What do Republicans mean when they say ‘spending-driven debt’?
I got a weird e-mail from John Boehner’s office yesterday. “No Reason to Wait,” it said. “Let’s Address Spending-Driven Debt Now.”
So what’s “spending-driven debt”? I’m not exactly sure. But there are a whole lot of references to it in my inbox. Later that same day, I got another e-mail from Boehner’s office about “the spending-driven debt that threatens job creation and economic growth.” And on May 4, I got an e-mail from Boehner’s office saying “those looking for work can’t find it because ObamaCare, our spending-driven debt, and the threat of tax hikes are making it harder for small businesses to hire.”
I tend to think I’m pretty up on the budget lingo. But “spending-driven debt” is a new term for me. In fact, it seems to be a new term period. The first mention I can find on Lexis-Nexis is from Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) who, on Feb. 14, 2011, told CNN’s Gloria Borger that “we have a spending-driven debt crisis that is harming job growth in America and frankly, threatens the American dream for our children.”
(It’s a common tic of political speech, but don’t you love the “frankly” in that sentence? As if Hensarling is telling Borger a secret? “Frankly, Gloria, my political opponents are doing a bad job governing the country. Whew! Feels better to finally get that off my chest. Honestly really is the best policy.”)
I can’t find an actual definition of “spending-driven debt.” But I assume it means debt driven entirely by new spending. And we can actually calculate what percentage of our debt is driven by new spending.
The Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative recently assessed the various drivers of our national debt. They broke the drivers of debt into three categories. There’s new spending. There’s new tax cuts. And there’s economic and technical changes — so, what happens when the economy collapses, or the population ages.
New spending accounted for 41 percent of our debt since 2001. So if “spending-driven debt” is all that Republicans want to address, they’re leaving most of our debt problems alone.
If you break it down by policies, the term becomes even more absurd. The single largest debt-producing policy passed since 2001 was the Bush tax cuts. It’s followed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent years, the driver has been the economic aftereffects of the financial crisis and, to a lesser extent, the policies, like TARP and the stimulus, that were passed to ameliorate them.
So if you read the chart carefully, you would say we should reverse the tax cuts, stop launching so many deficit-financed wars, and make sure we regulate the financial sector so it doesn’t blow up again. But that’s not exactly the Republican agenda right now.