The US Treasury Department said on Tuesday that the US national debt had topped US$16 trillion, the result of chronic government deficits that have poured more than US$50,000 worth of red ink onto federal ledgers for every man, woman and child in the US.
The news was greeted with a round of press releases from US President Barack Obama’s Republican rivals, who used the grim-but-expected news to criticize the president for the government’s fiscal performance over his three-and-a-half years in office. Obama has presided over four straight years of US$1 trillion-plus deficits after inheriting a weak economy from his predecessor, former US president George W. Bush.
“We can no longer push off the tough decisions until tomorrow,” Republican US Representative Eric Cantor said. “It’s time to address the serious fiscal challenges we face and stop spending money we don’t have.”
Last summer, Cantor dropped out of a set of budget talks hosted by US Vice President Joe Biden, citing the insistence of the White House on tax increases to help close deficits that require the government to borrow US$0.33 of every dollar it spends.
The spiraling debt means that lawmakers and the eventual winner of the White House in November will have to pass a law early next year to raise the government’s borrowing cap from the current ceiling of US$16.39 trillion. Passing such legislation last year proved enormously difficult and the nation’s credit rating suffered.
First, however, lawmakers will try during a post-election lame duck session to renew Bush-era tax cuts and head off a round of forced budget austerity as automatic budget cuts are scheduled in January next year to slam both the Pentagon and domestic programs. Those cuts were required by another failed set of budget talks last fall by a bipartisan “supercommittee.”
Republican US vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan piled on as well.
“Of all the broken promises from President Obama, this is probably the worst one, because this debt is threatening jobs today, it’s threatening prosperity today and it is guaranteeing that our children and grandchildren get a diminished future,” Ryan told supporters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Ryan was named to Obama’s debt commission, but voted against a proposal by its co-chairs. He declined an invitation by US House Speaker John Boehner to try again on the supercommittee.
Republican Senator Rob Portman said: “This debt will not only be a liability for our kids and grandkids, but economists also tell us that it will limit economic growth and kill millions of jobs now and in the future.”
Portman was a member of last year’s failed supercommittee, which deadlocked over taxes and cuts to popular benefit programs.
The debt topped the US$16 trillion mark on Friday.
US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said the government will likely reach its debt limit at the end of the year. However, Geithner has said he will be able to employ various “extraordinary measures” to keep the government operating until sometime early next year. Geithner would need to use these measures if Congress, as expected, fails to tackle the debt limit by year’s end.