Over the last two decades, personal debt in America has skyrocketed. Many of us have been living beyond our means and taken on more debt than we can safely manage.
Our government has also been living beyond its means. The national debt limit was recently raised to $11.3 trillion—the sixth increase in the last eight years. It seems Congress is more inclined to raise the national debt--that is, put spending on the national credit card--than to cut wasteful or unnecessary spending. Spending has gotten so bad that the U.S. national debt clock had to be replaced because it ran out of digits.
Right now, our elected officials are trying to fix economic troubles the size of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. But these fixes come at a sizable cost. For the first time in our history, the annual budget deficit is expected to pass $1 trillion in fiscal year 2009. For every household, this would equal more than $8,600 in additional debt. That's on top of a record $455 billion fiscal year 2008 deficit, caused by the impact of a slower economy and initial bailout costs.
A trillion-dollar deficit for fiscal year 2009 would be equal to 7.5 percent of the gross domestic product—the highest percentage since World War II. But the real deficit could be much larger. This trillion-dollar estimate doesn’t include a $150 billion to $300 billion economic stimulus proposal that is expected to come up after the elections; the $80 billion temporary tax plan to fix the Alternative Minimum Tax; or billions for hurricane relief. In addition, Congress has only appropriated about half of the expected $140 billion that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will cost in 2009. And all this at a time when tax revenues will likely decrease because of the economic downturn.
Some of this spending may be necessary. Running a deficit is generally considered prudent during periods of economic recession. The problem is we built up our significant debt through deficit spending during a period of economic growth, so we enter this period of economic challenges in a weak position. Sooner rather than later, Congress will have to turn a corner on its fiscally irresponsible ways.
Let’s be perfectly clear—there are times when Congress needs to spend money. And most Americans want a government that works while living within its means. But rather than reaching for the checkbook at the first sign of distress, Congress should spend more time overseeing how money is spent and not think their job is finished when the check clears.
Lawmakers need to spend as much time focusing on where they can save taxpayer dollars as they do on where they can spend. They also need to make clear that every past budgetary priority should remain on the cutting-room table. Already some are saying that defense or entitlement spending can’t be touched. The problem is if we want to ever get back to balanced budgets, Congress needs access to all available budgetary tools. Limiting important choices by excluding major parts of our budget from consideration will hamstring any effort to get our federal budget in order.
Just like any American household, Congress’s overuse of the national credit card has enabled the country to live beyond its financial means. We haven’t had to make really hard decisions on how to pay for our budget choices. Now our chickens are coming home to roost.
Ms. Ryan Alexander is president, Taxpayers for Common Sense -- a non-partisan federal budget watchdog. www.taxpayer.net. Distributed by Minutemanmedia.org