Bellyaching about the national debt is nothing new. It was happening way back in 1789. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a major problem right now.
This is how much each individual American citizen—both taxpayers and non-taxpayers—would have to pay in order to pay off the nation’s tremendous debt of nearly twenty trillion dollars. When adjusted to show only taxpayers holding the debt, that number jumps to $165,622. And because of the tremendous amount of money our government owes to its own citizens and other nations, it becomes a central issue of almost any campaign for a federal office from rural congressional districts to the Oval Office on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Therefore, one would assume the problem the debt presents and the solutions to that problem would be a partisan issue. After all, the conservative politicians in D.C. would tell you that their counterparts on the Left increased the debt by giving money away through federal welfare programs and relentless spending over the last two or three decades. The politicians on the Left, however, would tell you that the Right raised the debt through its unnecessary infatuation with military spending and cutting taxes for the richest Americans.
Both sides are right—to a degree. Both the Right and the Left have led to the debt increasing through their own unique ways. And while this has become a partisan issue, the historical manifestations of the debt has been a part of America’s history since the Constitution went into effect on March 4, 1789. The costs of having fought the American Revolution were still lingering.
There in only one month in the 228-year span that America was apparently debt free: January of 1835. President Andrew Jackson declared the government to be debt free after having labeled the debt a “national curse” in 1824. However, government records show that by the end of 1835, the debt had returned, being $37,513.05 in January of 1836.
Throughout the rest of America’s history, the debt has fluctuated from being 1% of America’s gross domestic product (GDP) to 117% in 110 years. In 1945, at the end of World War II, America’s debt was at its highest under sole Democratic leadership, according to Senate records. However, from 1945 to 1981, the debt’s ratio of GDP dwindled down from 117% of GDP to 32.5% under both Republican and Democratic leadership in both the Capitol and the White House.
However, when people talk fiscal conservatism over the last fifty years, there is but one name that comes to mind: Ronald Reagan. President Reagan ran on an agenda of limiting the size of the federal government, while cutting taxes and limiting spending. Unfortunately, the number of federal employees grew from 1981 to 1988, the budget grew gradually and with it, and so did the debt. At face value, this would allow the Left to claim a moral victory, stating that Reagan spent more money during his Presidency and allowing the debt to increase. However, one also needs to realize two things. First, the United States used its ability to spend more money on its military at the tail end of the Cold War. Secondly, Congress, which holds the power of the purse via Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, was controlled by the Democratic Party.
In the following decade, the roles were switched. Democrat Bill Clinton was President from 1992 to 2001, and the Republican Party controlled Congress from 1995 to 2007. In the last five years of the 1990s, the debt did grow slightly while also having budget surpluses from 1997 to 2001.
More recently, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the debt has continued to grow at a trend putting it back over 100% of GDP. The trend started after 2001 when the United States began increasing its military budget because of conflicts in the Middle East and the ongoing threat of terrorism. One major increase in spending came in the form of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. President Obama added to the debt through his stimulus package and healthcare reforms. Between September 2001 to September 2015, over $12.3 trillion dollars was added to our nation’s debt, with President Obama contributing the lion’s share at $6.3 trillion dollars.
And that brings us to our current debt situation. According to Howard Gleckman at the Tax Policy Center, President Donald Trump’s plan would add an additional $10 trillion dollars to the nation’s debt problem.
And thus the vicious cycle continues. America has a debt problem. But it is a problem that spans generations and crosses party lines. A more pragmatic view on the debt situation is that both sides of the political spectrum are to blame for getting us here. The sad part is that neither seem to ever solve the problem.
A truly debt-conscious Congress would realize that it needs to stop spending on programs favored by Republicans and Democrats. Republicans may need to compromise on defense, and Democrats need to consider letting go of certain social programs. Deciding what to cut will not be easy. But at this point, making these sacrifices is the only thing standing between our republic and a bankrupt future. We can either choose to learn from history or doom ourselves to continue on a path towards increasingly colossal debt.
Christian Aponte works as a political and grassroots operative in North Carolina and holds a degree in political science from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.