Donald Trump was elected president by ridiculing Republicans, and later Democrats, about their abject failure to enforce immigration laws.
His barbs touched a nerve because he was right — and remains right on the larger immigration issue, if not on “the wall” itself. Congress has disgraced itself in failing to negotiate practicable border security solutions and guest-worker and E-Verify programs that could re-establish order in our immigration processes and provide permanent status for millions of children who know nothing but America now living in limbo. (Remember when “e-” in front of a word connoted modernity? Yes, we’ve been talking about E-Verify for that long.)
But in addressing the nation Tuesday night, the president failed to say anything about the real emergency facing Americans, the federal debt bomb that will reach $22 trillion in the coming weeks and the political cowardice that enables it to grow larger by the day. Immigration is a problem; federal debt is a crisis.
He should have shut down the government over that.
Eight years ago, national debt was on everyone’s lips and minds. The Simpson-Bowles Commission, aka The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, had just issued a stark warning about what debt would do to this country if left unchecked, especially to younger generations. It was terrifying.
I recall standing in 2011 beneath the national debt clock in Manhattan during a news conference with two daughters and soon-to-be New York congressman Bob Turner. He, they and a half dozen television cameras peered up at the ugly news on the board at the time: $14 trillion and counting.
Ah, the good old days.
Simpson-Bowles, a bipartisan commission appointed by President Barack Obama, laid out a specific plan to cut $3.8 trillion in debt by 2020. Congress did just the opposite. It’s now estimated that we’ll owe about $24 trillion at the close of 2020 and more than $25 trillion by the end of 2021. Instead of addressing the debt crisis, we will have tacked $8 trillion onto it in a decade, when it took 223 years to accumulate the first $11 trillion. Add unfunded state and federal liabilities to the bill and things really get hairy for children and grandchildren who will one day be forced to borrow from ever-shrinking and highly inflationary credit markets.
Trump is at least honest in saying he has no interest in tackling our spending crisis. He didn’t campaign on it, and reportedly dismissed the dire warnings of a top budget aide appealing to him with charts showing looming economic disaster. “Yeah, but I won’t be here,” the president is quoted as saying to the official. As long as the bomb doesn’t explode during my presidency it’s someone else’s problem, in other words.
That’s his actual policy position.
Trump hasn’t been alone in burying his head in the sand out of convenience. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama added greatly to the debt, each ignoring long-term warnings in favor of short-term fixes. Even former House Speaker Paul Ryan, a key member of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, looked the other way when deficit spending spiked under Trump. He knew tax cuts were more popular than spending cuts. Tack two trillion more to the bill.
The $5.7 billion Trump is asking for his southern border wall may sound like chump change when compared with our overall debt and spending levels, but the estimated $67 billion it would cost to complete a 2,000-mile sea-to-shining-sea structure is anything but. It’s mostly about short-term politics, which is exactly what’s putting our nation in long-term jeopardy.
One can only hope, though, that something will come of this shutdown — that Democrats and Republicans will eventually be shamed enough to advance an immigration reform plan we can all live with and afford.
Trump’s address to the nation on Tuesday was politically savvy, but fundamentally unnecessary. But there is a national emergency address he could give of real meaning.
I’m not holding my breath, nor should you.
William F.B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.