Alarm bells are ringing on the federal debt

Alarm bells are ringing on the federal debt
© Greg Nash

If you’re reading The Hill, chances are you’ve heard the scary statistics or doomsday predictions about government spending. Or you’re heard it from the Congressional Budget office or Congressional Research Service or CBS, or you’ve heard it from House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Defense: Latest on spending fight - House passes stopgap with defense money while Senate nears two-year budget deal | Pentagon planning military parade for Trump | Afghan war will cost B in 2018 House passes stopgap spending measure with defense money MORE or Office of Management and Budget Director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyOvernight Regulation: EPA sued over water rule delay | House passes bill to ease ObamaCare calorie rule | Regulators talk bitcoin | Patient groups oppose FDA 'right to try' bill Mnuchin wants to know how consumer bureau is handling Equifax breach Overnight Finance: Senators near two-year budget deal | Trump would 'love to see a shutdown' over immigration | Dow closes nearly 600 points higher after volatile day | Trade deficit at highest level since 2008 | Pawlenty leaving Wall Street group MORE

In short, there is no shortage of professionals sounding the alarm over spending. If you’re like me, each time you’ve heard those, you’ve wondered, “How is that possible?” or “How did we get here?” or “If that were true, Congress wouldn’t be getting away with it.”

Well, it’s true. Congress is bankrupting the country and robbing future generations of Americans to pay for it. It’s dangerous. A debt crisis, and all the terrible economic effects of that, are looming. Both parties are guilty. Every single congressional leader is to blame.


Okay, so it’s true. But how did it happen, and how are they getting away with it? The events of this week perfectly illustrate how the one-way spending ratchet works, why Congress votes to pass it, and how they’re getting away with it.

The Bipartisan Budget Act is 652 pages long. The bill increases spending by $386 billion over two years and nearly $1.5 trillion over 10 years. It also suspends the debt ceiling until after the next election.

This is a massive and sweeping increase in federal spending. The increase in domestic spending is three times larger than even the increase requested by President Obama in his last budget.

It was first proposed in the form of actual legislative text after 10 o’clock on Wednesday night. It was done and dusted, signed into law by 9 o’clock Friday morning. It took only 35 hours for both chambers of Congress to read, process, debate, and pass the 652-page bill. 

The House committee and floor process took only two hours and 23 minutes. Total. To make matters worse, nearly all of the action on this bill was in the dead of night with a government shutdown looming. The level of irresponsibility and absence of principle and decency over those 35 hours is unfathomable.

Here’s how it happened, how it’s happened before, and how it will definitely happen again. In 2010, the Tea Party wave hit, rooted in outrage at Congress’s lack of fiscal discipline. In 2011, in response, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which placed mandatory limits on annual spending with a powerful enforcement tool called sequester.

When Congress wanted to exceed those limits, then-House Budget Chair Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayLawmakers eye retirement help for gig economy workers Overnight Regulation: Labor Department reportedly hid unfavorable report on tip-pooling rule | NY plans to sue EPA over water rule | Senators urge FTC to probe company selling fake Twitter followers Trump's vows to take on drug prices, opioids draw skepticism MORE (D-Wash.) struck a deal to increase defense and non-defense spending in equal portions — and a new tradition of irresponsibility was born. Congress realized then that a portion of Democrats was willing to give Republicans a defense increase and a portion of Republicans were willing to pay their ransom for that increase.

In 2015 and again this week, Congress repeated that model. Each iteration of the Bipartisan Budget Act has been bigger than the last, with the most recent exceeding the last two combined by $150 billion.

The equation that played out over those 35 hours is not all that complicated. Most Republicans are concerned about a real crisis of readiness in the U.S. military and are focused on getting the Pentagon the resources they need. After months of stalled spending negotiations, those Republicans are desperate and frustrated, and Democrats extracted a ransom.

As with all ransoms, the hostage taker asks for more each time. This time the price was $131 billion in additional domestic spending.

To successfully extract a ransom, you need two ingredients. You need a ticking clock. (Government funding was set to expire at midnight on Thursday.) You need a valuable hostage. (The U.S. military is perhaps the most valuable asset in history.)

Democrats didn’t even bother to make the case for any increase in domestic spending. They demonstrated not one single reason to increase domestic spending. They don’t even have a private justification for the spending they wanted. They just named a price they thought they could get — and they got it.

Thomas Binion is the director of Congressional and Executive Branch Relations at The Heritage Foundation.