Government shutdown talks return as US debt reaches $33 trillion. When will Congress care?

I want you to read this number and count all the zeros: $33,000,000,000,000.

That’s $33 trillion. And it’s what our gross national debt surpassed on Friday. President Joe Biden may want you to think he’s “lowered the deficit,” but clearly that’s far from the truth. The math doesn’t work out.

Less than a year ago, I wrote a column marking when the country hit the $31 trillion mark. That seemed like a big deal at the time.

In June, however, we hit $32 trillion. Just a few months later, the United States has piled on another trillion in debt.

That’s mind-boggling. And it’s dangerous for our country’s future. Higher debt crowds out spending for other priorities, it leads to higher interest rates and it's damaging to the economy.

The debt is what should be dominating budget conversations in Congress, with less than two weeks to go to avoid some sort of government shutdown.

Ditch Republican drama and address elephant in the room

Much attention has been on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his unruly band of Republicans – many of the “troublemakers” are in the House Freedom Caucus.

It’s looking like McCarthy is going to resort to a short-term fix, a continuing resolution, to fund the federal government through October and buy himself more time.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks with student tourists at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 18, 2023.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks with student tourists at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 18, 2023.

Even if he could get that through a narrow majority of Republicans in the House, the measure isn’t likely to get a warm reception in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

What’s most frustrating is that the quibbling among Republicans – and the impending fight with Democrats – is likely going to do next to nothing to address the monstrous amount of debt that the government has accumulated. That's going to take actual hard work, like addressing impending shortfalls in Social Security and health care programs.

That’s the only thing that should be on the minds of lawmakers, conservatives and liberals alike.

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Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, has been warning of the consequences of this unsustainable level of debt.

“The United States has hit a new milestone that no one will be proud of: our gross national debt just surpassed $33 trillion,” MacGuineas said in a statement Monday. “Instead of hearing about solutions, we hear promises of which programs our leaders are unwilling to touch and which taxes they are unwilling to raise. That kind of talk is not only pandering, but it’s also downright irresponsible when we have a mess like this on our hands.”

'Bidenomics' in action: Democrats' excessive spending, mounting debt earn US credit downgrade

Just in the past fiscal year, the deficit has roughly doubled to about $2 trillion – much higher than was predicted once pandemic-related spending subsided.

Rather than return to pre-COVID-19 levels, the deficit continued to grow at a fast clip thanks in part to unwise legislation pushed through by Democrats (last year's Inflation Reduction Act ring a bell?).

Bottom line: We’re spending too much.

A shutdown to 'save our country'?

If all this drama sounds familiar, it’s because a similar fight over spending happened this spring between House Republicans and Biden. They eventually found compromise in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which raised the debt ceiling so the government could pay its bills while also modestly trimming spending.

Yet in the end, not much changed and spending remained too high, leading to a credit downgrade – only the second in the country’s history.

GOP scores an early debt ceiling win: Biden vowed not to negotiate. And then he did.

Our elected politicians don’t seem committed whatsoever to addressing the underlying drivers of our debt. Senate Democrats, for example, have loads of “pork” in their spending proposals, with millions going to pet projects that might buy them a few votes but which taxpayers cannot afford. Republicans like to talk tough on spending, but they are also to blame for our situation.

In an interview on NBC News' “Meet the Press” Sunday, former President Donald Trump said Republicans should hold out for a “fair deal.”

“We have to save our country,” he said, misstating the debt as $35 trillion. “I’d shut down the government if they can’t make an appropriate deal, absolutely.”

He’s right that we have to save our country. I doubt it’s going to be saved through political showmanship – even a shutdown – because our national debt is not what’s driving the GOP infighting. And Democrats have no desire to stop spending.

There’s growing support for a bipartisan fiscal commission that could address the nation’s debt problems, including programs like Social Security and Medicare that face insolvency in the near future.

Republicans should push for as many cuts as they can get this time around. But it’s going to take a much bigger effort than this budget fight to make a dent in our national debt.

I have my doubts about whether any of our politicians have the gumption to do this. Regardless, we shouldn't let them get away with ignoring it any longer.

USA TODAY columnist Ingrid Jacques
USA TODAY columnist Ingrid Jacques

Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at or on X, formerly Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ditch Democrat, GOP drama. As shutdown looms, everyone is at fault