Almost a decade after out-of-control spending and borrowing fueled the Tea Party revolution in a historic midterm election, no major presidential candidates from either party seem interested in the national debt that now stands at more than $23 trillion, leaving every American citizen owing almost $70,000.
Meanwhile, the federal deficit—or the annual budget shortfall—is more than $1 trillion.
With Democrats proposing ever-more spending in the form of massive government-funded benefit programs, and the Trump administration endorsing spending packages that further swell the deficit, budget hawks aren’t sure when and whether the situation could stabilize.
“Democrats don’t care about budget deficits and the national debt, and it’s an incredibly frightening problem,” said Jason Pye, vice president for legislative affairs at FreedomWorks, a major player in rallying the Tea Party movement of the 2010 election. “The president has said it’s a fifth-year priority, but that’s assuming he’s re-elected. He’s already signed two budgets that increase discretionary spending. Republicans have abandoned any pretense of fiscal responsibility. Not being the Democrats is not good enough.”
In a June report, the Congressional Budget Office forecast that by the end of 2019, debt held by the public would be 78 percent of the gross domestic product—the highest level since right after World War II. Within 15 years, the debt will be larger than the economy and, by 2049, will almost double to 144 percent of the GDP—with entitlements projected to make up about three-fourths of the debt in 30 years, according to the CBO.
Interest on the debt is the fastest-growing part of the federal budget and will total more than $6 trillion over the next decade, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a nonpartisan group advocating fiscal restraint. The foundation projects that interest on the debt will crowd out future spending on education, highway spending, and research and development.
“Unless Congress acts, with some presidential buy-in, we are going to be growing at the rate of a European welfare state,” Pye told Fox News. “Trump has been great on the deregulation and tax side, but spending is the ultimate issue.”
Pye added the Tea Party election of 2010 had some positive results, with about 65 to 70 House members persistently voting against big-spending budgets, aided by senators like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. But, he added, Republicans gave away their major victory from the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Democrats generally blame the Trump tax cuts for the rising budget deficit. But both parties have gone along with more spending.
Just last week, Congress passed and Trump signed a $1.4 trillion budget package that boosts spending levels and is expected to add hundreds of billions to the debt over the next decade. In July, the Democratic House and Republican Senate passed, and Trump signed, a budget to temporarily suspend the debt ceiling and hike federal spending by $300 million.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, in a longshot challenge to Trump for the Republican nomination, has attacked Trump’s fiscal record. Weld backs “zero baseline budgeting,” meaning that Congress wouldn’t automatically fund every federal program at or above the same level as the previous year, requiring each program to justify its budget.
Weld noted he was on the campaign trail talking about fiscal responsibility back in 2010.
“In 2010, Republicans fought against spending. I was campaigning for [former Massachusetts Sen.] Scott Brown that year when he won,” Weld told Fox News. “Both parties are asleep on the issue. The national debt is a generational issue, just like climate change. I’ve been talking to millennials about it and they get it. I’ve told them unless you take action now, you can forget about Social Security.”
“Change has to come to Washington. Republicans have to get their act together,” Weld said. “I’m the opposite of most Democrats that are just proposing throwing more money at everything.”
On the Democratic side, debt and deficits rarely are mentioned on the debate stage or on the stump. Instead, candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are pitching sprawling programs like “Medicare-for-all” and free college.
Democratic support for budget-busting plans like the Green New Deal marks a departure from a decade ago when Democrats at least acknowledged the problem of deficits, said Jenny Beth Martin, founder of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the key organizations in the 2010 elections.
“By and large, Democrats have abdicated even a pretense of caring about fiscal responsibility,” Martin told Fox News. “At the same time, the reason Democratic candidates like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have attacked Liz Warren and Bernie Sanders is because Medicare for All would add $20 trillion to the national debt.”
Those candidates technically have plans to fund “Medicare-for-all,” though Warren has faced skepticism in claiming she could do so without raising middle-class taxes.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the only place where the deficit is regularly discussed is among the diminishing field of low-key primary challengers. Perhaps no moment better illustrated the dying issue of the debt than former South Carolina governor and congressman Mark Sanford showing up in New Hampshire to suspend his GOP presidential campaign, while carrying an oversized $1 trillion check representing the 2019 deficit and made out to “Burden of Future Generations.”
Since the Tea Party revolution, Martin has learned that it’s tough to get politicians to talk about spending. She sees some promise from the Trump administration, arguing that protecting the border will mean less spending in the long term.
Further, she said there is broad support behind the “penny plan,” which would take out one cent of every $1 in federal spending. Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposal includes a version of the penny plan.
“What President Trump has done in his first term is reform government and cut regulation. He has begun to reduce the size and scope of government and his policies are also growing the economy,” Martin told Fox News. “The only way to get a balanced budget is to cut spending and grow the economy. He has proposed budgets that balance to Congress. Congress under Obama and Trump have ignored presidential proposed budgets.”