The new normal of trillion-dollar deficit spending is astonishingly dangerous, yes, but not even for the reason that most people think. As unpredictably hazardous as it could be to push so much debt onto generations of Americans, the overlooked threat is that our country was not set up with any real check on the politics of spending — and that puts our democracy in the balance.
Whatever your political perspective, consider what a president and Congress unified against you, your party and interests could do. Consider, for instance, intense and escalating military buildup, or government spending in an industry sector that skyrockets so much that it crowds out and bankrupts private businesses.
In short, imagine a tyrannical majority with a blank check — and the spiraling political chaos that could provoke.
This kind of spending by the U.S. federal government was not contemplated by the founders, so it is less constrained by checks and balances in the constitutional framework. Until the 20th century, different federal departments and agencies pursued fairly meager funding totals largely independently of one another, rather than under White House coordination. Similarly, the Federal Reserve itself was only created in the early 20th century, and its relative independence is a function of practice as much as law.
And don’t count on the Supreme Court, either.
In other realms of federal policy, the judiciary acts as a constraint and arbiter over the work of the legislative and executive branches. The Supreme Court is often viewed as most crucial thanks to its judicial review power. But, in part perhaps because sizable federal spending was not a routine aspect of American life and law in the founding era (or well beyond it), the judiciary considers questions about budget and spending as generally beyond its proper sphere of adjudication.
That leaves it to two groups to be the check on spending. The first group, voters, can’t and shouldn’t be expected to track appropriations in the trillions of dollars that no average person can relate to. The second, Congress, has not shown a habit of prudence with the spending that helps to fund its myriad campaign promises.
So, we are protected from the worst case by a thin reed. The rules of the U.S. Senate in effect require a 60-vote supermajority for normal legislation. A major new spending initiative would need support from both parties or would require a political configuration in which the American people plainly preferred to have power squarely in the hands of one party rather than the other, such as during the New Deal.
But just several years ago it was still the case that judicial appointments required that same 60 votes supermajority in the Senate. That obviously and sadly changed. Similarly, the arcane mechanisms of the budget “reconciliation” process when expertly manipulated already significantly diminish the need for a Senate supermajority.
Unless trillion-dollar deficit spending is an aberration, America needs to give urgent and creative thought to how to also make it politically robust and sound, a superpower for the common good rather than narrow partisan advantage. The risk may not, in fact, be the prospect of a crippling financial crisis, long foretold by deficit hawks. The real danger, in our brutal partisan era, is that the vast power of federal spending — unconstrained by deficit concerns — will be unleashed to advance naked partisan purposes.
Absent a fiscal awakening by the people, the stabilizing rules of the Senate, as tenuous as they are, are more important than ever.
W. Taylor Reveley, IV is president of Longwood University. Prior to joining Longwood, Reveley served as managing director of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, a nonpartisan institute focused on the U.S. presidency, policy and political history. He had previously served as coordinating attorney for the Center’s National War Powers Commission, co-chaired at the time by former U.S. Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and James Baker.
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