America’s recent presidents have been all over the spectrum politically, but they shared one thing in common: near-total indifference to our national debt.
George W. Bush wasn’t that interested in fiscal matters, not vetoing a single bill his first six years in office. He exerted little influence as the deficit started to climb. Barack Obama zealously pursued spend and borrow strategies. He affirmed the mindset of ignoring future implications.
Fiscal conservatives who hoped a Republican president could right the ship were crushed when Donald Trump announced the giant entitlement programs were safe from reform on his watch.
Now, Joe Biden, in a time of peace and prosperity, except for our self-inflicted Covid relief spending, has proposed a $6.1 trillion budget which includes authorization of almost $4 billion of borrowing in a single year. That’s enough debt, inflation-adjusted, to finance the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and both world wars combined (but not the Green New Deal).
Why do presidents matter? After all, appropriations bills must originate in the House and the president has no constitutional spending authority.
The reason is that most politicians, including many who won’t admit it, love spending money without having to raise taxes. Budget cutting is tough work and costs political support.
No matter how urgent the reductions or how indefensible the cause, the deprived party always raises a media-supported stink while the beneficiaries – the taxpayers of the future – are mute. Knowing that your “conservative“ leaders aren’t fully behind your cost-cutting efforts stymies even the most stalwart legislators.
But the Biden administration is breaking new ground. They came into office with the virus on the wane, vaccinations becoming available through the prodigious efforts of their predecessors and the economy growing. Meanwhile, the graph showing the growth of federal debt, now over 100% of GDP, resembles a hockey stick.
But they didn’t despair at the apparent lack of opportunity to spend now that they had the reins. The New Republic advised to “spend like crazy“ anyway and influential party leftists like AOC and Bernie agreed. So they created an imaginary crisis requiring $1.9 trillion more in Covid relief in addition to the $3.7 trillion already spent.
Pitching a crisis just now isn’t easy to do. The housing market is up 12%, manufacturing is at a five-year high, unemployment is falling and private-sector GDP growth was 4.3% in the last quarter.
Still, they soldier on. But the “Covid relief” bill looks suspiciously like a Democrat wish list. There’s a $15 minimum wage mandate. Those who are still unable or unwilling to work get a $400 per week bonus employment benefit, which will make working a losing proposition for many. Schools get $130 billion, even though they have been mostly closed and unable to spend their previous allocation.
There’s $400 billion to bail out overly generous pension plan promises in big-spending states. There’s pork galore. Art, farms, climate, bridges, you name it. About 4% of the funding goes directly combating Covid.
Biden is determined to reward his political supporters. He preposterously insists that he learned the dangers of spending too little from the 2009 “shovel ready“ infrastructure debacle and won’t repeat that mistake. It’s not intuitively clear how, if they couldn’t constructively spend $830 billion, even more money to bungle would have helped. Still, spending for its own sake has become the de facto operating principle.
Republicans as usual are ramping up their anti-spending rhetoric now that Democrats are in charge. Democrats love to point out Republican past fiscal failures to justify their own reckless behavior.
But not one congressional Democrat has stood up to demand a stop to the madness. Groupthink is a powerful force. Surely some of them must be sane enough to recognize that we are on an unsustainable and highly dangerous path and that we are unconscionably victimizing our children and grandchildren.
It’s not rocket science. Yet the desire to be a good member of their tribe trumps all.
So this is how the new Bidenland works. There’s no longer any need for Covid economic relief and, if there were, this “rescue” bill wouldn’t provide it. We spend because we can.
Thomas C. Patterson, MD is a retired Emergency Medicine physician, Arizona state Senator and Arizona Senate Majority Leader in the ’90s. He is a former Chairman, Goldwater Institute.