It does not take an economist to explain why the United States’ $21 trillion national debt is a financial crisis waiting to happen. National Security Director Dan Coates has even gone as far as to say that the soaring heights of America’s national debt have grown to such an extent that they “[represent] a dire threat to economic and national security.” Worse still, Congress has recently demonstrated that spending astronomical figures such as 130 million years of an average American’s taxes does little to deter massive spending bills from passing comfortably in both chambers.
Gone are the days of John Adams, who, upon being instructed by the Confederation Congress that he needed to secure vital foreign loans as Ambassador to the Netherlands, expressed that borrowing and placing the country in debt “always brings home to my heart the reflection that I am burdening the industry and labor of my fellow-citizens and countrymen with a heavy load.”
Enter the new and hazardous era of governing by crisis.
Freshman Congressman Lloyd Smucker (R-PA) reflected upon this new trend in an op-ed for The Hill, writing that “by governing from one funding crisis to the next, […] Congress has not been able to properly evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of government programs.” This style of governing comes at a price.
A recent Congressional Budget Office report projects U.S. public debt will grow from its current 78 percent of GDP to a whopping 96 percent of GDP in 2028 if we continue on our current course. That is compounded by new projections from the trustees of Medicare and Social Security that the trust funds of both programs will be depleted by 2026 and 2034, respectively. Yet, this news still is not alarming enough for Congress to act.
The stakes are dangerously high for policymakers. Further Congressional inaction—a decision that would result in an instant one-fifth cut in benefits to the programs’ beneficiaries—is also expected to coincide with the 2025 expiration of the Republican tax cuts. As if the projections about Medicare and Social Security were not distressing on their own, President Trump’s past vows that he “promised people [he] wouldn’t change Social Security” and the persistent lack of interest Congress has shown are foreboding indicators that the game of governing by crisis is set to become more irresponsible, costly, and reckless.
The continued unwillingness of legislators to perform the actions of legislating and instead scrambling and frenzying to avert looming disasters of their own creation—often in a manner similar to someone with a credit card addiction—is an affront to the principles these institutions were founded upon.
John Hart said it best when he wrote that “Congress becomes what it repeatedly does not do” with the absence of regular order and an open process. As we have seen with the recent omnibus spending deal, the urgency that is created by these crises also means that anyone who shares John Adams’s scornful opinion of public debt are vilified when they attempt to demand a return to fiscal responsibility.
It is past due for Congress to take seriously the coming crises involving debt and entitlements. Kicking the can down the road is only a strategy for avoiding necessary, difficult, and, yes, politically risky problems so long as there is still road ahead. Our elected officials should think more like John Adams and find solutions to the issues that affect all of us instead of continuing to saddle their fellow-citizens and countrymen with an ever-growing burden.