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Authored by ARUSA Executive Editor Henry Shull '13.

Congress wasn’t popular to start with, and now it has hit a 17-year low.

When compared to the current situation, run-of-the-mill partisan gridlock and traditional vitriol looks like a job well done.  The expletive imperative that John Boehner yapped at Harry Reid back in January now seems like semi-functional communication—at least they were talking then.

The present and approaching budgetary challenges are clear:  The federal government has been closed, save for essential services, since October 1.  On Thursday, the U.S. government is set to default on its debt for the first time in history.

If we default on our loans, the consequences could be enormous.  The cost of borrowing money, covered in the ARUSA article on net interest, would rise because the U.S. treasuries would no longer be seen as such a safe investment.  Global financial markets would tremble and shudder.

Even in the face of this threat, Republicans and Democrats have yet to come to a deal.  Their dispute centers mainly on the appropriate level of federal spending.  Republicans generally favor reduced spending, with cuts to many current government programs, while Democrats generally favor less austere measures.

To be sure, there are plenty of scary statistics to back up the deficit hawks.  For example, the gross U.S. debt is $16.7 trillion today, composed of $11.9 trillion in debt held by the public and $4.8 trillion in intra-governmental holdings.  (For further details, see the ARUSA article on federal debt and deficit.)

This comes out to about $53,000 for every inhabitant of the United States, including children, the elderly, the unemployed, and others with limited ability to work and few financial resources.  If averaged only among employed Americans, including the working poor, the debt per person comes to over $123,000.

Or to put it another way, if the entire federal debt were converted into pennies and stacked one on top of the other, the column would reach to the moon and back more than 3,350 times.

While some politicians suggest that raising the debt limit would be unwarranted, or blame the Obama Administration for the situation, as noted in ARUSA FY 2012, this has traditionally been, for better or for worse, part of the federal government’s normal functioning.  In fact, the debt limit has been modified more than 90 times since 1940!

It is with observations like these, which stem from research and non-partisan analysis, that I believe ARUSA can contribute to public discourse on fiscal issues.  In this way, ARUSA works to raise civic awareness of federal fiscal policy, providing information on government spending so that citizens, who are stakeholders and voters, and outside observers can understand where American tax dollars go.

With a greater focus on budget policy in the media, society, and political life, public officeholders would be under pressure to make wise spending decisions, and, hopefully, the next crisis could be mitigated or even avoided altogether.  ARUSA can be a part of this solution, so check it out, and turn your newfound knowledge into power through political action.

Some of the report's key findings include:

  • As of January 2, 2013, the U.S. government had a total of $11.6 trillion in debt held by the public and $4.86 trillion in intra-governmental holdings, for a total of $16.4 trillion in outstanding debt. This represents a 55 percent increase in gross debt in less than four years.
  • The government owes more than $52,000 for every person living in the U.S., including children, the elderly, and the unemployed.  If this one-time “debt reduction fee” were levied only on those in the workforce, the cost would be over $106,000 per person.
  • Total receipts for FY 2012 were an estimated $2.47 trillion, and total expenditures were an estimated $3.80 trillion, leading to a deficit of $1.33 trillion.
  • The report catalogues the final stages of American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. has spent over $1.5 trillion since 2002.  For FY 2012, President Obama requested $107 billion for Afghanistan and $11 billion for Iraq.