Can Republicans and Democrats finally address the national debt?

Perhaps the most surprising outcome of the 2020 elections is the narrowness of the governing margins in Congress. While Joe Biden was expected by most observers to be the next president, it was unexpected to many that Republicans narrowed the gap in the House. The Senate, meanwhile, has the narrowest margin possible (a 50-50 split with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaking vote) — the first time the Senate has been evenly divided since 2003.

Recent battles over “reconciliation” aside, it goes without saying that only legislation with substantial bipartisan support can realistically pass in this environment. Pandemic relief is perhaps the most obvious example, and while significant disagreements still exist over the size and scope of any package, further relief otherwise enjoys widespread support on both sides of the aisle.

This is despite the fact that the pandemic today looks a lot different than it did nine months ago, when the unprecedented CARES Act was signed by President Donald Trump. Vaccine distribution is now in full swing, cases have begun declining from their all-time highs, and the stock market once again reflects expectations of light at the end of the tunnel.

But as we come out of the economic and public health hellscape of the last year, the potential for a new crisis is beginning to rear its ugly head. The haunting fiscal picture that the coronavirus has left in its wake was summarized in the Congressional Budget Office’s latest Budget and Economic Outlook, and the picture is predictably bleak. Massive, rising debt dominates the fiscal landscape for years to come, and as my colleague recently pointed out, this doesn’t even include the additional $1.9 trillion that is likely to pass.

Whether or not it’s fair, this is an issue that Biden will have no choice but to address. As a report by ProPublica and the Washington Post noted last month, “Donald Trump built a national debt so big (even before the pandemic) that it’ll weigh down the economy for years.” An underappreciated legacy of the Trump years is the massive run-up in the federal debt, and the pandemic certainly didn’t help.

Thus far, however, few ideas have been presented to address this issue, and of those that exist, most have failed to attract the bipartisan support necessary to have a chance of moving forward.

One effort being spearheaded by Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana is the reintroduction of the Maximizing America’s Prosperity Act, legislation that has also been a favorite of House Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady. The bill would seek to better prioritize spending, implement a sunset commission and new sequestration measures, and create a permanent continuing resolution to help avoid shutdowns.

When introduced in the last Congress, however, the bill only attracted two Republican co-signers in the Senate, and it’s unclear whether anything will change this time around. Whether or not Democrats feel compelled to support the MAP Act is beside the point; more troubling is that there has not even been an alternative presented so that a vigorous public discussion can take place.

Another proposed effort from Republicans is the Cost Estimates Improvement Act, introduced by Rep. Michael Cloud, a Republican from Texas. This bill, too, is similar to the one McCloud put forward last session, and like that effort, it would require the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation to start including “costs relating to servicing the public debt” in their cost estimates of legislation. Of course, this legislation wouldn’t address the debt directly, but it would at least nudge Congress toward paying more attention. Nonetheless, in the last Congress, Cloud attracted 27 co-sponsors — none of whom were Democrats.

Both of these efforts would be welcome changes to the way Washington deals with fiscal matters, but neither would be sufficient by themselves to solve the acceleration of debt brought on by the pandemic. While groups such as the Blue Dogs have reemerged and taken fiscal responsibility and transparency seriously, the majority of members on both sides continue to ignore the problem. If relatively straightforward reforms can’t attract bipartisan support, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future prospects for change in Washington.

Approaching an end to the worst of the pandemic means that Washington’s attention will turn to other priorities that have been on the back burner until now. One of those issues should undoubtedly be addressing our fiscal situation, and both sides should come together once and for all to implement substantive reforms before it’s too late.

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Topics: Budget & Appropriations