Yes, Congress is aware the national debt recently surpassed $22 trillion for the first time in U.S. history.
No, members don’t think they’ll do anything to seriously address it anytime soon.
“I don’t see anybody prioritizing it, and sadly folks often prioritize things when crisis hits. I don’t want a debt spiral crisis to hit,” said Rep. Rob Woodall, Georgia Republican. “I hear lots of conversations about how to spend a whole lot more.”
With the spending process for 2019 now wrapped up, lawmakers are turning their attention to exactly how they plan to avoid $126 billion in cuts set to kick in this October because of Obama-era budget caps.
“I don’t see at this point a lot of appetite for cutting spending,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, Kentucky Democrat.
President Trump likewise has ruled out major cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security — the key drivers of the debt — as he has overseen an increase of about $2 trillion since taking office two years ago.
Mr. Trump has “always been concerned” about the level of debt, said Larry Kudlow, one of the president’s top economic advisers.
But Mr. Kudlow said there shouldn’t be too many practical consequences to the escalating red ink as long as the economy keeps humming.
“As the growth continues, we believe 3 percent growth, I think you’ll see deficits as a share of GDP keep falling,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an issue, a problem. We’re sticking with 3 percent growth. This economy’s very strong.”
Deficits as a percentage of GDP have been growing over the last few years, rising from 3.2 percent in 2016 to 3.5 percent in 2017, 3.8 percent last year, and a projected 4.2 percent this year. By 2029 they are projected to reach 4.8 percent, the Congressional Budget Office says.
Mr. Kudlow said the White House would release a “tight budget, a tough budget” for fiscal 2020 in the coming weeks and Mr. Trump has wanted across-the-board domestic spending cuts of at least 5 percent.
But those cuts are unlikely to go anywhere in Congress, which has gone the other way in recent years.
Defense hawks and Democrats have struck deals to increase budgets for the Pentagon and social services at the same time, leaving the deficit to suffer. That’s known as “parity” on Capitol Hill.
“We should have defense exempt from budget caps,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican. “Parity is something that never happened in America until Obama.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are looking to expand not only discretionary spending but also entitlements. Several proposals have been introduced to boost Social Security payments, and the party’s presidential candidates debate the merits of various expensive health care proposals.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, who officially launched a 2020 presidential bid Tuesday, said policy items such as “Medicare-for-all” are supported by most Americans and are now part of the “political mainstream.”
“Our proposal will cost the American people less than the current dysfunctional system,” Mr. Sanders, the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, said on “CBS This Morning.”
Republicans, who for years have bandied about cuts to entitlement programs, now say there’s no appetite.
After the November midterm elections, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Democrats made it clear they’re not interested, and the GOP won’t jump on its own.
“They’re in a position to say no, and so I don’t think that’ll be on the agenda,” he said.
But some members say there should still be room at least to have the conversation.
“We’re not going to get it all done in one bill, so I’ll take anything that we can do little by little,” Mr. Woodall said. “I told my Democratic colleagues, ‘I’ll work with you on caps. Give me anything that moves the needle on mandatory spending, long-term debt.’”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said this week that lawmakers shouldn’t put the issue off any longer.
“On the discretionary side, we have done well. On the mandatory side, we cannot sustain these programs for the future without taking some action now,” Mr. McCarthy said on Fox News. “And that’s something that we have been running on for the last 10 years.”