Editor’s Note: Maya MacGuineas is the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan budget advisory group in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are her own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
As a result of an unprecedented debt binge by Congress over the past year, the national debt is about to roar back to life as a pressing issue after years of hibernation.
In 2010, it was among the nation’s top concerns. President Obama created a bipartisan national fiscal commission to come up with a plan to address it, but a big agreement ultimately failed.
The debt didn’t go away. It has been growing by the second ever since, and the dominoes are about to start falling.
The recent GOP tax cuts and bipartisan spending increases together will add $2.3 trillion to the national debt in the next10 years. If both are made permanent, that amount goes up to $5.1 trillion. And President Trump is already considering another $100 billion of capital-gains tax cuts.
These sums accelerate a coming fiscal freefall and will push the nation over a psychological barrier as soon as next year: trillion-dollar annual deficits.
The last time we had trillion-dollar deficits was during the Great Recession, and it was the understandable outcome of a huge economic downturn. This time it is purely self-imposed, resulting from irresponsible policy choices. And Washington is responding to trillion-dollar deficits by increasing them further with more plans for tax cuts and spending, with nary a peep about how to pay for them.
Several weeks ago, the Congressional Budget Office laid bare in its annual long-term outlook the dire picture, and the next 15 years won’t be pretty. Here is how it will play out, if nothing is done.
In 2022, the Highway Trust Fund will run out of full funding. In 2026, the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund follows. In 2032, the Social Security trust fund surpluses run dry, and all beneficiaries regardless of age or income level will face a 21 percent across-the-board benefit cut. Before 2030, we could have trillion-dollar annual interest payments. Interest rates have been low until now, but that is changing. As rates go up, we have to pay more on new debt and on all accumulated debt.
The amount we pay in interest on the debt is set to triple over the next ten years. But if interest rates rise just 1 point higher than expected, the government will owe an extra $1.9 trillion over 10 years.
This is a multi-trillion dollar problem, one hard to even quantify. And Congress recently couldn’t even agree to cut $1 billion of unspent federal money, which amounted to loose change in the sofa cushions in terms of the federal budget.
These aren’t just eye-popping numbers – there are real, heartfelt consequences for average Americans.
High debt pushes up interest rates, which translates to higher payments on mortgages, car loans, and credit card debt. Because debt is rising, rather than stable, in 30 years, a family with a $300,000 mortgage can expect to pay approximately $45,000 more over the course of the mortgage.
Interest also means less money for the rest of the federal budget. By 2023, we’ll spend more on interest payments than Medicaid or defense. All priorities of all politicians will fall victim. The federal assistance that states rely on will be increasingly uncertain, and social safety net programs will be under pressure.
When the debt doomsday actually arrives is anyone’s guess. We are entering uncharted waters. The highest the national debt has ever been as a share of the economy is 106 percent – immediately after World War II. We are on track to surpass that in 16 years, and debt will overtake the size of the entire economy as soon as 2027.
At the turn of the 21st century, we were on track to actually pay off the debt. Then there was a massive terror attack, two wars, tax cuts and new spending programs, a Great Recession and multiple natural disasters. During a strong economy, we should be preparing for future events such as those, not pushing the credit card to the limit.
One thing is for sure – Washington needs to grow up. Stop the demagoguery. Make some adult decisions. These numbers are so large that the solution cannot be solely spending cuts or tax increases. Both parties will need to compromise to find a path forward.