National Debt

Ye Shall Know Them by Their Debt

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Donald Trump certainly knows how to drive the news cycle. When archivists of the future pore through the headlines from September 2017, they will see not only the real-world calamities of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, but such Trump-driven ephemera as calling the leader of North Korea "Rocket Man," accusing old sparring partner Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.) of delivering "a tremendous slap in the face to the Republican Party," and sending the entire country into a culture-war tizzy over the once-small number of professional football players who kneel in protest during "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Jesus taught us that "ye shall know them by their fruits," but as the Republican-led 115th Congress stumbles from one legislative nonstarter to the next, it's becoming clearer that the president's main fruits are his tweets. It took Barack Obama five years to get to the "pen and phone" executive-action phase of his presidency; it has taken Trump around five months. "It's really caught on. It's really caught on," the president reportedly bragged to GOP lawmakers on Day 5 of his fabricated National Anthem feud with the National Football League.

One subject that hasn't received much of the president's attention, even though it dominated Republican politics as recently as four years ago, is the national debt. In fact, the month of September included some of the grimmest milestones in recent memory for those of us who prefer government to pay its own way, rather than incur massive debt overhangs that dampen economic growth and impoverish the future. To wit:

On September 6, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey (Irma and Maria had not yet hit), only three members of the House of Representatives—Justin Amash (R–Mich.), Andy Biggs (R–Ariz.), and Thomas Massie (R–Ky.)—voted against spending $8 billion on hurricane victims because the bill did not include offsetting cuts. That compares to the 179 Republicans and one Democrat who voted against a $60 billion aid package after Superstorm Sandy back in January 2013.

On September 8, Trump signed into law a deal he forged with Democratic congressional leaders to raise the debt ceiling from $19.84 trillion to $20.16 trillion.

On the grim anniversary day of September 11, the nation's debt clock crossed the ominous $20 trillion threshold. Most economists agree that growth becomes dampened after a country's ratio of debt to gross domestic product creeps higher than 90 percent; we've been north of 100 percent for some time now, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that we are on pace to soon break the all-time record set at the height of World War II.

On September 18, the Senate passed the $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act, showering more money on the military than even the pro-buildup president had sought. "It's a grandiose spending plan," Sen. Dick Durbin (D–Ill.) observed to The New York Times.

Meanwhile, the Republican Congress has shown zero ability to accomplish the minimal task of passing an annual budget, let alone to enact revisions to an Affordable Care Act that is putting future generations even further in the red.

In the middle of this monthus horribilis, I asked Amash, one of the last true fiscal conservatives left, what we can expect for the trajectory of federal spending. His answer should be chilling to anyone who favors limited government: "It's looking as bad as any time I've seen since I've been in Congress," he said. "Overwhelmingly, Congress continues to move in the wrong direction, the federal government continues to move in the wrong direction."

It's the age-old story: Republicans' interest in spending cuts is inversely proportional to the amount of power they hold. "I think this tends to happen when one party has full control of government," Amash concurred. "That party starts to go on a spending spree, and stops worrying about the debt and deficits."

Trump, who campaigned as a vigorous opponent of Bush-style conservatism, now seems poised to preside over a very Dubya-like increase in spending while Republicans control Congress. And as if to top off his Bushian month, the president on September 27 unveiled a 10-year tax-cut package that will almost surely make the deficit even worse.

"Republicans want to cut taxes by $1.5 trillion—while the government already is running a deficit—and they propose to offset those cuts with wishful thinking," scoffed National Review correspondent Kevin D. Williamson.

Let us stop pretending to know Republicans by the words they speak while in the opposition. When the GOP holds power, what matters is its fruits.

And they're rotten.