Debt Is A Fiscal Catastrophe That We Have Little Hope of Avoiding

By Tom Tillett

“When it comes to the federal budget, what consistently unites Democrats and Republicans is their common capacity to lie to themselves, lie to the public and postpone any serious discussion of the central issues of government spending and taxes” — Robert J. Samuelson, in a March 29, 2015, column for The Washington Post.

Samuelson wrote this almost nine years ago.

Sadly, nothing has changed in Washington, D.C. Republicans and Democrats (rarely, if ever) might talk about cutting spending. But, in reality, no substantial permanent action is ever taken.

There are many existential issues facing our country. However, the federal debt (nearly $34 trillion) is the only one that has the potential to literally destroy America as we know it.

Further, the truly ominous and haunting reality is that there is currently no political solution possible.

There are three main reasons for the coming fiscal catastrophe.

First is us the voters.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in 2012: “Many voters have decided they like spending a lot on themselves and pushing costs onto their children and grandchildren. … They have made it clear that they will destroy any politician who tries to stop them from cost-shifting in this way.”


Most voters are pretty naive when it comes to public policy issues and how the governmental/political process actually works. To be clear, voters are not stupid, but rather are selfish (wanting something for nothing), apathetic, unsophisticated, uninformed or misinformed.

Politicians are very happy about this, because it allows them to offer banal platitudes to their constituents — for example, establishing yet another “debt commission.”

A representative democracy has as a foundational tenet that voters, at the very least, are well-informed, have an awareness of current events and participate in their democracy.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that people must be educated and skeptical. If not, we do not run the  government, but the government runs us.

An unwritten bargain exists between elected officials and voters — the politicians lie and the voters prefer lies. In exchange for lies, we happily reelect you.

So, for a politician, lying is actually a prudent, if immoral, decision. Elected officials have every incentive to avoid the hard issues.

The bottom line is that most voters are perfectly happy with all of the heavily subsidized spending they receive, as long as the costs (massive debt) are shifted to future generations. No group of elected officials would survive confronting their constituents with that truth.

The reality of D.C.

The second reason is how D.C. functions.

Congressman Paul Ryan rose to national prominence as a wonkish “deficit hawk,” meaning he wanted to cut spending — entitlements included.

In 2015, he became the House speaker, putting him in the unique position of actually having the power to address his signature issue.

Sadly, it never happened. He cut taxes (meaning there was even less federal revenue); allowed huge increases in discretionary spending; and permitted several monstrous spending bills to pass.

He was totally unsuccessful.

But why?

The primary job of the speaker is to keep his party in control of the House; therefore, the speaker protects his members from tough votes.

Ryan — who, to be fair, never wanted to be speaker — knew that if he pushed for huge spending cuts, including to entitlements, the Republican members would be forced to make politically fatal votes. And the GOP would face the almost-certain loss of House control.

The stakes are incredibly high, because the minority party in the U.S. House is absolutely powerless. Corporate interests, directly and indirectly, finance many politicians’ reelection campaigns. These same politicians, in a classic symbiotic relationship, sit on committees that have extraordinary power over the corporations’ bottom lines.

An ambitious member of Congress wanting to get a good committee assignment and then move up must raise enormous amounts of money for the party. Guess where they get that money? It seems like a straightforward conflict of interest, so why no howls of protest?

Because, sadly, most Americans are unaware that all these maneuvers are legal in “Las Vegas East,” where real money is won and lost.

Political scientists talk of an “iron triangle” when it comes to making policies. In its three corners are politicians, special interests and bureaucrats/executive agencies.

Note that there is no corner for us. The special interests fund and support the politicians. The politicians, via committees, fund and support the bureaucrats, who in turn provide favorable regulations and favors to the special interests. Bada-bing! It is “Morning in America” for everyone but the voters.

The idea of the “iron triangle” and public choice theory argue that powerful special interest oligarchies have gamed D.C. for their maximum benefit and will crush any attempts to stop their plunder or to shift costs. The average member of Congress has no agency in this equation.

A 2014 study examined about 1,800 legislative efforts to impact public policy. It looked at four groups that influence public policy formation to determine their influence. It found that, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy.”


No practical solutions

The third reason might be the most significant, and indeed the most ominous, one.

There really is nothing to cut.

The federal budget can essentially be broken down into two spending categories — discretionary (not mandatory) and nondiscretionary (mandatory).

Discretionary spending covers things like the number of park rangers and air traffic controllers.

Non-discretionary spending includes Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare (40% of spending).

Per the Congressional Budget Office, nondiscretionary spending is about 72.5% of the budget. For many reasons, defense expenditures are de facto mandatory spending, bringing the non-discretionary total to a whopping 85% of all outlays!

So, in reality, Congress controls roughly 15% of spending; however, that 15% pays for items that Americans view as pretty important. We do not want 747s flying into each other, or bears eating grandma in Yellowstone.

So what can be done? Politically, nothing. Taxes cannot be raised (that’s ineffective, anyway), spending cannot be cut and debt service costs and annual deficits are exploding.

So the Federal Reserve again cranks up the printing presses, and America slowly becomes Argentina.

The fundamental question becomes: Can America survive the coming fiscal catastrophe?

As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “Sooner or later we all sit down to a banquet of consequences.”

Tom Tillett served as district chief of staff for Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts. This originally appeared in the December 31, 2023 edition of LNP.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.