EDITORIAL: The federal buck must stop somewhere

Posted 9/12/17

Last week, over the objections of Republican leaders in Congress, President Donald Trump struck a deal with Democrats that would raise the country’s so-called debt ceiling for three months — allowing the federal government to keep spending more …

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EDITORIAL: The federal buck must stop somewhere


The United States government currently stands more than $19.8 trillion deep in debt. As of Thursday, the U.S. Treasury pegged the amount owed at exactly $19,844,586,961,607.12.

And you can expect that figure to only get worse.

Last week, over the objections of Republican leaders in Congress, President Donald Trump struck a deal with Democrats that would raise the country’s so-called debt ceiling for three months — allowing the federal government to keep spending more money through December.

Republicans generally pride themselves on being the more fiscally restrained party, but in this case, GOP leaders had reportedly sought an 18-month extension to the debt ceiling. (That was apparently so they wouldn’t have to approve a higher limit until after the 2018 elections.)

If that wasn’t odd enough, the Washington Post reported that President Trump and Democrats also informally agreed to work toward eliminating the debt ceiling altogether.

“[T]here are a lot of good reasons to do that,” Trump told reporters Thursday, adding, “It complicates things, it’s really not necessary.”

On the one hand, Trump’s proposal makes sense: Raising the debt ceiling is basically a formality in which Congress agrees to spend money it’s already voted to spend. In addition, refusing to increase the debt limit would risk defaulting on the United States’ obligations — something that could damage markets and our country’s reputation. It all adds up to a series of all-risk, no-reward skirmishes where one party or faction can hold the other hostage by threatening to oppose an increase to the debt ceiling unless their demands are met.

On the other hand, the periodic debt ceiling votes — allowing the United States to dig itself deeper and deeper into debt — have some value; it forces Congress to go through the unpleasant task of acknowledging its ever-increasing stack of IOUs.

The recent debt ceiling deal between Trump and Democrats came as part of a package that will send around $15 billion to the states ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. We appreciate the bipartisanship in bringing aid to the many people hurt and damaged by the devastating storms. But we’d also love to see some bipartisan agreement on no longer spending money we don’t have.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., supported funding for hurricane relief, but voted against the measure when it was modified to include “raising the debt ceiling without spending reforms and an arbitrary three-month continuing resolution,” she said in a statement. As a further illustration of how difficult it is to reduce the deficit, part of Cheney’s objection was that the deal does not allow for new programs for our military — which she believes is critically underfunded.

Meanwhile, Mike Enzi, Wyoming’s senior Republican senator and chair of the Senate Budget Committee, also voted against the hurricane funding deal, telling Wyoming Public Radio he wants the federal government to set up a “Rainy Day” fund like the State of Wyoming’s.

“Those [hurricane relief packages] are emergencies that we already have a precedent for doing,” Enzi told the radio station. “I’ve said since I got here that there needs to be a budget item that puts away money each year for those disasters, so when the disasters happen, we already have the money, we haven’t spent it already and doesn’t have the deficit then.”

Crafting a budget and trying to stick to it makes sense; after all, that’s what governments in Wyoming do. Enzi’s so-called “Penny Plan,” in which the federal government’s spending would be reduced by 1 percent — or one penny of every dollar spent — each year until the deficit is eliminated, also sounds reasonable.

What doesn’t make sense is continuing on our current course.

We know that cutting government spending is something easier to call for than to do.

Last week’s drama over the debt ceiling came while representatives from the National Association of Counties (NACo) — including Park County Commissioner Loren Grosskopf — were in D.C. to lobby on behalf of the nation’s counties.

When Grosskopf asked his fellow local officials what messages they might want him to bring to Washington, Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric suggested, “tell them to quit spending money.”

Of course, one of NACo’s main objectives was to push for continued funding for counties through programs like Payment in Lieu of Taxes. And Grosskopf also brought a letter encouraging federal leaders to buy a roughly $1.2 million piece of land on Sheep Mountain west of Cody

In short, cutting back is hard, because it always hurts someone. But continuing further into debt brings its own costs, too. For example, just paying the interest on our $19.8 trillion worth of debt is expected to cost the federal government a net of $276.2 billion this fiscal year — making up 6.8 percent of all expenditures, the Pew Research Center says.

We implore Congress to stay within its means and avoid racing past the next debt limit, because the bucks have got to stop with someone.