The issue of America’s public debt — about $28 trillion and rising — has faded away in recent weeks, overwhelmed first by the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and then more recently by the mess Hurricane Ida left behind.
But the debt soon will start getting more attention. President Biden is certain to rally support for his proposed $3.5 trillion spending bill, while congressional Republicans are just as certain to oppose it.
Biden, a Democrat, is right that the government should do something to push the nation forward in a time of economic transformation. But Republicans are right to push back, since Congress already has approved a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that will be paid for, like so much else, with more borrowed money.
The two political parties have bickered mightily about Biden’s proposals, and they are sure to go at it some more when the topic resurfaces. But when you look at four decades’ worth of dollars, there is no doubt that both Democrats and Republicans absolutely love it when the government borrows more money.
Here’s a long-term look at how the public debt has increased, according to Wikipedia:
• 1977-80: With Jimmy Carter as president, the government’s debt ceiling — the total amount of debt the law allowed — rose by 37%, up $253 billion to a total of $935 billion.
• 1981-88: The debt ceiling passed $1 trillion in Ronald Reagan’s first year. Reagan was known for cutting taxes, but he also borrowed heavily. The debt ceiling tripled under him, increasing by $1.86 trillion in eight years.
• 1989-92: Under George H.W. Bush, the debt ceiling exceeded $4 trillion, an increase of $1.345 trillion.
• 1993-2000: Bill Clinton had the good fortune of being the only president in modern times to balance a budget. It happened twice during the dot-com boom. A period of prosperity “only” increased the debt ceiling by $1.8 trillion.
• 2001-08: George W. Bush took office with a debt ceiling of $5.95 trillion, but when he left it had risen to $11.315 trillion, fueled by the cost of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.
• 2009-16: Barack Obama’s two terms added $6.8 trillion to the debt ceiling. Most of that was during his first term as the government responded to the Great Recession.
• 2017-20: Donald Trump’s single term officially added $3.917 trillion to the debt ceiling, raising it to $22 trillion. But Congress suspended that in 2019, meaning more could be borrowed. Trump, followed by Biden, both did so in the public battle against Covid-19. As of June 30, America’s total public debt was $28.5 trillion.
These numbers say that presidents and congresses of both parties willingly raised the debt ceiling, typically opposing the idea only when the other side wanted to borrow money.
The numbers also say two other things: the public really doesn’t care about the debt as long as it gets the services it wants; and our elected officials figured this out long ago. This makes it obvious that this gigantic debt will never be repaid.