On the rare occasions when elected representatives are required to reckon with our national debt, usually in the context of debates over raising the debt ceiling, the easiest thing for politicians to promise is no changes to entitlements. But those promises, and the attacks those same politicians make when experts point to the need for entitlement reform, prevent the kinds of difficult conversations that will be necessary to address our national debt.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), for example, recently took advantage of this dynamic by introducing legislation to exempt Social Security and Medicare from the debt ceiling. In practice, this bill does little more than allow the Treasury Department to continue funding these programs even after the debt ceiling is reached. And certainly, the federal government should not default on its debt, nor is the solution to abruptly stop funding our commitments.
The greater issue is the underlying message that Social Security and Medicare are not only untouchable, but are also on a stable fiscal trajectory – this was implied by Hawley, who labeled efforts to reform these programs “scare tactics.” If anything, Americans aren’t nearly scared enough about our fiscal situation.
That’s because while our current national debt is massive, it would be far more manageable if it were not for what’s coming down the road. While to this point overspending has been driven by deliberate policies of spending hikes or tax cuts, in the future they will come from the structural unsoundness of our entitlement programs.
Right now, the entitlement programs combined with interest payments on the national debt cost taxpayers slightly more than $3 trillion. That’s a massive figure, but within just a couple decades that amount is set to balloon to more than $11 trillion. At that point, the cost of entitlements and interest on the debt alone will exceed total federal revenue.
That means that, at that point, all the other functions of the federal government will be deficit-funded. That comprises everything from national defense to education to transportation to many social services, and more. All entirely crowded out by just a few (major) line items.
That’s not sustainable for any government, let alone one with as many functions and commitments as the United States government has. It’s a vicious cycle — the larger the deficit, the faster the national debt grows. The faster the national debt grows, the more interest the federal government has to pay on that debt, creating a larger deficit. And so on.
Policymakers need to stop thinking in terms of whether entitlement reform is necessary or not, and start thinking in terms of whether to make relatively modest structural changes now or be forced to make more drastic changes in the future. Every year that goes by with more debt and no reform exacerbates the pickle that future generations will be in once the bill comes due.
So don’t let policymakers claim the moral high ground by refusing to discuss even the most modest changes to how our entitlement programs function. They aren’t doing anything but kicking the can down the road.