In our opinion: Bring back the deficit hawks

Deseret News editorial board

Scott Applewhite, AP January 2, 2019

The United States’ national debt is fast approaching $22 trillion, and the federal deficit may pass $1 trillion in 2019. As it stands, the U.S. government may find itself in dire economic trouble when the next economic downturn rolls in or even if interest rates simply tick up.

While members of Congress and the president continue their government funding stalemate over border security, poignantly absent is any real discussion about fiscal responsibility.

Consider these numbers:

The country paid $371 billion in interest during fiscal year 2018, roughly equivalent to the entire Medicaid budget. That was a 20 percent increase from the previous year, and that was with interest rates at near-historic lows. Any uptick in rates, even a moderate increase toward historic averages, could balloon yearly interest payments to almost $1 trillion. That’s equivalent to taking all dollars designated for defense and Medicare and throwing them to the nation’s creditors without making a dent in principle. No tax hike or spending cut could reconcile that difference.

The country’s precarious financial perch is indeed what experts from the private sector to the military call America’s greatest national security threat.

Both parties in Congress are responsible for ignoring the debt reality while contributing to its rise. Of course, it’s much easier to ignore a problem when one can punt it down the road with continuing resolutions and debt ceiling increases.

But if Congress fails to act swiftly and decisively in the coming months and years, America may not have many options left to confront any sort of financial crisis. Not dealing with this challenge now may hinder America’s ability to cope with other challenges in the future. Doing nothing is no longer an option. The ultimate challenge would come if creditors knock on the door and call their loan.

It’s unclear if either side in Congress has the political leadership needed to tackle the real national security crisis represented in the national debt. Will Nancy Pelosi, the expected speaker of the House, corral the young, incoming Democrats, many of whom were swept into office on promises of free college, free health care and guaranteed income? Will anyone be willing to engage in that conversation? Can Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell steer his party away from simply talking about fiscal responsibility while actively promoting bills containing continued unchecked spending?

Some fresh leadership could be on its way. Senator-elect Mitt Romney campaigned as a deficit hawk and has pledged to “work with like-minded senators” to oppose “a budget process that prevents effective debate, amendments and spending caps.”

Romney will enter as a junior senator, but his implicit authority as a former Republican Party leader ought to carry enough clout to break through the mold of a typical freshman.

Utah can lead the nation and shape the conversation on this important fiscal issue. Romney, along with longtime balanced budget amendment leader Sen. Mike Lee, could become the ultimate tag-team in order to quickly amass a new coalition of senators dedicated to actually cutting spending, increasing revenue and balancing the budget. That cohort could then apply significant pressure to McConnell to prioritize debt and deficit issues early on the new year’s agenda.

Deficit hawks, once a vocal group, have all but disappeared, taking with them any constructive debate on budget issues. Romney, Lee and a handful of like-minded colleagues could be what Congress needs to strike up that conversation once again.

First appeared Deseret News and linked to Article V Caucus Feb 2019 Newsletter