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Government

As federal deficit mounts, presidential candidates sweep it under the rug

Neither Republicans nor Democrats eager to talk about government spending

Former Vice President Joe Biden takes photos with supporters at a campaign event July 4 in Marshalltown, Iowa. Biden is one of the few Democratic presidential candidates who talks about the rising federal debt and deficits. “I appreciate that,” said Marlene Rush of Marshalltown, who attended the July 4 event. “Deficits matter. For Republicans, it seems, they only care about the deficit when Democrats are in the White House.” (Brenna Norman/Reuters)
Former Vice President Joe Biden takes photos with supporters at a campaign event July 4 in Marshalltown, Iowa. Biden is one of the few Democratic presidential candidates who talks about the rising federal debt and deficits. “I appreciate that,” said Marlene Rush of Marshalltown, who attended the July 4 event. “Deficits matter. For Republicans, it seems, they only care about the deficit when Democrats are in the White House.” (Brenna Norman/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — In four hours of debate among Democratic contenders for president, the word “deficit” was never uttered and the government’s debt was mentioned only once.

The reality is that Democrats are reluctant to make a campaign issue out of one of America’s most vexing problems — the ballooning annual budget deficits and overall debt under President Donald Trump.

That’s because some of their most popular policies going into the 2020 election would present significant budget challenges of their own, including expanding Medicare health coverage and offering government help to cut college costs and reduce student debt.

While Democrats insist they have workable plans that will cover the costs of these proposals, Republicans counter that their tax-the-rich solutions are not realistic.

On their side of the political divide, Republicans are equally interested in keeping mum on the subject, having backed Trump’s massive tax cuts and a surge in military spending — two key drivers of the deficit blow-out — after championing fiscal conservatism for years.

By supporting Trump, many Republican lawmakers essentially have abandoned an already fading commitment to balanced budgets and cutting the national debt.

“I don’t think in this election cycle there seems to be much of an interest in addressing the issue,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a former White House budget director.

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Portman is seen as a hawk on government spending, although he also was a strong supporter of the 2017 tax cut that is expected to drive up the national debt by at least $1 trillion over 10 years.

TERMITES UNDER THE PORCH

Many economists worry rising debt will bring higher interest costs, increasing the pressure on future governments to make deep spending cuts or even causing the United States to default on its debt payments, which could wreak havoc on a global scale.

It’s like having termites underneath the porch, said Bill Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank focused on fiscal policy: “You step on the porch and everything’s fine. ... Then one day, you fall through.”

When he was running for president, Trump told the Washington Post he would pay off the national debt in about eight years. Instead, it has increased by $2.45 trillion since he took office in January 2017.

The total debt outstanding, amassed over many years of deficits, now is $22.4 trillion, its highest level ever, equal to about $68,000 of debt for every American.

The deficit has jumped from $666 billion in fiscal 2017, the final year President Barack Obama’s administration had an impact on budgets, to an expected $900 billion this year, and is projected to exceed $1 trillion a year by 2022.

“The prospect of such high and rising debt poses substantial risks for the nation,” the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said last month in its latest long-term outlook.

With the U.S. economy expanding, inflation and unemployment low and the stock market near record levels, the government could be expected to take advantage of the strong fundamentals to reduce deficits. But the opposite is happening.

Asked about rising deficits last month, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow downplayed concerns: “It doesn’t bother me right now.”

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

At least some Democratic voters are yearning for answers.

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On a campaign stop in Marshalltown, Iowa, former Vice President Joe Biden on July 4 accused Republicans of running up the nation’s debt as a pretext for seeking cuts to federal retirement and health care benefits later.

“Folks, this is a sham,” said Biden, who has led most polls in the early days of the Democratic primary race.

Marlene Rush, a Marshalltown community organizer, said Biden was “the first Democrat I’ve heard actually mention the deficits.”

“I appreciate that. Deficits matter. For Republicans, it seems, they only care about the deficit when Democrats are in the White House,” she said.

The first set of Democratic primary debates June 26-27 passed with none of the 20 candidates offering ideas to control debt or deficits.

A moderator asked Sen. Kamala Harris of California whether Democrats should explain how they would pay for the expansion of public benefits if they win the White House.

“I hear that question, but where was that question when the Republicans and Donald Trump passed a tax bill that benefits the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations in this country?” Harris responded.

Although Republicans portray Democrats as the party of big spending, the last time the budget was balanced was under Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1998 and for the next three years.

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That run ended under Republican George W. Bush, who slashed taxes and fought wars abroad while presiding over large domestic spending increases.

Obama, another Democrat, ran deficits way up at the start of his presidency to address a deep recession, then trimmed them in his final years in office as the economy picked up.

Now neither party shows any interest in offering detailed policies to tackle the debt in the 2020 campaign, preferring to focus on health care, immigration and climate change.

It is “an era of hyper-partisanship with both parties engaging in free lunchism to try to appeal to voters,” said Maya MacGuineas, head of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group focused on budget reform.

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