How Did We Get to $20 Trillion?

Here’s what the numbers show

In survey after survey, most Americans tell pollsters they want politicians to address the national debt. Support for specific policies may ebb and flow over time, but what rarely changes are the promises politicians make and break in response.

Image via Musée McCord

Almost all politicians pledge to spend responsibly while on the stump, but once they’re in office, voters are at the mercy of a system so complex and crisis-driven it becomes all but impossible to know who’s keeping their word.

So who is?

As only someone who founded and runs an organization dedicated to reforming federal spending can tell you, understanding even the basics can be challenging for laymen and policy professionals alike.

Fortunately, the rise of open data has made figuring out politicians’ track records just a little bit easier. SpendingTracker.org compiles spending estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and cross-references them with every vote cast in order to track public spending and assign responsibility.

Here are a few things we learned from the most recent Congress:

Republicans and Democrats are Shockingly Similar
The difference between the average Republican and the average Democrat is remarkably small — at least when it comes to bills that have been signed into law. During his time in office, President Obama approved just over $2 trillion in new spending over the next decade, of which the median House Republican voted for $1.95 trillion and median Democrat $1.86 trillion. In the Senate, those numbers are $1.8 trillion and $2.0 trillion, respectively.

Nearly 80% of Congress voted for more than $1.5 Trillion of spending during 2015–16. Source: SpendingTracker.org

Of course, members of Congress cannot ensure everything they support becomes law. Looking at all votes that members cast reveals more predictable divisions among the parties, with most Republicans voting to spend less than most of their Democratic counterparts. The Senate, thanks to its encouragement of unanimous consent, has less variation among both parties.

These records can be viewed with varying levels of cynicism — they represent either what Republicans would have passed if they could have, or what they are happy to vote for with no chance of its becoming law. Recent experience with many Republicans hesitating to pass a full Obamacare repeal after it passed dozens of times under Obama might suggest the latter is closer to the truth.

Democrats Control Dissent Much More Effectively
In the 114th, the lowest and highest-spending members of Congress hail from the GOP. While these differences can be attributed to several factors including simply that the 114th was under Republican leadership, they also highlight the internal war within the party between hardcore fiscal hawks like the Freedom Caucus and rank-and-file Republicans. Despite their recent contentious chairman’s race, Democrats see far less intra-party division.

Both the top spenders and the top savers in the 114th Congress were Republicans. Source: SpendingTracker.org

The highest spenders in both parties have voted for just over $2 trillion in new spending, but the range is far smaller for Democratic members. For instance, the most frugal Republican, Michigan’s Justin Amash, voted to spend about $8 billion, while the most frugal Democrat, Illinois’ Jan Schakowsky, voted for nearly $450 billion. Looking at all votes cast shows even clearer differences — with Amash voting to save over $1 trillion and Schakowsky still voting for almost $500 billion in new spending.

The same phenomenon exists in the Senate, but again even less variation exists in both parties. Despite inevitable handwringing over unruly caucuses, the status quo is such that voting to cut spending will necessarily involve bucking party leadership from time to time.

The Longer You’re in Office, the More You Vote to Spend
Most members of Congress vote to spend very large amounts of money, but it’s nearly impossible to find thrifty career politicians. Of the 93 Representatives who have been in office 19 years or more, only 15 voted to spend less than $1 trillion during the 114th. Of the 23 Senators in office for the same amount of time, Oregon’s Ron Wyden is the only one who voted for less than $1 trillion.

The Budget Process is Fundamentally Broken
While every vote adds up, the vast majority of spending comes from a very small number of bills. This fact highlights deep problems in the budget process, in which most spending passes at the last minute, in large packages, or under threat of shutdown — situations that make it difficult for the vast majority of politicians to do anything but vote Yea. It has been 22 years, in fact, since Congress completed the budget process from resolution to appropriations bills, and without fundamental changes that will allow more careful consideration of costs and tradeoffs, cutting spending will remain a distant goal.

We Have to Take Big Entitlement Programs off Autopilot
Not only does most discretionary spending occur in large packages, members of Congress rarely have opportunities to vote on mandatory spending, which is now by far the largest portion of the federal budget. It’s no exaggeration to say that major programs like Social Security and Medicare have the potential to make every other discussion moot as these outlays strain resources and priorities — and endanger those who depend on these programs. A bipartisan refusal to seek reform serves the best interests of no one, least of all the most vulnerable among us.

So What’s Next?

This database tool represents the first time anyone has linked voting records to total new spending, and the results are uncomfortably illuminating for people who want fiscal sanity. But with open data, new technology, and a clear sense of the root of the problems, we have a fighting chance to solve them once and for all.