Federal Spending and National Debt

The Effects of Federal Spending and Federal Debt

The federal government spends an enormous amount of money each and every year. In 1998 the government spent over 2 trillion dollars. Clearly spending of this nature will have a significant impact on the American economy.

The government spending impacts the economic in the following ways:

  • It affects the allocation of resources – where government programs are created or bases built redistributes capital. If we close a base in Podunk and open one in Tuskegee the citizens in Podunk lose a substantial form of income. Likewise choosing one government contractor over another or building roads in one area over another has dramatic impact. In the case of agriculture this may mean price support legislation that impacts on different areas of the country.
  • Affects the distribution of income – Income for the poor is directly effected by changes in transfer payments. Taxes have what I call the Robin hood effect. They take from the rich and give to the poor. This is redistribution of wealth and income. Government expenditures effect the income of individuals depending on the contracts the government enters into. Base closings, factory closings etc.
  • The government may compete with the private sector – Government run hospitals, other health departments that compete with private facilities are an example of such competition. While this competition may not always be a positive externality it may be. On the negative side said government run facilities may force private employers out of business because private firms need to operate in terms of profit and loss and the government run facilities have no such consideration. On the positive side, however, having government run facilities compete against the private sector may create the kind of competition needed to improve services.

When the government spends more in a given year then it takes in that means there is a deficit. When this deficit is carried over from year to year it is a debt. In 1900 this nation was basically debt free, approximatley 2 billion dollars which is an inconsequential figure, even in those days. In 1929 the debt was 16.9 billion and when the Depression began and World War II occurred the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt began true deficit spending. All of those New Deal programs were paid for with money we did not really have. The debt in 1940 ran to 42.9 billion and mushroomed to 258 billion as the nation foughjt World War II. From 1945 through 1961 the debt grew minimally, increasing to only 296 billion in 1961. When one factors in inflation this means the value of the debt declined significantly. Even through the 1960s and 70s which included Vietnam, the space race and the arms race the debt only grew modestly increasing to 789 billion in 1979. This was still a relatively low and manageable amount factoring inflation and growing GNP. Our real debt problems began during the Ronald Reagan administration. In 1981 Reagan passed the Emergency Recovery Tax Act that lowered taxes but increased spending, especially on the military. This basically created an enormous debt. nder the Reagan administration the debt grew from 930 billion in 1980 to 2.6 trillion dollars in 1988. This means the debt grew 300% in eight years after only growing about 150% from 1950 to 1979. In 1997 our national debt reached 5.4 trillion and only during the economic boom during the Clinton administration did it slow. In 1998 the debt was 5.5 trillion, in 1999 it was 5.6 trillion and was the same in 2000. Since the election of George Bush the debt has begun to rise again. In the four years the Bush has been in office, and again cutting taxes while increasing spending, the debt has risen from 5.8 trillion in 2001 to its current high of over 7 trillion dollars. (all figures available at

The federal deficit affects the federal budget in a variety of ways. Deficit spending is spending more than is collected in revenues. Sometimes a deficit is planned by the government, or sometimes it occurs because factors in the economy have reduced the amount of revenues or increased the amount of expenditures. In 1994, the government predicted a $264 billion federal spending deficit. From where it stood in 1993, the government said that the economy could go one of two ways. It could either be stronger than expected meaning that the federal revenues would go up and expenditures, thus cutting the deficit. Or the economy could be weakened and tax collections would decrease. People would lose their jobs, and unemployment compensation would rise, thus increasing the deficit. In recent economic history, it seems as though deficits tend to appear more frequently than surpluses. The largest deficits occurred during WWII, and throughout the 1980’s with the implementation of Reaganomics. When the government runs a deficit, it must borrow money from others in order to finance the shortage of income. Generally this is done by having the Department of the Treasury sell bonds and other forms of government debt to the public. If all federal bonds and other debt obligations are added up, then there is a measure of the federal debt. This debt increases whenever the government sells more bonds to finance deficit spending in a given year. It will continue to grow as long as the government spends more than it collects in revenues. Therefore, if the government turns up a zero budget deficit one year, that doesn’t mean that the debt will go away, instead it means that it won’t get any larger.

