Congressional showdowns over the debt limit are nothing new, but this time around there’s a unique wrinkle. The House approved a bill on Tuesday night with what was essentially a party-line vote that paves the way for Congress to avoid a possible default on the national debt in the coming weeks. Here’s the tricky part: “The measure would create a special pathway—to be used only once, before mid-January—for the Senate to raise the debt limit by a specific amount with a simple majority vote, allowing Democrats to steer clear of a filibuster or other procedural hurdles so that Republicans would have no means to block it,” The New York Times reports.
The upshot, assuming this deal holds up long enough to avert the December 15 deadline for raising the debt limit, is that there won’t be another showdown like this before the midterm elections next November.
It’s true, of course, that $1 trillion doesn’t buy what it used to. That amount in 1981 would purchase about $3 trillion worth of stuff today. The best way to measure the national debt over long periods of time is to compare it to America’s gross domestic product (GDP), a rough estimate of the size of the country’s economy in a given year.
In the early 1980s, for example, even as the gross national debt exceeded $1 trillion for the first time, the national debt was less than 40 percent of GDP. The national debt is now equivalent to the country’s GDP and is on pace to be nearly 200 percent of GDP by the middle of the century, as this chart from Brian Riedl, a deficit hawk and former Republican Senate staffer now working at the Manhattan Institute, helpfully illustrates:
“I want to tell you this: If I become majority leader, one of the first things I will do is we will eliminate it forever,” Schumer said during a July 14 press conference on Long Island. “It will be dead, gone, and buried.”
“It” in this case was the cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction, which was imposed as part of the 2017 federal tax reform bill passed by Republicans and signed by President Donald Trump. As a result of that law, Americans are allowed to deduct a maximum of $10,000 in state and local tax payments from their federally taxable income; previously the deduction was uncapped, and it overwhelmingly benefitted the richest households while shifting their federal tax burden to everyone else.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) is correct to point out, as he did in an interview with Axios this week, that the SALT cap creates a serious optics problem for Democrats. Sanders says he will oppose Schumer’s effort to attach the SALT cap repeal to the transportation bill because “it sends a terrible, terrible message when you have Republicans telling us that this is a tax break for the rich.”
The numbers here are simply staggering. Consider the fact that in 2019, the last full budget year before the pandemic, the federal government spent a grand total of $4.4 trillion. Combined with the bill that already passed in March, this plan represents nearly $5 trillion in new spending.
Though the specifics of the proposal are in flux, it seems to bear some similarities to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) that Biden signed into law earlier this month. That bill was ostensibly a COVID-19 relief measure, but only a small percentage of the money was actually directed toward dealing with the pandemic. The upcoming $3 trillion package will be called an infrastructure bill, but the Times says only about $1 trillion would be directed toward such traditional infrastructure items as roads, bridges, ports, and improvements to the electric grid.
Since the federal government is giving states money that they don’t need, there are two things state lawmakers can do: Use the federal money to grow government spending or pass that extra cash along to taxpayers by lowering their tax burdens.
However, the Senate inserted language in the American Rescue Plan expressly telling states that they “shall not use the funds provided…to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in the net tax revenue,” or do anything that “reduces any tax (by providing for a reduction in a rate, a rebate, a deduction, a credit, or otherwise) or delays the imposition of any tax or tax increase.”
That same section of the bill also bans states from depositing the federal bailout into their public pension funds. That’s probably a good idea, but it’s pretty ironic considering that the American Rescue Plan also contains a completely indefensible bailout of some private-sector pension funds run by labor unions.
A sizable portion, about $500 billion, is a bailout of state and local governments that for the most part do not need one. While state tax revenues took a small hit from the pandemic and associated economic lockdowns, the damage is far smaller than was once feared. States should handle their own finances.
But it’s not just a bailout; it’s a bailout in which the funding is allocated based on the size of each state’s unemployed population. In other words, states that imposed draconian and unnecessary economic lockdowns during the past year are going to get a larger share of the federal cash than states that managed to balance public health needs and the economy—an arrangement that New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu rightly calls “outrageous.”
Fewer workers are employed in manufacturing, but the average worker is earning far more per hour. This is a problem? Meanwhile, American manufacturing output is significantly higher today than it was when the WTO was established. In fact, even at the lowest point of last year’s COVID-19 recession, manufacturing output was still higher than it had been in any year before 1997.