Twenty-nine members of the Senate and House met for the first time last Wednesday to try to do what Congress has been unable to do for a while — govern responsibly and undramatically on a deadline but without creating a crisis.
Expectations are modest for this conference committee, whose members hope to craft a proposal by Dec. 13 that gets us through a year or two without another shutdown or fiscal cliff.
There also are intentions of replacing the sequester, which has automatically cut spending on everything except Social Security, Medicaid and some other programs, with something more targeted. Lots of people don’t like the sequester because it’s sort of a meat cleaver approach. They’d rather use a scalpel, but at least the sequester has cut spending where no other tool has worked.
The committee met on the same day that President Obama’s administration announced that the fiscal year 2013 deficit – how much farther the country went into debt this past year alone – was $680 billion, or 4.1 percent of our gross domestic product. That’s how much of our economy was borrowed from our children.
This is good news, sort of, because the annual deficit had been more than $1 trillion during each of the past four years. In 2009, it was 10.1 percent of GDP. We’re a little less in the red because the economy is improving, because some spending has been cut automatically through the sequester, and because Congress raised taxes on the wealthy and allowed payroll taxes to return to their previous levels.
The national debt, which is the cumulative amount of debt from all the previous deficits plus this one, is about $17.1 trillion.
Deficit, debt – those terms can be confusing. The deficit describes one year’s activity; the national debt is what has built up over time. When the deficit is dropping, it doesn’t mean we are paying down the debt. It means the debt is increasing more slowly than it was.
That $17 trillion figure is hard to punch into a calculator, much less grasp how it affects average people. Put it this way: This past year, the federal government added $2,145 more debt for every American man, woman and child. The cumulative national debt is almost $54,000 per American, or about $216,000 per family of four.
This is not simply a long-term problem, but a permanent one. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the federal government has never begun a fiscal year not owing anybody anything. At the nation’s beginning in 1790, the government owed more than $71 million. That number began to drop in the late 1820s until, in January 1835, the national debt was paid off under Andrew Jackson, who hated debt.
That did not last long. By the beginning of 1836, the national debt was $37,500. It hit $1 billion in 1863 during the Civil War and $1 trillion in 1981. Since Sept. 30, 2000, it’s risen from $5.7 trillion to its current $17.1 trillion.
The Founding Fathers, for all of their world-changing brilliance, did not create a government capable of paying its bills on a consistent basis, so at some point elected officials must pass major reforms that change the way government spends money.
Major reforms seem a long way off when Congress and the White House can’t even agree to keep the government open, but at least the tone seems a little different than it was a couple of months ago. Most everyone agrees the shutdown was a bad thing, except for certain politicians who were helped politically.
Best case realistically is that Congress produces a little less drama, avoids a crisis, and reduces the deficit, though not the debt. Given what we’ve seen lately, that would be progress, and a welcome relief. Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is