Debate over the appropriate size and responsibilities of the federal government is as old as the nation. The national debt plays nicely into this storyline for those on the Right who don’t like big government and the taxes required to sustain it. On the Left, which is more receptive to calling upon the federal government to solve problems that the markets can’t or won’t, the size of the federal government is not generally an issue and the debt rarely takes center stage [pending progress update] as a matter of concern.
Conservatives have raised alarms over the years about the growing debt problem while invoking fears of creeping socialism in its criticisms of “big government” and the entitlement programs of “tax and spend liberals”. The rhetoric has resonated with some Americans but has yet to translate into concrete policy changes to bring down the debt.
In fact, data from the Office of Management and Budget tells a surprisingly different story. Since 1953, the debt as a percentage of GDP actually was reduced under four of five Democratic presidents, whereas it increased under four of the six Republicans who completed their terms during this time. In just his first year in office, President Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress embraced tax cuts that will add at least $1.5 trillion to the debt over 10 years. The one time that the debt rose under a Democrat was when President Obama spent the nation out of the Great Recession that started the year before he took office.
As noted, on the political Left, rising debt is a lesser priority – or not a priority at all – as the focus there is on reducing income and wealth inequality. Progressives’ primary concern with the debt is that conservatives will use the issue as a mechanism for eliminating needed social and environmental programs. The 2017 tax bill only heightened the Left’s concern in this regard, as several conservatives in and out of office have suggested a “next step” that would involve additional tax cuts coupled with budget cuts to critical social programs.
Reluctance to Cut Valued Programs and Organizations
As the Growth of Government storyline indicates, many parts of the federal government were created to implement solutions to specific problems that affected various constituencies. Other parts of the government support scientific research, education, and other investments in the future health of the economy. Efforts to eliminate or reduce funding to these programs and government organizations swiftly runs into opposition from those constituencies that depend on them, and from those who see a need to keep the solutions and investments in place.
The bottom line: spending cuts will be difficult to achieve because it will force hard decisions on politicians who are reluctant to reduce spending on popular programs and who don’t want to lose the support of voters.
Infrastructure and Climate Change Requirements
The nation has already identified infrastructure rebuilding as a substantial area of new spending to enhance prospects of future economic growth. The American Society of Civil Engineers reported a funding gap of $2 trillion in the $4.5 trillion budget needed through 2025 to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.
Spending demands also are increasing as the effects of climate change begin to be felt. Already in the last 30 years, the number of extreme weather events has more than doubled, and the amount of damage they’ve inflicted has risen by 175% to $750 billion since 2009. In 2016, the United Nations Environmental Program estimated that climate change adaptation costs – building things like sea walls around New York City and Boston and more resilient roads and sewage systems – will cost between $140 billion and $300 billion per year over the next ten years. By 2050, that range is estimated to be between $280 billion and $500 billion per year, and UNEP cautions that major information gaps suggest this range is likely to raise costs higher.
Additional spending needs resulting from another economic crisis, new wars, and domestic security requirements could make it even more difficult to establish a more sustainable budget policy that reflects the needs and priorities of the majority of Americans.