Tacking on $1 trillion in debt in barely more than half a year used to be unheard of. But that norm went out the window when Biden’s predecessor, President Donald Trump, turbocharged the national debt—even before he put federal spending on steroids in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What is shocking now, however, is that hardly anyone is paying attention to Biden’s spending, even amid historic inflation.
For much of recent history, presidents have been able to get away with ignoring their campaign promises of fiscal responsibility. But as the bills are coming due for the U.S. economy, those days should be numbered.
Despite campaigning as a moderate, President Biden has dramatically accelerated federal spending during his time in office. He has now spent more in his first two years than President Trump did during his last two years at the height of the pandemic.
Official estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) show that, since January 2021, legislation signed by President Biden has set in motion a record $3.37 trillion in new spending, surpassing Trump’s previous record of $3.28 trillion during the 116th Congress.
Like Trump, Biden has overseen significant pandemic-related relief, but he also has ramped up spending on priorities well beyond COVID-19. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), passed in March 2021, cost $1.8 trillion, more than half of the new spending enacted during Biden’s time in office.
But it’s the other expensive legislation Biden has signed that pushed him past Trump. The much-vaunted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act spent another $765 billion, though the infrastructure expenditures will occur over the course of the next five years. The Jon Stewart-promoted Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act contributed another $278 billion, while the recently passed CHIPS Act “chipped” in $255 billion more. And though congressional Democrats failed to pass Biden’s Build Back Better legislation earlier this year, its eventual successor, the Inflation Reduction Act, is still estimated by the CBO to add another $51 billion to the federal ledger.
Of course, these new laws all represent spending carried out by Biden in consort with the Democratic-controlled Congress. But on top of everything Congress is doing, the president has taken numerous, expensive executive actions that make his impact on the federal budget even greater than official numbers indicate.
In response to a request from House Republicans, the CBO estimated in June that a number of the president’s executive actions total another $532 billion, including interest expenses. The list of actions reviewed by the CBO include $300 billion for an expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, $34 billion for the extension of various healthcare subsidies, and $85 billion for pauses in student loan repayment.
What’s more, on the topic of student loans, Biden has since taken even greater actions. One estimate puts his most recent pause at another $40 billion, while the cost of fuller loan forgiveness would be more than $400 billion. Taken together, these add more than another $1 trillion in spending to Biden’s legislative impact, and help explain how the administration racked up a whopping $4.8 trillion in new borrowing in just the last two years.
Meanwhile, this trend is scarcely noticed in the media or even by some congressional Republicans more interested in fighting the culture war.
It is worth considering how radical this new norm is. For example, in 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) spent more than $575 billion and was estimated by the CBO to raise the national debt by $787 billion over the subsequent decade. That legislation helped spark a nationwide backlash against Washington’s spending, eventually culminating in the rise of the so-called “Tea Party” movement on the right.
In contrast, the bipartisan infrastructure bill will spend nearly $200 billion more than the ARRA and has been championed as a compromise—and the bill is not even the most expensive one passed during Biden’s first two years. But few seem to object.
It seems that the Biden administration is determined to prove that deficits don’t matter, and when it comes to media and public accountability, this may be the case. But the economy may prove that notion wrong. Instead of taking the opportunity to fix the egregious fiscal trends President Trump helped set in motion, Biden continues to carry on one of Trump’s worst legacies as inflation remains high.
This is a strikingly ahistorical choice. A bit more than a decade ago, President Barack Obama, with his first term also occurring under united Democratic party rule, contributed just shy of $2.2 trillion in new spending during his time in office, or more than $1 trillion less than Biden. He was met with loud and sustained opposition.
While Obama eventually struck a compromise with congressional Republicans in the form of the Budget Control Act of 2011, it remains unclear if Biden will do the same. But if history is any guide, continued inflation may ultimately force a course correction. Political power, after all, can only be sustained so long without strong economic fundamentals.