The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Once again, Congress comes together on the main thing it can agree on — sticking it to future generations

The Capitol on March 9. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

Congress’s sweeping new omnibus appropriations bill is a typical Washington compromise — the surest way to get to yes is to give both sides the irresponsible spending they want.

Announced while most Americans were asleep — around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday — the 2,700-page, $1.5 trillion bill once again significantly raises domestic and military spending without providing a way to pay for it all.

Here are the “trade-offs”: Democrats get tens of billions in new domestic spending while Republicans get tens of billions more for defense. Democrats get a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act; Republicans get a restoration of earmarks, something party leadership has wanted for years to help them control their fractious membership. Both sides get $14 billion in aid to Ukraine, which is billions more than President Biden supported just a couple of days ago.

All that new discretionary spending is real money even by Washington standards. And yet not a dime in new revenue will be raised to offset it.

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This has got to stop.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out why this plan is so unwise, but apparently it is. First, inflation is still rising, and massive, debt-financed government spending during the pandemic is obviously the biggest reason for that. To rein in inflation, we need to stop the borrowing binge first and foremost. But Congress wants to keep its foot on the accelerator.

It’s also unwise because, as everyone knows, the country has a massive, long-term debt problem. Even before covid-19, the federal government was borrowing nearly $1 trillion a year to finance its spending addiction. Pandemic stimulus added trillions to that. The publicly held debt of the United States now equals 123 percent of annual gross domestic product, almost double the figure from 2008. That’s not as high as economic basket cases like Greece or Italy, but it is still one of the highest ratios in the world.

And remember: This is before the full impact of the coming entitlement spending wave is factored in. The Baby Boomer generation, of which I am a part, is moving into its retirement years. The Congressional Budget Office projects that rising medical expenses to care for us geezers will hike the debt dramatically over coming decades. Interest rates are also expected to increase over that time from the historic lows of recent years, further compounding our debt problem.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates the bill would add about $500 billion in the next decade over the estimated baseline. That’s less than half what the Trump tax cuts cost, and yet almost no one will raise their voice in protest as leadership pushes the bill through.

It’s true, as the famous economist Herbert Stein once said, that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The debt will not continue to rise as a share of GDP forever. The question for us is whether that will be by our own choice or not.

Countries that are forced by market conditions to reduce their debt load invariably go through a painful adjustment. Canada raised taxes and slimmed spending for most of the 1990s. Greece has been placed in a fiscal straitjacket by its creditors, measures that pushed the tiny nation into a deep depression for years, with an unemployment rate of 25 percent.

Events will always supply policymakers with an excuse to put off the inevitable changes of course. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing military challenges means defense spending needs to increase substantially over the next decade, just as entitlement spending booms. Financing these necessary items while also providing for other priorities will require bipartisan concord like the 1983 deal that placed Social Security on a secure financial footing for the next 40 years. Serious leaders would rise to all these challenges.

Sooner or later, we all — ordinary Americans and our leaders — are going to have to get serious, and everyone knows the choices. A responsible agreement will inevitably ask more of those who can most afford it. Well-off seniors can pay the full freight for Medicare premiums rather than reap subsidies. Seniors with hefty 401(k) balances and other pools of wealth can also afford a haircut on their Social Security checks, and those in top tax brackets can give up deductions and tax breaks. Spending in lower priority domestic programs can also face the ax. What’s more important, underwriting Big Agriculture and Big Bird or containing Vladimir Putin?

Congress will do its short-term fiscal duty and approve a new spending bill, logrolling slopfest that it is. It’s well past time, however, for it to perform its duty to the future and act to stop the fiscal suffering that awaits.