A Misplaced Sense of National Emergency

Blog Post
Monday, February 18, 2019

Last week the national debt hit $22 trillion and the president declared an emergency.

Too bad the two things were not related.

Even as the debt continues its upward climb, policymakers seem remarkably unconcerned. In fact, most of the leading budget proposals from members of both parties threaten to make the situation even worse.

At the same time, President Trump and many of his supporters in Congress insist that a constitutionally suspect emergency declaration is needed to build a wall along the Mexican border although there is no evidence that illegal immigration is becoming a bigger problem or that a wall would do much to stem any problem that exists.

A little more long-term thinking about these issues would be in order.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have warned that unless actions are taken to cut spending, raise taxes or both, the debt will continue to grow faster than the economy.

The crucial thing to recognize about the $22 trillion debt is that its size in dollar terms is not as important as the fact that it is on an unsustainable track. It has grown by more than $2 trillion in the past two years alone.

That’s bad for future generations because it will harm long-term economic growth, greatly increase interest payments on the debt, squeeze out other government spending and make it more difficult to respond to emerging, unmet or true emergency needs.

We’re placing a growing burden on future workers and investing less in the economy that will be called upon to support that burden. This generationally irresponsible pattern will continue absent major changes that alter the long-term trend lines rather than simply postpone a crisis.

The situation on the Mexican border with regard to illegal immigration is far more controlled. Government statistics point to a sharp decline in illegal border crossings over the past several years and, unlike the debt, no official projections show the numbers going up. Nor is there evidence that crime associated with illegal immigration is any more prevalent than it is with the native population.

Trying to build a wall with diverted funds from other priorities specifically approved by Congress would, however, carry some negative long-term consequences even if the Supreme Court eventually sanctions the effort.

It would be a distortion, if not an outright abuse, of limited presidential powers. It would surely make future budget negotiations more difficult and, in the end, it would not get the wall built.

House Democrats could well respond to the emergency declaration by attaching a ban on such funding to any and all Fiscal Year 2020 appropriation bills. Since the Senate and the president would be unlikely to go along with this, this would mean that no appropriation bill would pass, forcing a full government shutdown at the end of the current fiscal year in September.

In the meantime, the redirected funds would be subtracted from their intended use. This would invite a new confrontation over the “raid” of popular bipartisan items such as military construction and training.

Short-circuiting the normal appropriations process might also tempt future presidents to try the same thing. Indeed, if it were to be established that a president can rearrange congressional spending priorities by the mere stroke of a pen, it would be remarkable if future presidents did not make full use of this power, tilting spending authority toward the executive branch in a way not contemplated in the Constitution.

Finally, even if Trump prevails in this money grab he would not be able to secure a reliable ongoing source of funds to construct and maintain his envisioned wall.

Construction alone would require far more to finish the job than the initial $5.7 billion the president has been asking for. In his last budget, the president requested $18 billion for the wall over 10 years. Other estimates suggest the number could go higher.

Border security is certainly an important issue, but the more pressing issue with regard to immigration is reforming the system to legally admit more qualified individuals who can provide a boost to our lagging workforce growth. According to the CBO, demographic trends will slow workforce growth in 2019-2029 to roughly one-third of its 1950-2018 average. That plays a large role in the projected lower growth rates for the U.S. economy in the coming years.

It would be far more productive for the nation’s future if the president and Congress turned their attention to finding a plan for at least stabilizing the growing debt and engaging in a discussion on reforming the legal immigration system in a way that would better support the economy.