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Growing Congressional Dysfunction Will Worsen Our Fiscal Problems

National Review

March 7, 2024

Few were surprised when deposed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) retired in December. While Republican leaders tend to exit quickly after losing committee gavels or leadership posts, the additional departure of other respected senior lawmakers in both parties is damaging legislative capacity on the Hill. Congress is losing the sort of policy-making veterans it needs to craft and pass important legislation. Their reasons for leaving vary and often include Congress’s general inability to pass needed legislation. That dysfunction is evident in Congress’s long-standing failure to stem growing deficits and debt — which is now making the job of legislating even harder. Unfortunately, that also means that members focused on actually making law have more reason than ever to say goodbye to Congress — further compounding the problem.

It has long been obvious that Washington has a big problem with deficits. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the annual federal deficit will approach $1.6 trillion in 2024 — in a year of historically low unemployment, when deficits similarly ought to be low. What’s worse, under current law, annual deficits are projected to rise to more than $2.5 trillion within ten years, driven by surging entitlement spending. Just the interest on accumulated federal debt will exceed $870 billion this year alone and nearly double in the coming decade.

The blame for growing deficits rests with both parties, demonstrated by recent major legislation. Democrats frequently lament the tax cuts in Republicans’ 2017 tax-reform law, which was projected to increase deficits by $1.5 trillion over ten years. But in early 2020, both parties supported the even larger CARES Act, the initial $1.7 trillion salvo of pandemic unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, and state aid — all of which was added to the deficit. Democrats subsequently acted alone when they enacted their still larger American Rescue Plan, which added another $1.9 trillion in debt, mostly through benefit and other spending increases.

In each of those cases, congressional leaders used extraordinary budget and procedural tools that cleared the way for deficit-increasing laws — even as Congress and the administration have agreed to ignore underlying entitlement-driven debt. But what may have made sense in the short run only added to the already large and growing debt burden in the long run. And even in Washington, the long run eventually arrives. The $5 trillion spending spike during the pandemic contributed to the recent 40-year-high inflation and elevated interest rates, driving home for everyday Americans the fact that soaring federal spending and debt are harming their personal finances.

Congress seems to have taken notice. One of the few significant bills to clear the House this session is a bipartisan tax bill that advanced only because it includes apparent savings sufficient to cover the cost of its temporary tax cuts and benefit increases. Such politically acceptable savings provisions are naturally in short supply. In this case, lawmakers propose ending a temporary pandemic-era program riddled with fraud — which was funded entirely with deficit spending and was massively over budget in the first place.

Even this modest example reinforces the challenge facing members of Congress who are interested in making law in the years ahead. As deficits mount and Americans become more attuned to the negative consequences of Washington’s profligacy on their personal finances, the usual “spend now and ask questions later” approach to legislating will continue to break down. Already, as the Wall Street Journal recently headlined, an unhappy era of big taxes is upon us. To keep legislation from further increasing the deficit, cutting other spending is an option but a rarity in D.C. That suggests that the future will likely feature a drive for still more tax hikes — beyond those already needed to cover soaring entitlement costs — which will only make legislating harder and less rewarding, especially for rank-and-file members of Congress who often have little input in important bills.

The answer to this frustration is not to pretend that deficits don’t matter or ignore the challenge they pose — it’s for Washington to finally take deficits seriously and act to rein them in. Absent progress on bringing government spending in line with revenues, our nation’s financial future will continue to look increasingly bleak, and Congress will continue engaging in small-bore legislative fights punctuated by political theater and personal vitriol. And policy-makers with vision and experience will continue heading for the exits. As veteran lawmaker Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.) tactfully described it when announcing his retirement, the current Congress “just doesn’t seem like the most productive way to be involved.”