A Big (and Growing) Issue No One’s Addressing This Election Year

Though the pace won’t really pick up until the fall, federal election campaigns are well under way. And we’re hearing a lot about a welter of key issues like abortion, immigration, the ethics of the Supreme Court, wars in Europe and the Middle East, and the like. But at a time when candidates should be engaging the electorate on the country’s biggest challenges, here’s something they’re not talking about: the national debt.

We’ve been in uncharted territory on this front for years, and the issue is only growing more pressing. It was super-charged by the pandemic, and total public debt in early June stood at about $34.6 trillion, which puts the US among the top countries with the highest debt-to-GDP ratios. Given that we’ve made it this far without a crisis, it’s possible this could go on for years. But it’s equally possible everything could come crashing down a year or two from now, regardless of who’s president.

Even if we escape a crisis, it’s growing harder to ignore the toll that growing federal debt is taking on Americans and our economy. Its sheer size is raising questions among debt-holders—investors and other countries chief among them—about the US’s long-term reliability. Spending to service the debt dampens economic growth by diverting billions of dollars from more productive uses. And many economists argue that we’ve already reached the point where the sheer size of the debt has held back Americans’ financial standing. “There’s a palpable sense of not having the same opportunities we had before,” prominent economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin said at a conference a few months ago. “I believe a lot of that is the headwinds provided by debt.”

The problem is not quite that no political leaders are talking about the debt. Some are. Yet even when they do, it’s not an especially productive discussion. Instead, for the most part, they lob partisan charges at each other—and then continue to press tax cuts or spending increases of all kinds and descriptions. Politicians like to say that economic growth spurred by their pet policies will save us. But if it’s done so, we have yet to see it. The government is still spending far more than it takes in, which is why we have this problem.

What we really haven’t seen are politicians who are willing to level with us and ask us to face the challenges like adults. A big part of the issue we’ll have to confront is entitlement reform, especially to Social Security and Medicare. These are political third rails, yet as Baby Boomers retire, federal spending has had to grow to keep up with them—made harder because the share of wages subject to the payroll tax has been declining even as wage growth in certain sectors of the economy has boomed. At the same time, a series of tax cuts dating back decades—under both Republican and Democratic presidents—have contributed substantially to the rise in debt relative to GDP.

What we need to do is no secret: We have to spend less and tax more. No wonder politicians aren’t talking about that this election season. But like a lot of problems, the longer we wait to act, the more disruptive any solution will need to be. Waiting until we’re actually in a crisis seems like a very bad idea.

So, if American politicians are reluctant to bring it up on the campaign trail, American voters will need to make sure they do by pressing them on the question at campaign events. And if they give you any answer that doesn’t include both efforts to rein in spending and to make sure that revenues rise to meet our needs, don’t accept it. You deserve a clear-eyed view of the problem, not partisan talking points.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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