Congress Is Still Ignoring Its Spending Problem as Deadline Looms for $1.3 Trillion Spending Bill

Four out of five voters agree that Washington has a spending problem, but a new omnibus spending bill will add yet more to the national debt.


Alex Edelman—CNP/Newscom

Congressional leaders hope to vote on a new spending bill by the end of Thursday, a day before the deadline to avoid another government shutdown.

The $1.3 trillion* bill will fund the federal government through the end of the current fiscal year on September 30. According to reports from Politico, CNBC, and other outlets, big ticket items still being negotiated include how much to spend on President Donald Trump's border-wall pet project, how much to spend on a new train tunnel linking New Jersey with New York City, and whether to include protections for immigrants who came to America illegally as children.

You know what's almost entirely absent from the discussion? Any concern for America's long-term fiscal health.

To be fair, the right time to have that discussion was probably earlier this year, before Congress passed the budget deal that paved the way for this bill. The omnibus package set to pass this week fills in specific line items, while the budget outlines spending priorities in broad strokes. But instead of addressing any deeper fiscal issues, lawmakers voted to raise spending caps and add to the national debt.

The current budget plan will add an estimated $1.7 trillion to the federal debt in the next decade, and it will cause the Treasury to run a trillion-dollar deficit every year for the foreseeable future, according to a nonpartisan analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Because tax cuts passed late last year reduced future government revenues, higher spending in coming years will have a dramatic effect on America's national debt. The committee projects that annual interest spending on the national debt will rise from $263 billion in 2017 to $965 billion by 2028.

Not everyone in the government is ignoring the problem. David Malpass, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for international affairs, told Fox Business last month that he's increasingly troubled by huge budget deficits. "I think it is too high now, and it's going higher," he said of the national debt.

It's going higher, in part, because of quick succession with which Republicans approved tax cuts and massive spending increases, a combination that undercut an argument Republicans have used for years to push for lower taxes. Only by cutting government revenue could spending be brought under control, the argument went. That logic seems to have misunderstood just how disconnected revenue has become from spending—even among Republican officials who spent a good portion of the past decade talking about the need for fiscal restraint.

"It turns out that tax cuts did not starve the beast," writes Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "The beast simply grabbed a plate of deficit-finance and continued eating."

If cutting taxes can't bring spending under control, the last, best hope lies with voters. A February poll from Rasmussen Reports found that 77 percent of likely voters think politicians' unwillingness to cut spending is more to blame for the budget deficit than taxpayers' unwillingness to pay more in taxes. Voters also say they want Congress to balance the budget, Rasmussen reports, but they generally believe that won't happen.

The usual caveats apply here. First, it's not surprising that a poll of voters found that voters think politicians are the problem. A poll of politicians would probably show that they think voters' unwillingness to pay more in taxes is a larger part of the problem. Second, voters in aggregate usually agree that they want to pay less in taxes and see the government spend less—but it's difficult to get a consensus on what, exactly, should be cut.

Foreign aid usually polls well as a target for spending cuts, but it accounts for a teeny, tiny share of federal spending. If you're serious about getting the federal deficit under control, you need serious cuts to the Pentagon and to entitlements—and election after election shows that, given the choice, voters tend to back candidates who promise to increase spending in those areas while railing against proposed cuts.

Indeed, the federal government could eliminate all spending except entitlement programs and the interest on the federal debt, and the budget still would not be balanced.

If voters call for bringing deficits under control and for cutting spending—not only in surveys, but at the ballot box—there's perhaps some small hope that the trend of higher spending and more borrowing can be reversed. In the meantime, Congress appears ready to gorge itself with massive spending increases that will drive the national debt to new highs.

CORRECTION: This post erroneously described the omnibus bill as spending $1.3 billion. It will spend $1.3 trillion.