Twenty-two trillion dollars and counting — that's what the United States owes. Congress will likely soon increase America's debt ceiling to well over $22 trillion, a staggering figure of indebtedness — one that most Americans cannot conceive of and would rather ignore.
Article 6, Section 2 of the Constitution provides that all revenue-raising measures should originate in the House of Representatives. As with other bills, the U.S. Senate can concur or initiate its own version. The Treasury Department cannot issue any treasury notes, bonds or bills without a debt ceiling increase. (The debt ceiling was created under the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917 and in 2019 stood at $22.012 trillion.)
Should Congress raise the debt ceiling? Yes.
Still, since Congress reduced the debt by about $500 billion in the mid-1990s, we should ask: How did that happen? Even though future Congresses and presidents will likely continue to wantonly spend tax dollars, Congress exercised discipline then in reducing national indebtedness. Since I was an appropriator for all 10 years of my Congressional service, I can tell you that appropriators and the Republican majority in Congress then set and stuck with budget limits.
Neither President Trump nor Congress are currently fiscally conservative, so it's hard to see how we'll ever repay all our debts. In fact, it's been more than 125 years since Congress paid off the entire national debt. The U.S. issued more than $1.3 trillion in new debt in 2018, the highest amount since the 2008 recession; deficit spending for the U.S. reached $779 billion in fiscal year 2019.
It's morally wrong to keep borrowing and spending, especially since Members of Congress get elected by campaigning on "reducing government spending." While that slogan may resonate with voters, Members who utter the phrase often go back to former spending habits and are rarely held to account.
What happens, though, if the debt ceiling isn't raised? If Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling, the U.S. will default on its debt and would not be able to pay its bills. The government's ability to pay its future debt obligations would be in jeopardy, casting grave doubt internationally about its financial stability and potentially crippling our economy.
The debt ceiling was raised 74 times from 1962 to 2011 — 18 times under President Reagan, eight times under President Clinton, five times under President George W. Bush and five times under President Obama. So the precedent for raising the debt ceiling has been established as government spending has increased in modern times. The ceiling will also be raised under President Trump, who spends recklessly.
Congress is no longer embarrassed by excessive government spending, and Republicans in Congress spend as recklessly as Democratic majorities. The government's public debt has never been higher.
This also reflects American attitudes relating to debt — it's pushed into the future, where younger children and grandchildren will be forced to pay it off. There's also a willful blindness by politicians where debt is concerned. The average public debt in our history has been 2.9 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP). But by the end of 2029, economists at the Congressional Budget Office predict that the percentage will rise to 93 percent — a dangerous trend. As the national economy has flourished, as reported by National Public Radio, the CBO has also predicted that federal spending (20.8 of GDP in 2019) will rise to 23 percent of GDP in 2029.
For the sake of all Americans, Congress and the president should curtail spending now and not keep feeding the federal beast. ♦
George Nethercutt represented the 5th District of Washington in Congress from 1995-2005.