(Bismarck, ND) -- U.S. Representative Kelly Armstrong (R-North Dakota) says if the United States government is to make real progress with the nation’s debt, spending cuts will have to be made in areas like Medicare and Social Security.
Armstrong, speaking on KTGO Radio (AM 1090 / FM 92.7), says the recent debt ceiling negotiations were handled responsibly by Republicans. Still, at some point, there will need to be difficult decisions made on Federal programs that once seemed untouchable.
The United States’ debt now tops $32 trillion for the first time in U.S. history. $1 million is added to the debt every 40 seconds because of the interest that accrues on the principal.
Armstrong says efforts to cut spending have historically taken place without meaningful discussion on categories Americans pay into for a later benefit. “If you take mandatory spending of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security off the table, then you’re only dealing with 27% of the budget. Then when you 'plus up' military spending and VA spending, both of which needed to happen (in the debt ceiling negotiations)…you’re down to only 11% of the budget. We got everything we got out of there out of 11% of the budget, which is essentially all we had to deal with…Was it good enough? No, absolutely not, but we control one-half of one-third of the government, and we got $2.1 trillion in cuts over six years."
The debt ceiling measure was negotiated between President Biden and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. 71 Republicans voted against it, saying it didn’t go far enough, but 165 Democrats voted for it, giving party leaders the votes needed for passage. Armstrong says he supported the measure because he felt it was the best result Republicans could get, and yielded significant spending cuts. The bill caps some government spending over the next two years, claws back unused COVID-19 funds, and speeds up the permitting process for certain energy projects, which Armstrong says will be “real and significant” for North Dakota.
Armstrong cautions that shutting down the government, in the case of an impasse in such negotiations, is a storm that could be weathered but that a default on the United States debt would be much more punitive. “Just a downgrade in our debt is like lighting $300 billion a year on fire because that is what the federal government would pay extra every single year just to service the debt we already have. But at some point in time, we have to get people together with the courage to figure out how to solve the mandatory spending, because you cannot tackle our debt without dealing with mandatory spending.”
In 1980, America’s debt-to-GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio was 34.6%, meaning that the GDP (the total of domestically produced goods and services in a calendar year) was roughly three times greater than the country’s debt. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the debt is now 121.1% of GDP. Government budgets will face even greater challenges in upcoming years, due to an aging population that will drive health and retirement costs upward. The debt ceiling deal did not do anything to rein in those fast-growing programs.
“We have to do it in a way that is realistic,” says Armstrong. “You can’t attack it all at once because it took us 30 years to get to this problem. You can’t solve it in two. There’s a reason nobody hates Santa Claus, but sooner or later the debt comes due.”
Getting politicians to sign up for spending cuts to these programs won’t be easy. “Short answer is that people have to have enough courage,” says Armstrong. “I’ll lose an election over real corrections in mandatory spending that we codify, because I think it’s the single biggest problem we face. We just have to have a lot more people with a lot more courage.”
Congressional Republicans have favored plans that cut spending without reducing Defense and Veterans allocations. Democrats say that this means the country will be left with no choice but to cut education, job training, rental housing assistance, and economic security and social services that are particularly important to people with low incomes. This group, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, statistically tends to be overrepresented by Black, Latino, and Indigenous people.
Amstrong says part of the solution needs to be a multi-faceted approach to mandatory spending. “Reforming Medicare and Medicaid is not the same as taking checks away from people who are on it now. You have to stagger this and step this up going forward. It’s a different conversation with my 15-year-old daughter than it is with my Grandpa and how we deal with their checks, so we just need to be honest with the American people about what it takes.”
He knows that political opponents will seize on such proposals in campaign ads. “They’re going to roll wheelchairs off the cliff and those are the commercials they’re going to run. So you’ll have to deal with that but you also have to be honest. Go home and talk to your voters and tell them why you’re doing it and let the chips fall where they may.”
He says there is no other way to make meaningful change to the nation’s long-term debt picture.
“Anyone who tells you anything different is pandering to you.”
Armstrong says candidates should not campaign on it until they have a plan they can explain, and it has to happen early in a term. It also helps if your party’s Presidential candidate will support it. “This sounds so silly but we’re walking into a Presidential year, and I love President Trump…but you can’t have conservatives in the House putting out a plan that your leading candidate is going to attack at the same time. And that’s the truth, that’s what would happen right now, but the answer is you have to have enough courage to get it across the finish line and then deal with whether you lose your next election over it.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy agrees. In a recent interview with Fox News Channel, the California Republican said, “I’m going to make some people uncomfortable. This (referring to the debt ceiling agreement) doesn’t take care of all the problems; this is the first step. I’m going to announce a commission…from bi-partisans on both sides of the aisle. We only got to look at 11% of the budget to find these cuts. We have to look at the entire budget. The majority of the budget is mandatory spending.”
Armstrong says there are some cuts that can be made quickly without touching entitlements. “Go after the waste, fraud and abuse. That’s not going to solve your problem alone but there’s a lot of it out there. And then talk about what this looks like over the course of 15 to 20 years and then figure out the pressure point where you can get the trajectory to curve back away towards sanity and do that at the latest possible point to inflict the least amount of pain on people as you gradually step it down.”
A key factor in the Social Security and Medicare discussion is life expectancy, which continues to increase. While dropping in the last two years, American lifespan has generally been trending upward. The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 77.2 years, up from 69.7 in 1960. “These are good problems because we’re living longer, healthier lives,” says Armstrong. “That’s a great thing but we should factor in these spending things to account for the fact that my daughter is probably going to live longer than I’m going to. That means if you’re on social security or Medicare, you’re probably going to be on it a longer amount of time, so let’s figure out a way to make it solvent. Because the answer to our next generation can’t be that it’s not going to be there because we didn’t have enough courage to solve it.”