A $1.1 trillion spending bill approved by the Senate on Sunday shows that Congress isn't serious about the nation's ballooning debt problem.
The legislation will pay for routine federal programs, including education, veterans' services, and law enforcement. The bill also includes lots of overspending.
Several government agencies received double-digit increases, in spite of all the extra spending that Congress approved in the $787 billion economic recovery bill in February. President Obama has taken much of the heat for high spending this year. But in many cases in this latest bill, lawmakers allocated more funds than the president requested.
Discretionary federal spending increased overall by about 9 percent this year, far outpacing inflation. How many households got a 9 percent increase in their family budgets this year?
The bill also contains about 5,000 "earmarks," or local projects sought by individual lawmakers in both parties, totaling nearly $3.9 billion. They include constructing a farmers' market in Kentucky, renovating a historic theater in New York, and restoring a mill in Rhode Island.
Meanwhile, Congress is preparing to raise the federal debt ceiling so the government can keep borrowing to pay for all of this extra spending. The nation's authorized debt limit is now $12.1 trillion. But Congress plans to raise it to nearly $14 trillion, which should give lawmakers enough authority to keep spending recklessly until after next November's elections.
Both parties have run up big deficits over the last three decades. The Democrats happen to be the current perpetrators-in-charge. But this enormous accumulation of public debt will soon start to harm Americans' standard of living through depressed wages, a weaker dollar, and higher interest rates.
The public debt stands at 53 percent of the annual value of the national economy. On its current path, it would reach 85 percent of gross domestic product in 2018.
The federal government can't get out of the mess it has created all at once. Congress needs to exert discipline on every bill, year after year, to put the country on a responsible fiscal course.
That's one message from a new report by the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform. The bipartisan commission is composed of budget experts, including former U.S. Rep. William Gray III (D., Pa.), who was chairman of the House Budget Committee, and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.
This panel recommends that Congress commit now to holding the public debt to 60 percent of GDP by 2018, develop a specific plan next year to stabilize the debt, and begin phasing in policy changes (tax increases and spending cuts) by 2012.
Congress should begin this process now. The sooner these needed changes begin, the less drastic they will need to be.