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Shutdown proves one thing: our government is truly broken

Guest Commentary


Last updated 1/17/2019 at 8:52pm

It looks as if the current government shutdown will set a new record with no end in sight. President Trump has avowed that he will not end the standoff unless there is funding for his wall. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is just as adamant that there will be no funding for the wall. Neither side shows any sign of budging.

So, who is to blame? Is it the President’s fault for sticking to his campaign promises, or is it the Democrats’ fault for standing on their ideology? Maybe a bit of both, and maybe this budget confrontation is a symptom of another much deeper problem.

Neither the President nor the Congress can just arbitrarily shut down the government. The mechanism that triggers the whole mess is the debt ceiling.

Our government has had a balanced budget only once in the last 50 years. Only once! Every other year we have had to borrow money in order to function. Not surprisingly, our national debt gets bigger and bigger.

A hundred years ago, our Congress was concerned that spending for World War I could possibly get out of control, so they placed a limit on the amount the government could borrow. The ceiling was gradually raised over the next 80 years or so until 1995. The debate over the size of government and the size of the debt polarized our elected representatives to the point that neither side would compromise on the budget nor the debt ceiling, so we had our first partial shutdown.

We had similar breakdowns in 2011 and 2013. The basic problem isn’t that Trump is a jerk (which he is) or that Pelosi is an idiot (which she is), the basic problem is that we operate on borrowed money. If we cannot borrow, our government cannot function. Whose fault is that? It’s yours and mine.

We demand that our government do more and more. We send our military to police the world at our expense. We expect our government to provide for the less fortunate. We have aid for unwed mothers, food stamps for the poor, and welfare for needy families.

These are wonderful worthwhile programs, but they are expensive. We want the best healthcare possible for all our citizens regardless of ability to pay. Again this is great, but it is costly.

We want our senior citizens to have a comfortable standard of living. This is praiseworthy, but our Social Security taxes are not enough to pay for it. We borrow the remainder from our children.

Our debt is staggering. If we spread the debt over every person in America, it comes to $61,000 for every man, woman and child. The debt for a family of four exceeds the principal on their mortgage.

The basic amount is frightening, but the debt service is even more so. The interest on the debt last year was $310 billion or about two-thirds the size of the defense budget, while the prime interest rate was as low as any point in history. The Federal Reserve just increased the rate and promised to raise it again in a few months.

If the T-bill rate reaches 3 percent, the interest on our debt will double and become far and away our largest budget category. Where will that money come from? If we find ourselves needing to borrow to pay the interest, we will be at the point of no return on the road to national bankruptcy.

We protect our children. We make sure they are safe and use hand sanitizer so they don’t pick up ambient germs, but we turn a blind eye to the danger our national lifestyle poses to their future. When our debt can shut down the government, it is time to do something about the debt. Congress gets paid even when other government employees don’t. Maybe we could start by changing that.

Frank Watson is a retired Air Force Colonel and long time resident of Eastern Washington. He has been a free-lance columnist for over 19 years.


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