National debt tops $31 trillion for the first time. How much accrued under Biden?

Andrew Harnik/AP

America’s total national debt surpassed $31 trillion for the first time on Oct. 3, according to newly released Treasury Department data. President Joe Biden, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, has contributed significantly toward its increase.

The national debt, which includes debt held by the public and intragovernmental holdings, has been a feature on America’s ledger since the nation’s founding when it took out loans to support the American Revolution, according to the Treasury Department.

The national debt has steadily increased over recent decades, but has climbed higher during foreign interventions and domestic crises, like the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. Fiscal policy measures like tax cuts and stimulus programs can also factor into marked upticks in the debt, according to the Treasury Department.

Economists generally advise comparing the total debt to Gross National Product (GDP), rather than analyzing debt alone, for understanding the health of the economy, since the comparison shows the country’s ability to pay down the debt. By that measure, the fiscal situation has long been grim as U.S. debt has continuously surpassed GDP since 2016.

Though the debt had been growing steadily in recent years, the rate of growth increased substantially throughout the pandemic, according to The Brookings Institution. Federal spending shot up under both Presidents Trump and Biden, as trillions were spent on economic stimulus, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

The total national debt stood at $27.7 trillion on the day of Biden’s inauguration, and has increased by over $3 trillion since then, according to the Treasury Department.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates “the Biden Administration has enacted policies through legislation and executive actions that will add more than $4.8 trillion to deficits between 2021 and 2031, or nearly $2.5 trillion when excluding the effects of the American Rescue Plan.”

In comparison, the federal debt rose by around $7.8 trillion under then-President Trump in his four years in office and $8.6 trillion under then-President Barack Obama in his eight years in office.

The five presidents with biggest percentage increase in the federal debt during their presidencies, according to data analyzed by financial news site The Balance, are: Franklin D. Roosevelt (1048%), Woodrow Wilson (723%), Ronald Reagan (186%), George W. Bush (101%) and Obama (74%).

In a statement to the Associated Press, Maya MacGuineas, the think tank’s president said, “In the past 18 months, we’ve witnessed inflation rise to a 40-year high, interest rates climbing in part to combat this inflation, and several budget-busting pieces of legislation and executive actions.”

We are addicted to debt,” MacGuineas added.

The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package, and the Inflation Reduction Act are two of the largest pieces of legislation signed into law under Biden. Additionally, he recently signed an executive order canceling some federal student loans, a suspension in payments the CBO estimates will cost $400 billion.

“I think the point here is if you weren’t worried before about the debt before, you should be — and if you were worried before, you should be even more worried,” Owen Zidar, a Princeton economist, told the Associated Press.

Historically, the cost of servicing U.S. debt has been manageable as interest rates have remained low, but some critics worry that these conditions may not last.

“Washington has engaged in a long-term debt spree and been fortunate to be bailed out by low interest rates up to this point,” Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told The New York Times. “But the Treasury never locked in those low rates long term, and now rising rates may collide with that escalating debt with horribly expensive results.”

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