• Candidates and debate moderators in the 2020 presidential campaign have so far spent precious little time talking about the United States’ growing debt burden.
  • The public currently holds $16 trillion in debt; that’s equal to 78 percent of the economy and is the highest level since the World War II era.
  • Lawmakers have proved inept at addressing the issue because harping on America’s deficit spending has become a political tool for whichever party happens to be out of power.

The issue no one’s talking about

One of the most telling signs of the times in U.S. politics isn’t so much about what is being talked about on the 2020 campaign trail as what isn’t: the United States’ growing debt burden.

During the first two Democratic presidential debates earlier this year, the issue was not mentioned a single time by moderators or any of the then-20 candidates, noted David Minge and Tim Penny, former Democratic U.S. House Representatives members and board members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. That trend on the campaign trail has changed little in the months that have followed.

On the Republican side, the platform of fiscal responsibility that drove the Tea Party to prominence during the Obama Administration has given way to other issues like trade, tax breaks, military spending, and immigration. To draw attention to the importance of the national debt and deficit spending and recover the party’s lost voice on the issue, former GOP Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina launched a long shot campaign for president last September.

“(W)e wanted to try and interject this issue, how much we’re spending, into the national debate, which comes along once every four years,” Sanford said. With impeachment in the air, however, he admitted he found no “appetite for a serious nuanced debate” on the issue of the national deficit. Unable to gain traction, Sanford dropped his primary challenge two months after announcing it.

“If you’re going to run against Trump without being able to criticize this abuse of power, there doesn’t seem to be a clear case for your candidacy,” Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who has been working to resist Mr. Trump from within the party, told The New York Times. “(Sanford) always tried to make it about an issue. A single-issue candidacy around the debt in this era can’t find much oxygen.”

On course to hit $1 trillion

The national debt is at historic levels, according to figures from FixTheDebt.org. The public currently holds $16 trillion in debt. This is equivalent to 78 percent of the economy, the highest level since the World War II era. With deficit spending on the rise, this figure is projected to soon start growing by more than $1 trillion every year indefinitely.

This year, deficit spending is projected to rise to $960 billion. This growth in spending has put the U.S. on a course to double its interest payments on the national debt within a decade. Rising health costs and an aging population that increasingly leans on entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, which are among the biggest drivers of spending, will make growing deficits even harder to rein in.

Among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, this lack of fiscal discipline is unique to America. According to the latest data from the OECD, the United State led member countries in general government deficit as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product at 6.6 percent in 2018 — nearly twice as much as the next closest country.

The current trend is especially concerning because the massive deficit spending in recent years has come during a period of economic growth. This, many economists warn, gives policymakers less fiscal wiggle room to ease the negative effects of the next recession. 

There is debate among economists about what levels of debt can be sustained, but the widespread consensus is that eventually it will choke the economy, hinder good governance, and ultimately invite a crisis.

Historically both parties have at least tried to keep debt levels under control. Most recently, the Obama administration created a commission tasked with finding ways to slow the growth of the national debt, while Republicans in the then-GOP-controlled House advocated for a constitutional amendment legally requiring Washington to balance its budgets. These efforts have since fallen to the wayside. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has paid lip service to the concern, calling on lawmakers “to cut wasteful and irresponsible spending.” However few meaningful actions have come out of Congress or the White House during the Trump administration.

How to get people to care

Given that keeping the nation’s fiscal house in order is, ultimately, a matter of existential concern, these trends raise two important questions: Why don’t more Americans seem to care about the issue, and why have politicians proved so inept at doing anything about it?

“I think it’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation where Congress doesn’t care because the public doesn’t care and the public doesn’t care because nobody in Congress is talking about (it), or the president. And so, they don’t think it’s a huge challenge for the country.” Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, on a recent City Journal Podcast episode.

Akabas noted that old tools to get Congress to address the issue are becoming increasingly ignored and ineffective. Take, for instance, the debt limit. 

“I think we’ve seen over the last decade or so that the debt limit…has become less and less useful as a point of leverage in the budget discussions because everybody agrees that shooting the hostage is not a viable outcome. We can’t default on our obligations as a country,” he said.

Without that catastrophic threat being a legitimate concern, lawmakers have even less of an incentive to take steps to cut spending or raise taxes because these levers will be economically painful for many Americans.

“I think part of the challenge is…anything with teeth, Congress and the president aren’t going to want.” Riedl said on the podcast. In other words, it’s simply too politically costly in the short run, and politicians tend to live with an eye toward the next election.

As a result, harping on America’s runaway deficit spending has become little more than a political tool for whichever party happens to be out of power.

“(E)ach party cares about fiscal responsibility more than the other party’s policy priorities, but less than their own policy priorities,” Akabas said. When a party is in power, it would rather address its priorities than make costly choices about taxes and spending.

Another postulated explanation for why there seems to be so little public concern about the national debt is that it is a future threat that will take years, if not decades, to materialize in a way that most people can feel. Conventional wisdom among political scientists is that it is very difficult to gain public support for “pain now/gain later” policies.

In a blog post for The Brookings Institute, Senior Fellow Stuart M. Butler noted that the issue of climate change has defied this trend, driving many younger Americans to take action and advocate for the issue. 

Why isn’t there a similar passion to address deficit spending, which also will result in massive negative long-term consequences? Butler speculated that several factors may be at play, such as Millennials’ lack of firsthand experience with long periods of stagnant growth and inflation, their willingness to find ways to take action themselves, and their high levels of trust in climate change experts. If younger Americans can be engaged to trust experts’ fiscal models and take personal steps that will ease entitlement spending in the future, Butler said, it just might start to move the needle on the issue.

As things stand right now, however, engaging young Americans on the issue remains a big “if.”


Grassroots Pulse covers public policy and political issues aimed at engaging highly-active policy makers, donors, and grassroots leaders at the forefront of the political process in America today.

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