Under former House Speaker John Boehner’s last big budget deal, the national debt has soared by a full trillion dollars in just six months, according to numbers announced last week by the U.S. Treasury Department.
When Congress last Oct. 30 approved the 144-page budget deal forged between Boehner and President Obama - marking the final act of Boehner’s quarter-century House career - the gross federal debt stood at $18.15 trillion.
Six months after the passing of the historic Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, Treasury now lists U.S. gross debt at $19.18 trillion, an increase of $1.03 trillion
Nearly $340 billion of that came in a single day – last Nov. 2, the day Obama signed the legislation and the federal budget was sprung from a seven-month freeze the government put into place because budget talks had stalled amid acrimony and an approaching debt limit overrun.
At the time, Boehner said the agreement “cleaned out the barn” on Capitol Hill. It also avoided a government shutdown, and allowed his successor, Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, to take over the speakership without a crisis on his hands.
After his 24 years, 10 months in Congress, the law was hailed as Boehner’s last big achievement, as he was being forced from his position by years of infighting among House conservatives critical of his deal-making with the White House.
But federal budget analyst Marc Goldwein, senior vice-president and head of policy for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said the numbers are a little misleading. Excluding government debt, the increase is around $800 billion, he said, and excluding everything but deficit spending puts the increase at $500 billion.
“That’s still a large increase, but $1 trillion kind of overstates the case of what’s really happened,” Goldwein told AMI Newswire. “And I don’t think the fact that the debt has increased is reflective at all of it being a failure or success.”
The federal debt was already projected to rise, Goldwein said – and the October budget deal was never meant to stop it. Rather, its real value is in outlying years, since the deal is arranged to pay back initial borrowing and spending.
However, Goldwein said that doesn’t mean the deal was a success, either.
“The goal of this budget deal, even in the best light, was not to stop the debt from growing. It was to allow for some spending relief now and in theory to make sure it’s fiscally responsible over the long run,” he said.
“I would say the deal failed to do that. We’ve analyzed the details and found so many gimmicks and games in it that it’s only about half paid for. So if the goal is to be fiscally responsible, it fell short of that goal.”
Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, finds the debt increase mystifying. A close observer of Congress, he points out that congressional Republicans have been holding the line on government spending by demanding “pay-fors,” or spending cuts designed to offset any increases.
“It’s not as if there’s been a wild binge of spending. In fact, if anything, the Republicans have been extremely diligent in demanding pay-fors for virtually any spending the Democrats want,” Baker told AMI Newswire. “So I don’t know where this is coming from. Other than military spending, certainly in terms of domestic spending I don’t see where there’s been any extravagance. It’s kind of mysterious as to why that ballooned so much.”
At the time the deal was reached in October, Baker said, Boehner may have been distracted by other priorities, such as preventing a government shutdown, which some conservatives, known as the House Freedom Caucus were, pushing for.
“And it gave Paul Ryan some breathing space, remember,” Baker said. “But it didn’t mollify the House Freedom Caucus … I think (Boehner’s) powerful emotion right now is probably, ‘Thank goodness I’m not there now.’ "
But Goldwein said that, combined with the omnibus tax bill passed at the end of last year, the budget act was specifically structured to allow a deficit increase this year that is gradually repaid over the next decade.
On balance, however, he said the government’s fiscal strategy is still on the wrong track.
“Structurally, we’re spending more than we’re taxing. We’re spending more on Social Security, Medicare, defense and non-defense than what we’re collecting in income tax revenue and payroll tax revenues. No budget deals have done anything to fundamentally change that picture.”