Dems and the GOP agree: Nobody cares about the national debt

While our current political climate at times seemed without precedent in American history, there is at least one area in which President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE has carried on the tradition of his predecessor, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama setting up big bash to celebrate his 60th A path to climate, economic and environmental justice is finally on the horizon Emergency infrastructure needed to keep Americans safe: Public media MORE: They both presided over an explosion of the national debt.

As a candidate, Trump initially positioned himself as a champion of financial acumen. In 2015, Trump said he would “freeze” the federal budget in order to get spending under control.

Later in the campaign, he promised to eliminate the national debt entirely within eight years. “We’re a debtor nation,” Trump complained to the Washington Post, “We’ve got to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt.”


It is fair to say that things have changed now that he is in office. Last week, the White House announced that its 2020 budget proposal would include a $1.1 trillion deficit. That’s well in line with the repeated $1 trillion deficits that President Obama accrued from 2009 to 2012.

Unsurprisingly, during last month’s State of the Union address, Trump only mentioned the nation’s finances one time: referencing his desire for more spending along the southern border.

When Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyHeadhunters having hard time finding jobs for former Trump officials: report Trump holdovers are denying Social Security benefits to the hardest working Americans Mulvaney calls Trump's comments on Capitol riot 'manifestly false' MORE was asked why the speech included no mention of nation’s ever-increasing borrowing and spending, Mulvaney replied that “nobody cares” about the issue.

Unfortunately, Mulvaney is right: Debt apathy is a common affliction on both sides of the political divide. Former Vice President Dick Cheney famously once told a colleague that “deficits don’t matter.”

Business magnate Warren Buffett joined in recently, urging his shareholders to breathe easy about the debt, a reversal of his previous advice.


Congress is no better: Despite their constitutional authority over financial and budgetary matters, you would be hard-pressed to find a member of the legislative branch who would risk his or her seat by taking on the runaway debt.

A recent review of congressional websites shows that fewer than 9 percent of U.S. representatives and senators cite cutting debt as a top priority. Of the handful who do mention it, they often cite worryingly out-of-date Treasury Department figures.

All this indifference has added up: The official national debt figures stood at $19 trillion when President Obama left office a mere two years ago and recently surpassed the $22 trillion mark.

That is a staggeringly large bill we’ve left for our children and grandchildren, and it does not include other obligations, such as the underfunded Social Security and Medicare programs.

Indeed, if all spending promises were taken into account, the real national debt figure would soar to more than $100 trillion.


Deficits do matter because, without a balanced budget, it is impossible to hold the president and Congress accountable for the spending of our money. Former Treasury official Frank Cavanaugh said it best: “The politicians shouldn’t have the pleasure of spending (i.e. getting votes) without the pain of taxing (i.e. losing votes.)”

Even if few of today’s leaders seem to care about the debt, we are already being affected by its dire consequences. In addition to wasteful spending, the lack of accountability results in spending done to buy political favor. 

In addition, our national security is at risk because we can no longer use our economic might to resolve issues, and we are beholden to those countries that have lent us money.

This year’s interest payments on the debt currently stand at $380 billion — more than the entire GDP of nations like Israel or Ireland. These are tax dollars that can’t be spent on education, national defense or other government programs and services.

To avoid going past this point of no return, our nation’s leaders need to remember that good governance requires that we live within our means, as well as reporting truthful, timely and transparent financial numbers to the American people.

“Making America Great Again” should involve ridding the nation of its out-of-control debt. Surely, if there’s one thing that Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree on, it’s promoting the financial well-being of future generations.

Sheila Weinberg, CPA, is the founder and chief executive officer of Truth in Accounting, an organization that researches government financial data and promotes transparency for a better-informed citizenry. Follow her on Twitter: @Sheila_Weinberg.