The San Juan Daily Star
Republican votes helped Washington pile up debt
By Jim Tankersley
President Joe Biden will submit his latest budget request to Congress on Thursday, offering what his administration says will be $2 trillion in plans to reduce deficits and future growth of the national debt.
Republicans, who are demanding deep spending cuts in exchange for raising the nation’s borrowing cap, will almost certainly greet that proposal with a familiar refrain: Biden and his party are to blame for ballooning the debt.
But an analysis of House and Senate voting records, and of fiscal estimates of legislation prepared by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, shows that Republicans bear at least equal blame as Democrats for the biggest drivers of federal debt growth that passed Congress over the past two presidential administrations.
The national debt has grown to $31.4 trillion from just under $6 trillion in 2000, bumping against the statutory limit on federal borrowing. That increase, which spanned the presidential administrations of two Republicans and two Democrats, has been fueled by tax cuts, wars, economic stimulus and the growing costs of retirement and health programs. Since 2017, when Donald Trump took the White House, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have joined together to pass a series of spending increases and tax cuts that the budget office projects will add trillions to the debt.
The analysis is based on the forecasts that the CBO regularly issues for the federal budget. They include descriptions of newly passed legislation that affects spending, revenues and deficits, tallying the costs of those new laws over the course of a decade. Going back to the start of Trump’s tenure, those reports highlight 13 new laws that, by the CBO’s projections, will combine to add more than $11.5 trillion to the debt.
Nearly three-quarters of that new debt was approved in bills that gained the support of a majority of Republicans in at least one chamber of Congress. Three-fifths of it was signed into law by Trump.
Some of those bills were in response to emergencies, such as the early rounds of stimulus payments to people and businesses during the pandemic. Others were routine appropriations bills, which increased spending on the military and on domestic issues such as research and education.
Many of the votes were roundly bipartisan: More than 85% of the projected debt added over the past six years passed with a majority of Democratic votes in both chambers. Almost an identical amount of debt passed with at least one-third of Republican votes in the House or Senate. Chief among them were a series of COVID-19 relief measures totaling more than $3 trillion and passing with landslide majorities in 2020.
Some of the laws passed entirely along party lines. In those cases, on net, Republicans added slightly more to the debt than Democrats.
That’s because of the sweeping corporate and individual tax cuts that Trump signed into law at the end of 2017, which cost $2 trillion. Despite Republican claims that the tax cuts paid for themselves, the CBO estimated last month that Trump’s corporate tax cuts alone would cost the federal government hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue in the years to come. Earlier CBO analyses suggest the full slate of tax cuts have already cost the government $1.2 trillion through the 2022 fiscal year.
The tax cuts’ price tag outweighed the net cost of the two most fiscally consequential bills that Biden and Democrats passed along party lines: a $1.9 trillion economic aid bill in 2021 and a climate, health and tax bill approved late last summer, which is projected to reduce future deficits by nearly $300 billion.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California and many other prominent Republicans who are now leading the resistance to raising the borrowing limit did vote against large spending bills that other Republicans backed under Trump and Biden. But they also voted for trillions of dollars in pandemic aid under Trump and roundly backed his tax cuts.
House Republicans have pushed to extend the 2017 tax cuts, which would add trillions to the debt. They also support rolling back tax increases and enhanced tax enforcement measures approved by Biden, which would have the effect of adding hundreds of billions of dollars to deficits if they were to succeed.
Top congressional Republicans rarely acknowledge the role that their party has played in adding to deficits and debt in recent years, instead laying the blame on Biden and Democrats.
“Biden’s numerous bailouts and massive government expansion disguised as COVID relief has blown out spending and exacerbated our debt disaster,” Rep. Jodey Arrington of Texas, chair of the House Budget Committee, said last month.
Beyond Congress, Republican candidates have long tweaked their party for not taking a harder line on spending and debt.
“The last two Republican presidents added more than $10 trillion to the national debt,” Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador who is now running for president, told the conservative Club for Growth on Saturday, as reported by Politico. “Think about that. A third of our debt happened under just two Republicans.”
Biden administration officials blame Trump and former President George W. Bush for running up debt, particularly with tax cuts. They claim credit for a decline in the budget deficit under Biden, even though that mostly occurred because the federal government stopped passing emergency aid bills as the pandemic eased its grip on the economy.
“I’m not going to sit and be lectured by MAGA Republicans in Congress about fiscal responsibility,” Biden wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
The budget office’s math is unsparing: It shows both parties acting, often together, to increase deficits and debt in recent years.
Biden has signed laws that are set to add just under $5 trillion to the debt over the next decade, by the CBO’s estimation. The actual amount could be far less because of a quirk in how the CBO accounts for two bills: the infrastructure bill that Biden signed in 2021 and legislation enacted last year to expand health care for military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. That quirk, which requires the budget office to assume certain spending will continue indefinitely even though Congress has not authorized it to do so, could be inflating the cost of the bills by nearly $1.3 trillion.
The estimate of the burn pits legislation could be counting nearly $400 billion in spending twice. The bill essentially shifts a large amount of spending on veterans from a budget category called discretionary spending to one called mandatory spending. The budget office recognizes the new mandatory spending but assumes Congress will not cut discretionary veterans’ spending commensurately. Similarly, the infrastructure law calls for spending on projects such as roads and broadband to increase in the near term and then taper off. The CBO estimates that tapering will never actually happen, and that spending will keep rising at the rate of inflation in later years.
But Biden has added to the debt not just by signing laws. He has also taken unilateral action that independent experts say could cost the federal government hundreds of billions of dollars. That includes the president’s plan to forgive student loan debts for a wide swath of borrowers who earn less than $125,000 a year. The plan, which is on hold as it faces a challenge before the Supreme Court, would add $400 billion to deficits over the next 30 years if carried out, according to budget office estimates.
Trump, by comparison, signed laws adding nearly $7 trillion to the debt in his four-year term, by the budget office’s estimation. That number does not include the cost of making permanent the individual tax cuts passed in 2017 that are set to expire after 2025; the CBO assumes those cuts will expire as scheduled.
McCarthy has acknowledged the degree of debt that Trump signed into law with the help of Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But he has blamed Biden for continued spending after the president entered the White House and has made clear that House Republicans will demand steep cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit.
Asked by Margaret Brennan of CBS News in January about the amount of debt incurred under Trump, McCarthy replied, “You had a pandemic. And, as that pandemic comes down, those programs leave. I have watched the president say he cut it. No, it is spending $500 billion more than what was projected. They have spent more. And we’ve got to stop the waste.”