On April 7th, the United States’ national debt hit a new milestone in reaching an exuberant $24 trillion. This milestone comes just five months after the debt reached the milestone of $23 trillion in October and less than nine months since it passed $22 trillion. Yes, all of those are trillions—with a T.
Exacerbated by the “CARES Act,” an emergency assistance stimulus package to combat the economic turmoil created by the novel coronavirus pandemic, the bill will cost American taxpayers $2 trillion, or about one-tenth of the nation’s gross domestic product. It is by far the most extensive economic rescue package in history, making the 2009 Recovery Act seem laughable in comparison.
Nonetheless, over the course of the history of the United States, there has always been a national debt. However, it was never close to the proportions of today, not even during times of war. So what caused this massive skyrocketing in the national debt?
After the passage of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program throughout the 1930s, Congress lost much of its power to bureaucracy and the presidency. The enactment of this policy package meant that much of the increase in power within the administrative state, as created during the Progressive Era, led to the regulatory agencies created around this time would siphon legislative power from Congress and move it under the Executive Branch, and therefore the presidency.
While members of Congress had minimal reservations over this power shift when bureaucracies were pro-New Deal, this changed in the 1970s with the emergence of a concept known as regulatory capture theory, which argues these federal agencies had become dominated by the desires of those they were supposed to oversee.
Moreover, Richard Nixon’s presidency modified the understanding of the role of president in the legislative process. Nixon, unlike his predecessors in the 20th century, did not want to play a part in the legislative process, particularly after his dual scandals, Watergate and Vietnam.
This subsequent reshaping, in reaction, contributed to several structural changes within the legislature. The consequence of that was the introduction of a set of external legislation that strengthened legislative authority. It also weakened both the president’s control and bureaucracy. Such new positions, though, remained mostly non-legislative for the Congress itself.
One field in which Congress revamped itself was in the implementation of a congressional budget process. Following the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, Congress gained greater control over federal spending because the president could not just allocate funds. However, there was no such thing as a budget process until the 20th century.
When Congress needed to spend funds on a particular cause, the funds were expended. Therefore, as members of Congress stared at the budget and noticed a deficit, they approved a revenue plan–whether it be a new tax, import tariff, fee–and, as the government was smaller in the nineteenth century, the concept succeeded. As progressive ideologies gained root in the Progressive Era, the need for a more comprehensive budgeting system was evident as the economy grew increasingly decentralized and deficit-ridden.
The key feature of the Congressional budget process established under the Budget and Impoundment Control Act was the annual concurrent budget resolution, which means that it does not have to be signed by the president because it is non-binding. The joint resolution lays out a structure through which Congress addresses revenue, spending and other laws applicable to the budget. However, because it is a joint resolution, it does not have the power of law behind it, which means that Congress may pass the legislation but disregard it in its digression. This problem is just one of the many concerns in the sense of the simultaneous resolution of the budget.
Another major problem within it is the development of twelve specific categories by which the budget is subdivided for a more in-depth review. Notwithstanding its tremendous appeal on the surface, the problem is that the budget divisions created are not in keeping with the organization of federal bureaucracy and the structure of the committee of either House of Congress. The subdivided budget structure is thus incredibly complex, and divisions must be reassessed and reassessed as well as bureaucracy when pushed throughout Capitol Hill. This arrangement makes it possible for agencies to receive their funds from various pieces of legislation, and for committees to play a part in a wide variety of legislation as well.
As the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 created concurrent budget resolutions, it required Congress to police itself. But, whatever rationality that may have had before 1974, the rationality of this method of business was shattered in the 1970s, ’80s, and right into today. Thus, if we are to see smaller deficits, we must repeal this atrocious bill.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.