Why US Deficit Spending Is Out of Control
Why Government Leaders Continue to Deficit Spend
Deficit spending is when purchases exceed income. It happens to individuals and businesses, but it usually refers to governments. Governments have strong incentives to spend more than they take in and few reasons to balance the budget.
When government spending exceeds government revenue, it creates a budget deficit. Each year's deficit is added to the sovereign debt. There is a small but important difference between the deficit and the debt. In addition to the deficit, the government lends money to itself from the Social Security Trust Fund. That adds to the debt without increasing the deficit.
- Deficit spending is an expansionary fiscal policy used to end recessions.
- Congress approves deficit spending to spur growth.
- Deficit spending should be reduced when the economy is on its expansion phase to avoid adding to the debt.
Deficit spending is not an accident. The president and Congress intentionally create it in each fiscal year's budget. They do it to increase economic growth. For example, the government buys defense equipment, medical supplies, and buildings. The businesses it contracts with hire people. The government hires people directly. Both federal and local government spending is a crucial component of gross domestic product.
Deficit spending is also part of expansionary fiscal policy. Job creation gives more people money to spend, which further boosts growth. Tax cuts are the other tool that expand the economy.
The opposite is contractionary fiscal policy. That is when the government spends less than it receives in revenue to achieve a balanced budget. Contractionary policy also includes tax increases.
There is a more powerful cause of deficit spending. Politicians get elected for creating jobs and growing the economy. They lose elections when unemployment is high and when they raise taxes.
U.S. Deficit Spending
Most people blame deficit spending on entitlements. To some extent, that's true. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid cost more than $2 trillion a year. Those payments consume more than two-thirds of the revenue received each year. Fortunately, payroll taxes cover 100% of the costs of Social Security and 50% of Medicare's costs.
This mandatory spending must be paid to legally fulfill the acts of Congress that created these programs. To cut spending, Congress must pass another act to amend or reduce them. This is rarely done since millions of current beneficiaries who are also voters, will have their incomes reduced.
For example, Congress passed the $831 billion economic stimulus package in March 2009 to end the 2008 financial crisis. It paid for extended unemployment benefits and public works projects.
Most people don't realize that wars create more deficit spending than recessions. For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt only increased the deficit by $3 billion a year to fight the Great Depression. He spent around $50 billion a year to fight World War II. If FDR had spent as much on the New Deal, he would have ended the Depression. If the global economy had improved sooner, then perhaps World War II could have been avoided.
The attacks on 9/11 increased deficit spending more than the Great Recession. The War on Terror drove military spending to new heights. The War in Afghanistan cost $28.7 billion in 2001. The War in Iraq cost $1.06 trillion between FY 2003 and FY 2016. That's if you include the budgets of the defense department, overseas contingency operations, and other support departments such as Homeland Security and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Deficit spending under President Barack Obama escalated. He received a Nobel prize for his peace efforts. Ironically, he didn't reduce military spending. In FY 2011, he increased it to a record of $855 billion. He kept it above $800 billion a year until 2012. He lowered it to around $750 billion annually through 2016.
President Donald Trump is no slacker when it comes to deficit spending. He has added $1 trillion to the debt each year he has been in office.
As projected in the FY 2021 budget, Trump plans to add $4.8 trillion to the debt by the end of his first term. That's a 24% increase from the $20.245 trillion debt at the end of Obama's last budget for FY 2017.
The United States can afford deficit spending because the interest on the debt is so low. One reason is that China, Japan, and other investors demand U.S. Treasurys. That's especially true in the face of economic uncertainty. China and Japan are still the largest foreign owners of the U.S. debt, but their appetite has slackened.
Deficit Spending and the Debt
Deficit spending should only be used to boost the economy out of a recession. When the GDP growth is in the healthy 2% to 3% range, Congress should restore a balanced budget. Otherwise, it creates a frightening debt level. When the debt-to-GDP ratio approaches 100%, owners of the debt will become concerned. They worry that the county won't generate enough income to pay the debt.
But attempts to lower deficit spending created conflict within Congress. They
argued over which programs should be cut. In 2013, tea party Republicans shut down the government over this issue. They also hinted Congress would allow the United States to default on its debt in 2013 and in 2011.
The Bottom Line
Deficit spending is intentional. Congress and the president know that it's a sure-fire way to get reelected. Those who benefit from tax cuts and increased spending become loyal constituents. It won't change until voters punish leaders who overspend.
But the result is debt that's greater than the economy's ability to pay it off. Interest payments on the debt consume almost 10% of the budget. As a result, Congress is caught between a rock and a hard place. This dilemma will only worsen as interest rates rise.
Concerned? Contact your U.S. Representatives and Senators and tell them.
The White House. “A Budget for America’s Future: FY 2021,” Table S-4. Accessed March 7, 2020.
Congressional Budget Office. "H.R. 1 Conference Agreement," Accessed March 7, 2020.
Treasury Direct. "Historical Debt Outstanding – Annual," Accessed March 7, 2020.
Congressional Research Service. "The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11," Table A-1, 2014 - 2016 are closest quarter available. Accessed March 7, 2020.
The White House. "The Budget for FY 2013," Table S-11. Accessed March 7, 2020.
The White House. "The Budget for Fiscal Year 2017," Table S-11. Accessed March 7, 2020.
U.S. Department of the Treasury. “The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It,” Accessed Nov. 29, 2020.
Stanford University. "The Facts of Economic Growth," Pages 5-8. Accessed March 7, 2020.
United States Senate. “Senators of the 116th Congress,” Accessed March 7, 2020.
United States House of Representatives. “Find Your Representative,” Accessed March 7, 2020.