When $8 Trillion Isn't Enough

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

THE GOVERNMENT, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow informed Congress last week, has now taken "all prudent and legal actions" to avoid bumping up against the debt ceiling. The limit, Mr. Snow told lawmakers, will need to be raised from its current level: $8,184,000,000,000. If you aren't used to deciphering that parade of zeros, let us translate for you: $8.184 trillion isn't enough. The administration is asking for an additional $781 billion.

The inevitable increase will be the fourth such hike in five years, for a total rise in the national credit limit of more than $3 trillion. During his time in office, President Bush has presided over a 46 percent increase in the federal debt, from about $5.6 trillion. By contrast, during President Bill Clinton's two terms, the debt grew from less than $4 trillion to $5.6 trillion, a 28 percent increase -- and during the last few years of his presidency, Mr. Clinton actually began to pay down the country's "real" debt, that is, debt held by the public, as opposed to the IOUs in Social Security and other government accounts.

Put another way, Mr. Bush has managed to rack up more new debt during his five years in office than the entire debt amassed by the United States through 1988. And there is more to come: The president's budget envisions the debt rising to $11.5 trillion by 2011. This means that an increasing share of an increasingly tight budget must be devoted simply to paying interest -- an estimated $220 billion this fiscal year alone. Remember: This is the president who entered office promising to pay off $2 trillion in debt held by the public over the next decade. Far from being paid down, the debt held by the public has grown, from $3.3 trillion in 2001 to $5 trillion this year.

In the end, of course, Congress will vote to raise the debt ceiling, as it must. Indeed, the House has already done so, quietly, under a rule designed to let members take that step without having any politically damaging attention called to it. The Senate is to take up the issue this week, most likely just before it leaves on its latest recess; there, too, the hope of the majority is to get this unpleasant business over with as quickly as possible. But Democrats have secured an agreement to vote on several amendments, including tying the debt increase to restoring pay-as-you-go requirements on new entitlement spending or tax cuts. This is mostly for purposes of political point-scoring -- the amendment's not likely to be approved -- but that doesn't take away from the importance of doing something to get the budget under control.

Because, as the debt ceiling approaches $9 trillion, it's time to pause and consider the unabashed recklessness of the Bush administration's fiscal policies and its unwillingness to alter its tax-cutting course to accommodate new budgetary realities. "Future generations shouldn't be forced to pay back money that we have borrowed," Mr. Bush said in March 2001. "We owe this kind of responsibility to our children and grandchildren." Where is that responsibility now?


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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