U.S. on Track to Add $19 Trillion in New Debt Over 10 Years

WASHINGTON — The United States is on track to add nearly $19 trillion to its national debt over the next decade, $3 trillion more than previously forecast, as a result of rising costs for interest payments, veterans’ health care, retiree benefits and the military, the Congressional Budget Office said on Wednesday.

The new forecasts, released Wednesday afternoon, project a $1.4 trillion gap this year between what the government spends and what it takes in from tax revenues. Over the next decade, deficits will average $2 trillion annually, as tax receipts fail to keep pace with the rising costs of Social Security and Medicare benefits for retiring baby boomers.

To put those numbers in context, the total amount of debt held by the public will equal the total annual output of the U.S. economy in 2024, rising to 118 percent of the economy by 2033.

Congress’ nonpartisan budget scorekeeper now projects that the U.S. economy will barely grow this year, after adjusting for inflation, and that the unemployment rate will rise above 5 percent, before growth re-accelerates next year. It attributes the slowdown in growth to the Federal Reserve’s campaign to tame inflation by raising interest rates, which is aimed at cooling the economy and the labor market.

The projections could supercharge a partisan debate between President Biden and House Republicans over taxes, spending and the nation’s debt limit. Republicans are refusing to raise the limit, which caps the total amount of debt that the federal government may issue, unless Mr. Biden agrees to steep but unspecified spending cuts. That refusal threatens to set off a financial crisis and recession if the government is unable to pay all of its bills on time.

Understand the U.S. Debt Ceiling

What is the debt ceiling? The debt ceiling, also called the debt limit, is a cap on the total amount of money that the federal government is authorized to borrow via U.S. Treasury securities, such as bills and savings bonds, to fulfill its financial obligations. Because the United States runs budget deficits, it must borrow huge sums of money to pay its bills.

The limit has been hit. What now? America hit its technical debt limit on Jan. 19. The Treasury Department will now begin using “extraordinary measures” to continue paying the government’s obligations. These measures are essentially fiscal accounting tools that curb certain government investments so that the bills continue to be paid. Those options could be exhausted by June.

What is at stake? Once the government exhausts its extraordinary measures and runs out of cash, it would be unable to issue new debt and pay its bills. The government could wind up defaulting on its debt if it is unable to make required payments to its bondholders. Such a scenario would be economically devastating and could plunge the globe into a financial crisis.

Can the government do anything to forestall disaster? There is no official playbook for what Washington can do. But options do exist. The Treasury could try to prioritize payments, such as paying bondholders first. If the United States does default on its debt, which would rattle the markets, the Federal Reserve could theoretically step in to buy some of those Treasury bonds.

Why is there a limit on U.S. borrowing? According to the Constitution, Congress must authorize borrowing. The debt limit was instituted in the early 20th century so that the Treasury would not need to ask for permission each time it had to issue debt to pay bills.

Raising the stakes of that standoff, the budget office said in a separate report on Wednesday that such a crisis could occur as soon as July — and possibly even earlier — if lawmakers do not agree to raise the $31.4 trillion limit, which the government technically hit last month.

While Republican lawmakers have blamed Mr. Biden and Democrats for the rising deficits, the report makes clear that bipartisan legislation — and the Fed’s interest rate increases — are to blame for the jump in debt projections.

Newly enacted legislation in the past nine months will add about $1.5 trillion to cumulative deficits over the next decade, the budget office said. More than half that increase comes from a single law: an expansion of health care benefits for military veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits. That bill passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, with majorities of Republicans in both chambers voting yes. Another $550 billion in additional deficits is attributable to increased military spending, which also has strong bipartisan support.

In contrast, the budget office said Mr. Biden’s signature climate, tax and health care bill, which passed with only Democratic votes, would modestly reduce deficits over the next decade. That’s because the bill’s spending and tax credits were more than offset by its tax increases on corporations and high earners, along with its efforts to reduce the government’s spending on prescription drugs for retirees.

The report also showed the degree to which the Fed’s campaign to tame high inflation, by quickly and sharply raising interest rates, will drive up federal borrowing costs in the coming years. The Fed has raised rates to a range of 4.5 percent to 4.75 percent from near-zero a year ago and is expected to continue increasing borrowing costs over the next few months.

Since the budget office last issued forecasts in May, the government’s short- and long-term borrowing costs have grown significantly. The budget office now predicts that federal interest costs will total $10.4 trillion over the next decade, up from $8 trillion in May. Those costs will be partially offset by about $1 trillion in increased tax revenues that stem from high inflation driving up nominal incomes for workers.

There were no indications in the report that the size of the federal debt is dragging on economic growth or will any time soon. But officials warned that, in the longer run, policymakers will need to change the nation’s fiscal course, which could come from raising taxes, cutting spending or both.

“Over the long term, our projections suggest that changes in fiscal policy must be made to address the rising costs of interest and mitigate other adverse consequences of high and rising debt,” the director of the budget office, Phillip L. Swagel, wrote in a letter accompanying the report.

America’s $31.4 trillion national debt is the product of policy choices and economic shocks, largely since the turn of the century, when the federal government last spent less money than it received in tax revenues. Tax cuts signed into law by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump reduced government revenues. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started under Mr. Bush were not offset by tax increases. Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden signed trillions of dollars of emergency spending to combat the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 pandemic recession.

The new report from the budget office confirmed what analysts have predicted for years: that the costs of providing Social Security and Medicare benefits to retiring baby boomers are set to grow rapidly in the decade to come.

Mr. Biden was preparing on Wednesday to hit back at Republicans on the debt, highlighting the new House majority’s plans to extend expiring tax cuts signed into law under Mr. Trump and repeal tax increases on high earners and corporations that Mr. Biden signed into law last year.

“Let’s be crystal clear about what’s happening,” Mr. Biden planned to say at an event in Maryland, according to advance speech experts released by the White House. “If you add up all the proposals that my Republican friends in Congress have offered so far, they would add another $3 trillion to the debt over 10 years.”

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