WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s economic plan could add $5 trillion to the national debt in the next 10 years and few seem to notice except the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB).
The CRFB, whose venerable, bipartisan board has through the years relied strongly on former Minnesota congressional representatives, has deplored debt and deficit spending for nearly half a century. But it has never had as much trouble getting the attention of presidential candidates as it has in 2016.
Three times in last week’s pivotal presidential debate Democrat Hillary Clinton mentioned the $5 trillion that “independent experts” said Trump would add to the debt. Three times the Republican nominee did not respond.
“It is the first election since 1980 where deficits and debt have not been at least a piece of the campaign debate and the public debate going into Election Day,” said ex-Minnesota Rep. Tim Penny, a Democrat and one of CRFB’s three co-chairs. “Usually, you have a candidate who tries to say they are more fiscally sound than the other. Not this time. That’s been replaced with something for nothing.”
“Free lunch” thinking by the candidates doesn’t mean the committee has been any less of a fiscal watchdog. While CRFB was once criticized for an association with the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s and some question its acceptance of corporate donations, its reputation for nonprofit, nonpartisan budget analysis remains strong.
In the past it leaned on Minnesota Republican Bill Frenzel and Democrat Martin Sabo. Ex-Minnesota Democratic Rep. David Minge serves with Penny on the current board that includes, among others, Republican Mitch Daniels, a former Indiana governor and budget director for President George W. Bush, and Peter Peterson, a one-time chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Those people, as well as CRFB President Maya MacGuineas, relentlessly remind that debt now makes up the highest share of the U.S. economy at any time except right after World War II and that the debt will grow at least $9 trillion in the next decade if nothing is done.
CRFB has deconstructed the spending and tax proposals of both presidential candidates in minute detail and held a forum last week to let surrogates defend each candidate’s plan. CRFB made sure to provide an update to its economic analysis just a few days before the much-anticipated first presidential debate.
All of it to no avail.
“One candidate has proposals that would explode the debt — Donald Trump — and one candidate [Clinton] who while she pays for all her new spending, never discusses the debt,” MacGuineas said. “There seems to be an implicit agreement between both candidates and both parties that nobody will take this issue seriously.”
As a TV audience of 84 million watched last week’s debate, debt and deficit issues quickly sank to the bottom of a heap topped by Trump’s complaints about foreign trade deals and Clinton’s complaints about “Trumped-up trickle down” tax cuts to the rich. And that was before the debate turned into angry exchanges about Trump’s undisclosed tax returns, Clinton’s 33,000 missing State Department e-mails, racist birther myths and misogyny.
The problem, Penny said, is that “anger is an emotion, not a solution.”
The whole presidential campaign has left Minge discouraged. He recalls a time in the 1990s when a Republican-led Congress teamed with Bill Clinton’s Democratic White House to create a budget surplus. Now, Minge said, “Hillary Clinton brings up the deficit and Trump doesn’t even respond.”
When politicians don’t care, neither does the public. Minge, a retired Minnesota appeals court judge, travels to colleges as part of a Congress to Campus program. He was in Kansas City, Mo., recently and brought up the national debt and the deficit to students there.
“It didn’t spark any big debate,” he said. “Other issues have somehow replaced this.”
Minge believes Americans’ worries about jobs and terrorism have “overwhelmed a lot of the debt and deficit discussion.”
Some surveys bear that out. Voters still rank “the economy” as their top concern, according to the Pew Research Center. But these days “the economy” means something besides debt reduction. In 2013, 72 percent of Americans thought reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority for the president; in 2016, 56 percent did, Pew found.
While Minge discussed economic anxiety, Hamline University political scientist Joseph Peschek posited an opposite theory. He said recent “positive news on job creation and income growth” might have blunted voters’ concerns about paying down the debt and balancing the budget.
“Things are not as dire as they were during the Great Recession or the weak recovery,” Peschek said. So the debt situation “doesn’t lend itself to alarm bells.”
Gene Sperling, Clinton’s chief economic adviser, echoed that sentiment at a CRFB forum last week.
“It is hard to say that [the national debt] is the fundamental crisis the country faces right now,” he told MacGuineas.
Thinking the debt and the deficit don’t matter is a dangerous delusion, MacGuineas, Penny and Minge all warn. Tax cuts do not pay for themselves and infrastructure construction must be paid for if it is to promote economic growth, CRFB maintains.
Even without Trump’s economic plan, current projections show the debt increasing by $9 trillion in the next decade. CRFB said the jump “is largely the result of rising entitlement spending and growing interest costs.” Reforming Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were not even mentioned in the debate.
Republicans are traditionally the ones who focus on the debt and deficit, Peschek explained. But Trump has talked about the nation borrowing its way to prosperity taking advantage of low interest rates. Now, he says he can make the economy growth two or three times as fast as it has recently by cutting business tax rates and tax rates for the rich.
Democrats don’t care to focus on trimming the debt, Peschek pointed out, because they associate it with austerity measures that cut government programs rather than raise revenue.
At this point, MacGuineas thinks the presidential campaign could use a little Minnesota discipline.
“I don’t know what it is in the water there,” she said. “But the folks from Minnesota have been so engaged and so good on this issue, our board would be nowhere without having had their leadership.”