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Time to Get Serious about the United States National Debt (Continued)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Stephen R. Rolandi
August 18, 2019

My previous article on this subject traced the history of the origins of the Federal Budget Deficits and national debt since the beginning of George Washington’s administration in 1789. As written earlier, I indicated that the amount of debt has fluctuated at various times in our nation’s history. For nearly two years in Andrew Jackson’s administration (1835-1836), the national debt was reduced down to nearly zero. Consequently, an economic recession ensured, and the United States started incurring debt again. During periods of war, the debt rose significantly, rose sharply during the 1980s and continued again during the first two decades of the 21st century.

Currently (as of August 18, 2019), the United States total Gross Domestic Product (GDP), under the current Donald Trump administration, stands at nearly $21.3 trillion, compared to a total national debt of nearly $22.5 trillion, which works out to a Debt to GDP ratio of almost 105.6% (in the final year of the Obama administration, the respective numbers were $19.6 trillion in debt, and $18.6 trillion GDP, for a debt to GDP ratio of 105.1%).

If we project out to the year 2023 (assuming the current administration is re-elected next year, and Congress chooses not to address the national debt issue), we may expect the comparable debt and GDP to rise to approximately $30.2 trillion and $24.8 trillion, with the index of Debt to GDP ratio standing at 121.8% (refer to US National Debt Clock).

Much of this very steep rise, as I had written last time, is attributable to the Trump administration annual deficit budgets—now running at over $1 trillion annually as well as the cumulative effects of the 2018 tax cut legislation passed by Congress.

Earlier this month, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, a two year $2.7 trillion budget agreement that prevents the imposition of $126 million in automatic spending cuts and suspends the debt ceiling through July of 2021. It should be pointed out that this budget agreement does not fund operations of Federal government agencies. It is possible that there still may be a government shutdown on September 30 if Congress fails to pass approximately 20 appropriation bills. Major highlights of the budget deal are:

  • Defense Department programs increasing 3% in Fiscal Year 2020, increasing to $738 Billion.
  • Non-defense spending increasing by 4% over current levels ($632 billion), which includes a $2.5 billion adjustment for the 2020 Census.
  • The budget agreement includes about $77 billion in offsets, likely to take effect by 2029, but unlikely to be implemented.

It should be borne in mind that the work of avoiding a government shutdown is not completed as yet. The House has completed work on 9 of 12 appropriation bills; the Senate has indicated that it plans to process its versions of these measures in September.

Of major concern to me, that while this budget deal was important in avoiding a budget shutdown, there remains structural budget issues, i.e. how to address the ever increasing national debt. It is my opinion that Congress and the White House have put a band-aid on this issue, choosing to let the next Congress and President deal with this issue in 2021.

Given the enormity of this problem, it is unfortunate that decision-makers in Washington, DC have decided to, “Kick the can,” down the road for another two years. Only two Presidential candidates—U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld (challenging President Trump for the GOP nomination) have spoken directly on this issue.

My advice to concerned citizens and voters is to press all the candidates to identify their proposals and strategies. In a future article, I will identify what I believe may be reasonable proposals.


Author: Stephen R. Rolandi retired in 2015 after serving with the State and City of New York. He holds BA and MPA degrees from New York University, and studied law at Brooklyn Law School. He is an adjunct professor of public administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) and Pace University. He is currently President of ASPA’s New York Metropolitan Chapter and served four terms on ASPA’s National Council. You can reach him at: [email protected] or [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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