them go away.

Michael Tanner — Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Going for Broke: Deficits, Debt, and the Entitlement Crisis. You can follow him on his blog, TannerOnPolicy.com.

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