In a sane world, the news that America will run a trillion-dollar deficit in the next fiscal year would cause at least enough of a stir in Congress to make lawmakers at least a little nervous about their budget votes.
After all, it was support for runaway spending and the specter of a trillion-dollar deficit that cost lawmakers on both sides of the aisle their congressional seats during the conservative Tea Party uprising less than a decade ago. Now that the Congressional Budget Office says we are on course for a return to trillion-dollar deficits—and not during an economic downturn, but at the peak of the business cycle—it would seem appropriate for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to be wary about their role in pushing the country across that symbolic threshold.
Instead, it’s quite the opposite. Congress just passed a $150 billion spending bill—the first of three to be considered in the coming days—with bipartisan support and without significant opposition from the leadership of either party. The bill passed 377-20 in the House on Thursday afternoon, after clearing the Senate with a 92-5 vote on Wednesday.
That’s a mere 25 “nays” (20 of them Republicans, five Democrats) on a major spending bill that promises to add to billions to the deficit. A spending bill that passes less than 48 hours after the CBO revealed that America’s budget deficit had grown by $220 billion during the current year.
There is clearly no appetite in Congress for addressing the deficit. What strikes me as more worrying is the complete lack of concern on the part of the public. Is it because Trumpism has consumed the populist right and redirected its anger about government spending into endless culture war outrages? Is it that the public has become numb to the threat of trillion-dollar deficits, to the point where that symbolic threshold has lost it’s power to spur action? It’s probably a bit of both of those things, combined with the fact that Republicans only seem to care about deficits when Democrats are in charge—a phenomenon that boosts Democratic calls for more spending when they control things.
But this isn’t really a right-versus-left issue, as today’s bipartisan vote shows. High levels of government debt suppress long-term economic growth, something that will make all future political goals harder to achieve, and will reduce everyone’s standard of living.
The right time to have a debate over government spending was back in February when leaders in both chambers agreed to a two-year deal to hike spending on both the military and human services. The budget bills being passed this week are just filling in the line items. Still, with these votes happening so close to the CBO’s announcement that the budget deficit has grown faster than expected, well, you’d expect some grandstanding or some floor speeches or some something from a few members of Congress, even if full scrutiny of the spending package is too much to ask.
Instead, pretty much all we got was a tweet from reliably budget-conscious Rep. Justin Amash.
This afternoon, Republicans and Democrats will vote yes on a nearly $150 billion spending bill loaded with corporate subsidies and nonessential items. Media will largely ignore it. Each side will later disingenuously blame the other for our government’s growing deficits and debt.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) September 13, 2018
The gap between what the government spends and what it takes in will grow next year, with spending set to increase by 7 percent during Fiscal Year 2019 while revenue will grow by only 1 percent. That’s thanks to a combination of tax cuts and spending increases approved over the past 12 months by the Republican-controlled Congress.
The budget bills passing this week—Thursday’s House vote sends a so-called “mini-bus” of funding for military programs, the Department of Energy, and includes Congress’ own budget—will avert a possible government shutdown on Oct. 1. Despite the lack of funding for a border wall, President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bills.