Opinion: Interest payments skyrocket on national debt

The Treasury Building in Washington, on May 4, 2021.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Treasury Building in Washington, on May 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Reading through the latest report on the federal deficit, one figure jumped off the page — the amount of money that Uncle Sam is now spending just for interest on the national debt.

In December, it was $68 billion in interest payments — $216 billion in the past three months, and $659 billion in 2023.

That’s $659 billion, basically going down the drain.

Total interest payments could go over $800 billion in 2024 - almost as much as the Pentagon’s budget.

Interest on the debt is now the fourth biggest budget line – behind only Social Security, Medicare, and defense.

“We are approaching the point of no return where simply paying off interest on the debt will be the largest line item in the federal budget,” U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, R-Jackson, said earlier this month.

What’s being done about it? Not much.

On Capitol Hill, House Republicans keep backing big defense spending increases and tax cuts. They talk a big game on domestic cuts, but don’t produce anything.

At the White House, President Biden’s last budget didn’t have a yearly deficit under $1.5 trillion for the next decade. Democrats often call for tax increases on the wealthy to pay for what they want.

So, who is to blame for all the red ink? I don’t like to point at ‘both sides’ on anything. But both parties are at fault because of the toxic fiscal combination of higher spending, lower taxes, and big social safety net programs.

“The growth in deficits and debt can be explained both by the automatic growth in mandatory spending and by the enactment of tax cuts and spending increases,” the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget declared this week.

The road back is pretty simple. It involves more revenue and less spending. But that’s not a very exciting political formula.

Twenty-three years ago this week, Bill Clinton handed over the reins of power to George W. Bush with the debt at $5.7 trillion. Back then, Uncle Sam was looking at a fourth straight budget surplus, and the Treasury Department was paying off debt.

But the numbers soon started going the wrong way.

Bush turned over a debt of $11.1 trillion to Barack Obama. The debt increased by about $8 trillion in eight years under Obama and then went up by nearly $8 trillion in just four years under Donald Trump. It could be a repeat for Joe Biden.

Yearly federal deficits of over $1.5 trillion are simply unacceptable. Everyone knows that. And yet, that’s where we are in 2024.

And no one seems ready to do anything about it.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and Congress from Washington, D.C. since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com

About the Author