Opinion

Debating 2020 Democrats should not ignore our exploding debt

Our nation’s security — and ultimately its freedom — are dependent on its bottom line

Democratic 2020 hopefuls would do well to remember that our growing debt burden could cancel every initiative of the next president, Minge and Penny write. (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photos)

OPINION — Twenty current and former Democratic presidential candidates have now debated twice without any discussion of an issue that actively threatens our nation and ideals: our growing debt burden.

Out of 229 questions asked by the moderators, not one was about the national debt. While there are many important passion-arousing causes for candidates to discuss, “boring” fiscal matters, such as our nation’s exploding debt — and the spiraling interest that comes with it — could cancel every initiative of the next president unless she or he has a plan to address it.

No credible candidate can be blind to our current fiscal path. It took 206 years to reach our first trillion dollars of debt. Thanks in part to the tax cuts and recent spending increases, we are about to start adding more than that amount each year to the pile.

During good economic times, we should be putting our fiscal house in order and paying down the debt. Instead, our leaders are on a debt binge, seemingly without end.

Debt that rises faster than the economy isn’t sustainable, and we are now headed to a place where our red ink could hinder our ability to deal with any new crisis — and they will undoubtedly arise.

World War II was a national challenge of unprecedented proportion. Debt, as a share of GDP, rose from 42 percent before the war to 106 percent at the war’s borrowing peak. That is a record even to this day. Yet it was, of course, a necessity. Furthermore, spending and debt levels quickly returned to normal after the fighting ended.

The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that thanks to the recent budget deal, federal debt will now pass the WWII record in 15 years instead of 17. They also estimate that under current policies, debt will be three times the size of the economy in 50 years, an unsustainable level by any measure.

To think, in the year 2000, our debt was well below historical averages. We had just finished a decade of prosperity that included multiple years with budget surpluses, the only time in modern history when that has happened. The debt was actually projected at the time to be paid off completely.

Then 9/11 happened. The wars that followed cost trillions of dollars. Then the economy crashed in the Great Recession. That led to trillions more in borrowing. Tax cuts and spending increases were then thrown on the pile — all while Social Security and Medicare’s insolvency dates drew closer. And just like that, America is now in a hole so deep that the federal debt will soon exceed the size of our entire economy.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once called our debt “the most significant threat to our national security” — this coming from a man who has been privy to our top national security intelligence.

Imagine a natural disaster like a hurricane, earthquake or flooding, plus a scenario in which the U.S. enters another war or a recession. We could end up in so much debt that we wouldn’t be able to respond to a real crisis.

Imagine these events occurring during an expansive trade war with China of unknown dimensions. This is an alarming situation: spendthrift national leaders trying to win an economic struggle with our major creditor.

Even if China fears we are “too big to fail,” we are giving the communist regime ill-advised leverage. We are allowing ourselves to be financially dependent on an adversary that rejects our political values, economic principles and civil liberties.

Adm. Mullen was right. Our nation’s security — and ultimately its freedom — are dependent on its bottom line. Let’s at least talk about it this election season.

David Minge represented Minnesota in the House as a Democrat from 1993 to 2001.

Tim Penny represented Minnesota in the House as a Democrat from 1983 to 1995.

Both are board members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group that advocates fiscal responsibility and budget reform.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.