We must start paying our debts

U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis

“We cannot go on like this.”

Over the past several weeks, Congress battled over whether and how to raise the national debt ceiling. Failing to do so would risk defaulting on some of the more than $28.4 trillion the federal government has already been allowed to borrow — plus the billions of dollars that Congress has already committed to spending. Given the damaging repercussions that would come from a default, Congress has little choice but to formally raise the debt ceiling.

As a result, Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate frequently try to use debt ceiling votes as an opportunity to get leverage and score political points, often by painting the other party as reckless, wasteful, etc. They often play a game of brinkmanship, waiting until the moment of default is near before striking a deal, as Republicans and Democrats did last week. Everyone then gives a sigh of relief and we move on.

However, as U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., pointed out in a Thursday speech last week, the battle continually misses the true crisis: this country’s nearly $29 trillion in debt.

“It’s really kind of shocking that the main focus of this debate, whenever it occurs, is never about how we got here; it’s never on why we spend too much; it’s never on the debt itself,” Lummis told her Senate colleagues. “It’s always just on raising the ceiling or suspending the ceiling so we can spend more, so we can run up more debt, so we can have higher interest payments that can crowd out other spending that can create the vicious cycle that creates deficit after deficit after deficit.”

It’s difficult to comprehend figures in the trillions, but as ProPublica explained in a piece earlier this year, the national debt is “nearly twice as much as what Americans owe on student loans, car loans, credit cards and every other type of debt other than mortgages, combined.” It currently breaks down to around $229,000 worth of debt per taxpayer, according to USDebtClock.org.

For the first time since World War II, the national debt now exceeds the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) — meaning the amount of money the federal government owes exceeds the value of all the finished goods and services that Americans are producing.

Since 2000, the debt to GDP ratio has skyrocketed from 56% to nearly 126%, according to USDebtClock. The debt has more than quintupled over the past two decades, rising from $5.67 trillion to the current $28.86 trillion figure. It happened under a mixture of Republican and Democratic presidents and Congresses. Most recently, under former Republican President Donald Trump, the national debt rose by roughly $7.8 trillion. And right now, Congressional Democrats are trying to pass spending packages of between $3.5 trillion and $5 trillion.

This is truly a bipartisan problem and during the recent debate over the debt ceiling, Lummis squarely put the blame on both parties.

“... we’re so busy making each other look like the rat’s rear end that we won’t address the real problems in this country that led us to be $28 trillion-plus in debt and now asking to get further in debt,” she ranted in a speech last month.

Certainly, distinctions and arguments can be made about which party has made better spending decisions, but at the end of the day, it’s all money that the federal government doesn’t have.

As Lummis put it last week, “When the time comes to pay the bill, our debt holders don’t care, won’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, they only care about getting paid — and we’re swiftly approaching a time when we will be unable to do so.”

The freshman senator called on both parties to come together and find solutions to address the debt and balance the budget — such as freezing spending, shoring up federal trust funds, fixing entitlement programs and making Social Security solvent. Lummis said her colleagues know what they need to do, but lack the political will to do it. There’s little question that any attempt to get spending under control will run into opposition. In 2010, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, co-led by former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, R-Cody, released a series of recommendations for getting the debt under control … and it was almost immediately shoved into the dustbins of history. No one wants to have their favorite federal program cut back.

On top of that, there are always more things to purchase, new ideas to try out, causes to aid and people to help. But we must stop spending money we don’t have — and start paying back what we owe.

As Lummis put it, “We cannot go on like this.”