For the better part of a half-century, the mutually assured destruction doctrine prevented nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Cold War nuclear analysts summed it up with a simple but effective maxim: “Whoever shoots first, dies second.” These days, Congress has developed its own MAD doctrine with similarly destructive potential.

No, Congress isn’t about to engage in nuclear war. The horrific principle I’m referring to is mutually assured deficits (MAD). If there’s one remaining patch of common ground for Republicans and Democrats, it’s assuring their ability to spend money they don’t have.

Paying interest on the national debt crowds out other spending priorities. Generally speaking, the United States borrows money cheaply, but any interest rate applied to almost $15 trillion in publicly held debt is tremendously costly. In fiscal year 2018, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicts more than $300 billion in net interest payments.

Most of us don’t have a reference point for a number that large, so context is helpful. CBO’s projected 2018 net interest payments are greater than America’s 2017 expenditures on Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health and Human Services COMBINED.

The only realistic way to get our debt under control is to start paying it off. We can’t do that if we’re running one annual deficit after another. Congress has been doing just that since 2001.

Dispense with the myth of fiscal conservatism.

For years, I actually believed that Republicans were the party of fiscal sanity. I even adopted some of the rhetoric believing it was sincere. Over the past decade, I’ve developed the ability to translate talking points. “Combatting waste, fraud and abuse” is code for “we don’t want to cut things people like.” “We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem” translates roughly to “tax cuts are great even if we can’t rein in spending.” I could go on.

Republicans harp on our fiscal woes much more frequently than Democrats, but the GOP simply hasn’t delivered results. If President Donald Trump’s budget for fiscal year 2019 is any indication, that won’t change. He’s calling for nearly a trillion dollars a year in deficit spending through 2020.

What about those tax and spend liberals?

Democrats aren’t shy about raising taxes to spend on programs like the Affordable Care Act. It’s not a conservative approach, but it is an attempt to generate revenues necessary to fund new spending. The key phrase there is “new spending.” Democrats aren’t particularly interested in tax hikes to pay for money already spent or rolling back federal programs. Where they quickly point out deficit reductions during President Barack Obama’s second term, they conveniently ignore the four prior years with deficits in excess of a trillion dollars.

The MAD doctrine recently reared its ugly head again. For the third time, Congress circumvented one of the only serious attempts at reducing deficits in the last decade.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 created the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. The bipartisan bicameral committee’s goal was to develop a plan to reduce deficits by $1.5 trillion over ten years. If the committee failed, the legislation imposed $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts (the sequester) from 2013 to 2021.

Put another way, the committee needed to reduce deficits over ten years by less than deficit spending in fiscal year 2011 alone. That couldn’t be that difficult, right?

The committee failed…miserably. Republicans wouldn’t budge on tax increases. Democrats refused to yield on spending cuts. Once committee members learned what the word “compromise” really meant, they quit and triggered the sequester.

Since the sequester took effect in 2013, bipartisan spending deals breached the spending caps in 2013, 2015, and now in 2018.

We’ll likely see more MAD spending with the 2018 farm bill. Urban Democrats will again support the food assistance portions of the bill and rural Republicans will vote in favor of farm insurance subsidies. Only time will tell what grand MAD bargain might emerge to fund Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure package.

It’s a mad, MAD world, and Congress is stuck in it. Blame Democrats. Pin it on Republicans. The math isn’t complicated or confusing. Our leaders simply don’t care. If we keep heading down this path much longer, the difference between mutually assured deficits and destruction may simply be a matter of degree.

Featured Publications