Guest editorial:: A bipartisan commitment to ever-higher debt

Sen. Rand Paul briefly speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
(Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

Sen. Rand Paul made a stand against a major budget deal Thursday night, blocking action and forcing a government shutdown in an effort to get a vote on restoring spending caps. He also wanted to raise alarms about the additional $1.5 trillion in debt the measure was expected to produce over the next decade.

“I want people to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “I want them to have to answer people at home who said, ‘How come you were against President Obama’s deficits and then how come you’re for Republican deficits?’ ” His colleagues did not respond with a standing ovation.

Paul only delayed the inevitable, with the Senate voting early Friday to approve the bill and the House concurring soon after. And the spending resumed, with big increases on the way. The two-year package will boost expenditures on defense and domestic programs by some $300 billion, along with $90 billion in new funding for disaster aid.

On the virtually foolproof assumption that the new spending will be extended after two years, the long-term price tag will be far higher. “If temporary provisions in the bill were made permanent, the ultimate cost could increase to $1.7 trillion, or $2.1 trillion including interest,” says the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.


That’s a shame, because the federal debt already exceeds $20 trillion, double the level in 2009. It’s also regrettable because, believe it or not, our leaders had made considerable progress in getting control of federal spending. Thanks to disagreements between Congress and President Obama and a 2011 sequestration deal that neither side much liked, inflation-adjusted outlays were almost the same in 2016 as they were in 2009. As a share of GDP, they shrank from 24.4 percent to 21.4 percent and the deficit dropped by two-thirds.

But both parties have decided the time for fiscal restraint is past. Republicans want to lay out extra funds for the military, and Democrats are eager to put more into discretionary domestic programs. It’s much easier, you have to admit, than devising ways to save money.

Congress also passed a tax reform bill in December that the Congressional Budget Office figured would swell deficits by $1.5 trillion over a decade. Republicans argued — with some basis — that the plan would raise our recent tepid economic growth rate, an achievement that would also boost tax revenue. But if they turn out to be wrong, the added debt will be a drag.

Piling on spending increases at this point is irresponsible. If the economy reaches a permanently higher trajectory, Congress and the president will have more money to allocate to the nation’s needs. If not, the increased outlays will put future taxpayers deeper in the hole.

Last year, Donald Trump offered a budget that envisioned eliminating the deficit — something that hasn’t been achieved since 2001 — by 2027. With the economy humming along, now would be a good time to make real progress toward that. But neither he nor Congress shows any appetite for the sort of sacrifices it would require, primarily reforms to federal entitlement programs that are popular with many voters but also big drivers of deficits.

So in good times and bad, our leaders will go on running up debt. It’s a story that can go on a long time, but it won’t end well.