New act can help us grapple with portion of exploding national debt

Spending and debt are so high — and rising — that noting their rapid growth has all but become a cliché. How many different ways are there to say, “It’s bad and getting worse”? That might be why the issue has all but faded from the headlines and even from last week’s State of the Union.

But as it turns out, there is some good news. Rep. Michael Cloud (R-Texas) recently filed a bill that would make ignoring growing deficits a little bit harder.

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H.R. 638, the Cost Estimates Improvement Act, would amend the 1974 Budget Act to stipulate that the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation “include costs relating to servicing the public debt” in their estimates of legislation.

It would also require the agency to report when proposed spending is duplicative, something the Government Accountability Office also tracks after the fact.

With the exception of the 2011 Budget Control Act that sparked a few short years of minor budget restraint, the last few decades have been defined by growing spending and expansion of the size and scope of government.

Discretionary spending alone has doubled since the 1960s, to say nothing of the massive growth in the nation’s entitlement programs that continually threatens their own solvency within just a few years.

Amid all of this, “debt service payments” may not sound like a major issue. The problem is, the higher the debt gets, the higher that its related liabilities become, not mention the higher the interest rates on that debt get in the future.

The latest CBO report projected that these liabilities will rise to $928 billion — that’s 3 percent of the entire economy — within just a decade.

Cloud’s bill attempts to put at least a little pause on this trend by requiring CBO to include debt service costs in its estimates of bills before Congress.

While the agency occasionally provides insight via addendum or note, legislators are not regularly given this information to consider and, as a result, have a limited view of the long-term impact of the votes they take. That’s why, for years, budget watchdogs have urged Congress and CBO to consider the full picture.

There have been other efforts to pull CBO further into the sunlight, both through legislation such as Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeStop asking parents to sacrifice Social Security benefits for paid family leave The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over New Zealand coverage GOP moves to rein in president's emergency powers MORE’s (R-Utah) “CBO Show Your Work Act,” or through outside pressure like a coalition letter spearheaded by the organization I lead that called on CBO to undertake several key transparency reforms.

The agency seems to be responding to these outside voices, at least if its recent “Transparency at CBO” presentation is any indication.

In announcing his bill, Rep. Cloud said, “Congress hides the true cost of new spending by ignoring how much our nation will have to pay to cover the extra debt that new spending would create. The American people have to account for the cost of debt in our family budgets, and the Cost Estimates Improvement Act would hold Congress to the same standard and force lawmakers to deal with the actual cost of raising our out-of-control national debt.”

Growing spending and a rising debt are the cause of our generation and will not be solved overnight or easily. Much bigger challenges remain if we are to solve the problems that led to the increasingly insolvent national finances.

But by stipulating that official cost estimates provide a full picture of the impact of raising deficits and debt, Rep. Cloud’s bill would take an important step toward the kind of accountability that we need in order to tackle the cause of our generation.

Jonathan Bydlak is a fiscal policy expert and the founder and president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He also spearheads SpendingTracker.org.