Now that a Democrat is in the White House, Republicans seem a lot more concerned about the national debt.
Speaking to reporters in his home state of Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested the debt was already high enough.
“We’ve reached a critical point here,” he said.
He noted that the debt, which hit an all-time high of $28.1 trillion at the end of March, had grown to the size of the U.S. economy for the first time since World War II.
“I hope we’re not beginning to engage in the habit of anytime we want to do something call it a national emergency and run up the national debt,” McConnell said.
So maybe we should talk a little bit about that debt.
In approaching this issue, you might think about China, which does hold a significant share of the national debt. But did you know China isn’t even the largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt?
According to the personal finance website The Balance, Japan had that distinction as of last September with $1.28 trillion in U.S. government debt. China was second with $1.06 trillion, and the United Kingdom was third with $439 billion. All told, the website says, foreign governments held more than $7 trillion in U.S. government debt as of last September.
And just to be clear, that foreign debt accounts for only about a third of the total.
Who owns the rest? Well, in a very real way, we do. According to The Balance, as of last fall the public held more than $21 trillion, or almost 78%, of the national debt.
“If you add the debt held by Social Security and all the retirement and pension funds, almost half of the U.S. Treasury debt is held in trust for your retirement,” The Balance reported. “If the United States defaults on its debt, foreign investors would be angry, but current and future retirees would be hurt the most.”
Not that there’s any real threat of the government defaulting.
Still, McConnell is right when he expresses concern about the size of the debt. It’s fair to ask how high we can reasonably allow the debt to go without jeopardizing the economy.
Just for the record, though, McConnell wasn’t saying these things when Donald Trump was in office and the debt was growing by almost $7 trillion over four years. Almost $2 trillion of that can be attributed to the tax cuts a Republican Congress approved in 2017.
McConnell had no problem with those tax cuts, but he’s not so sure about a plan Joe Biden says will create jobs and address climate change.
“It’s like a Trojan horse,” McConnell said. “It’s called infrastructure, but inside the Trojan horse, it’s going to be more borrowed money, and massive tax increases on all the productive parts of our economy.”
All the productive parts of our economy. Does that include working stiffs like you and me?
A report by The Center for Public Integrity found that the 2017 Tax and Jobs Act delivered the biggest corporate tax cut in U.S. history but ultimately provided almost no benefit to the average worker.
So how much of this discussion is really about the debt? Well, maybe not much.
After all, Biden is proposing to pay for his plan by rolling back some of those tax cuts, but McConnell says that’s an idea Republicans just can’t support.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any enthusiasm on our side for a tax increase,” he said.
A tax cut for big corporations and the wealthy that drives up the national debt? No problem. Rolling back those cuts to rebuild our infrastructure and create jobs? For McConnell and the Republicans, that seems to be a bridge too far.
Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI newspapers in Indiana.