Time and the Pelosi-Reid-Obama Debt

On April 25 at the Media Research Center, Tom Blumer reported on President Obama’s recent trip to England. At a town hall in London, Obama was asked: “After eight years, what would you say you want your legacy to be?” After some preliminaries, Obama offered this: “Saving the world economy from a Great Depression -- that was pretty good.”

Right; and Obama himself personally killed bin Laden and stopped the oceans from rising. But, did Mr. Obama really save the world from a Great Depression, or did he merely push the next depression off into the future? (Spreading trillions of borrowed bucks all over the place ought to buy a brother something.)

At my local library, the cover story of the April 25 issue of Time caught my eye; it listed the U.S. debt as “$13.9 trillion.” That’s more than $5 trillion less than the figure of $19+ trillion folks see on TV. The article explains (italics added):

The Treasury gets by paying an average of just 1.8% on that portion of the debt, held by savers and investors both here and abroad. Defined in this way, we owe $13.9 trillion. The $19 trillion figure ticking upward on the famous National Debt Clock adds the debts the government owes itself. […] It’s not so important that the government pays itself on time. What is important is that the government pay its public creditors on time.

$13.9T is the “Debt Held by the Public,” and it is the real debt, the debt that must be repaid, what some call the “hard debt.” Because Time’s cover listed the honest number, the article seemed like it’d be a worthy investment of time. It was written by James Grant, head honcho of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. Americans who aren’t concerned about the debt but who plan to vote this fall should read this article. It appeared online on April 14 as “The United States of Insolvency.”

The last (and only) year the federal debt was entirely paid off was 1835. On January 20, 2009, the day of Obama’s first inauguration, the federal government’s total hard debt was $6.3T. On March 31, 2014 the hard debt was $12.6T. So under the Pelosi-Reid-Obama axis, the federal government’s hard debt doubled in right around 5 years and 70 days.

During Obama’s first seven years (from Jan. 20 to Jan. 20), the feds borrowed about $7.3T. By the end of the Obama presidency, the hard debt will have risen nearly $8T. That the public debt is not even more is because Speaker Pelosi was relieved of her job in Jan. 2011.

Some of the dire predictions about the steep run-up in debt under Mr. Obama have not come to pass. That’s because the new debt hasn’t come due yet; that is, the new Treasury securities haven’t matured. Inasmuch as most of the federal debt is in the form of T-notes, whose longest term is 10 years, the pressure on the Treasury from the Democrats’ borrowing should start to be felt in fiscal 2018. That’s ten years after Nancy Pelosi’s Democrat Congress took control of the budget and set the first of their record deficits. By the way, FY 2018 begins Oct. 1 of next year.

If we go to Schedules of the Federal Debt at Treasury Direct, and then click on the latest link, we get the GAO’s financial audit “Bureau of the Fiscal Service's Fiscal Years 2015 and 2014 Schedules of Federal Debt.” If we continue on to page 21 of the PDF, we’ll come to the “Debt Held by the Public” section, where we read (italics added): “As of September 30, 2015 […], total marketable debt held by the public maturing within the next 10 years totaled $11,178 billion,” which was about 85 percent of the hard debt.

For perspective, let’s go back to the GAO financial audit dated November 2007, which is the 2006 and 2007 link. There, on page 16, we come upon the same treatment of the “Debt Held by the Public” as above, and we read: “As of September 30, 2007 […], notes and TIPS held by the public maturing within the next 10 years totaled $2,767 billion.”

It must be noted that September 30, 2007 was the day before Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats took control over the federal budget. But $11.1T isn’t so bad, is it? Doesn’t it prorate out to just $1.1T a year that Treasury will need to “roll over”? Unfortunately, on page 21 of the latest GAO audit we read (italics added): “Of the marketable securities currently held by the public as of September 30, 2015, $7,408 billion, or 58 percent, will mature within the next four years.”

That $7.4T in U.S. debt will have come due before October 1, 2019. But the pressure should really start to mount a year earlier, as that’s the ten-year anniversary of Congress’s first trillion-dollar deficit. Indeed, on page 16 of the GAO’s audit for 2008 and 2009, we learn that Treasury note issuances increased by “$1,008 billion […] in fiscal year 2009.” That’s a $1T increase in just one type of government security.

When individuals borrow money, they’re also borrowing time. What they’re supposed to do with that time is acquire the money to pay off their loan. That necessitates saving money and cutting expenses. But the federal government can’t save, and it rarely retires any of its debt. Instead, the feds refinance; they roll over their treasuries; they sell new debt to pay off old debt. Because the feds will soon be rolling over far more debt than usual, what’s that going to do to interest rates? From James Grant’s article:

In the short term, the debt would no doubt be refinanced, but at which interest rate? At 4.8%, the rate prevailing as recently as 2007, the government would pay more in interest expense -- $654 billion -- than it does for national defense. At a blended rate of 6.7%, the average prevailing in the 1990s, the net federal-interest bill would reach $913 billion, which very nearly equals this year’s projected outlay on Social Security.

Just like individuals, when the federal government borrows money, it is also borrowing time. Has the federal government used the nearly $8T worth of time it borrowed to make the systemic changes needed to avoid another painful economic downturn?

Many Americans have forgotten (or never knew) that the federal budget is the responsibility of Congress, not the president. Budgets are legislation, and they start in the House of Representatives. So in the “United States of Insolvency,” who are we going to elect this November to Congress? Let me remind you: Republican Congresses have produced the budgets with the most back-to-back surpluses, the most recent surpluses, and the largest surpluses.

In 2006, Nancy Pelosi ran on PAYGO, pay-as-you-go budgeting. But upon getting control of the budget in fiscal 2008, she ran a then-record deficit (-$458B) that was 2.85 times the size of the 2007 deficit. She followed that with America’s first trillion-dollar deficit in 2009 (-$1.4T). Whatever happened to PAYGO, Madame Speaker? Forget Harriet Tubman, it is Nancy Pelosi’s image that should be on our currency. After all, time has not been kind to it.

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. 

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