There are many ways in which the national debt can affect the overall state of the economy.

1) Public v. Private debt– Public debt is where we owe most of the federal debt to ourselves whereas private debt is owed to others. One of the fundamental differences between the two is that when a person goes into debt by borrowing money from a bank there is then established a repayment system or agreement. When the federal government borrows money, however, it gives little thought to how it will be repaid, let alone when. Yet in all actuality, there is no real reason as to why the government would have to pay off the federal debt. When it is time to pay off old bonds, the government issues new ones. Another difference between the two types of debt has to do with the loss of purchasing power. To an individual who borrows money, they sacrifice a good portion of their purchasing power because the money is gone and cannot be used to buy more goods and services. When the federal government repays a debt, there is no loss of purchasing power because the taxes and revenue collected from some groups are then transferred to others.

2) The Distribution of Income – Theoretically speaking, if the government borrows money from the wealthy, and as a result the burden of taxes falls on the middle class and the poor, taxes would be transferred to the rich in the form of interest payments on the debt. If the government borrows money from the middle class instead, and if the burden of taxes fall on the rich, those taxes would be used to make interest payments to the middle class. The federal tax structure determines the distribution effects.

3) A Transfer of Purchasing Power– Federal debt causes a transfer of purchasing power from the private sector to the public sector. As a rule, the larger the public debt, the larger the interest payments, hence the more taxes needed to pay them. As a result, the public has less money to spend on their own needs.

4) Individual Incentives – taxes needed to pay the interest can cut down the incentives to work, save, and invest. Individuals and businesses might feel less inclined to work harder and earn extra income if higher taxes will be placed on them. Many people feel that the government spends taxpayers’ money in a heedless manner. If people feel that their taxes are being squandered, they are less likely to save and invest.

5) Higher Interest Rates – When the government sells bonds to finance the deficit, it competes with the private sector for scarce resources. At times there is the crowding-out effect Private borrowers are forced to pay the higher rates or leave the market. The increased demand for money causes the interest rate to go up. This increases forces borrowers to either pay higher rates, or to stay out of the market.

In recent years there have been many attempts by the government to bring the federal deficit under control. One of the first actions taken by Congress was the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, or Gramm-Rudman-Hollings (GRH) that tried to mandate a balanced budget. The central idea in the GRH was a set of federal deficit targets for Congress and the President to meet over a six year span of time. The federal deficit was to decrease each year until it reached zero in 1991. If in event, Congress and the President could not concur on a budget that met the target in any given year, the automatic reductions would take over and reduce spending. Splitting reductions equally between defense and non defense expenditures would do this. This law was popular among legislatures because it reduced spending without forcing Congress to vote against popular programs. Yet in the long run, the GRH failed, leaving the country with a deficit of $269.5 billion in 1991. The reasons behind it were simple. First, Congress discovered that there was a loophole in the law that allowed it to pass spending bills that took effect two or three years later. Because the GRH only set the deficit estimate for one year at a time, these bills didn’t conflict with GRH. Secondly, in July of 1990, the economy began to decline. This triggered a safety valve in the law that suspended automatic cuts when the economy was weak. The combination of spending bills that encompassed GRH, the suspension of automatic budget cuts, and the lower federal revenues caused by the declining economy all added to the enormous budget deficit. As a result, a balanced budget never occurred. Another piece of legislation passed by Congress was the Budget Enforcement Act (BEA) of 1990. The main attributes to this law were the act of combined spending caps with a “pay-as-you-go” provision in attempts to limit discretionary spending. Under this provision, reduction somewhere in the budget had to counteract any new program that required additional spending. The BEA also required that five-year revenue estimates be prepared for each new legislative act. If offsetting cost reductions could not be found, then across-the-board spending cuts would be made to offset the extra costs. Though the BEA was harder to get around than the GRH, it was limited by several provisions. First, it applied only to discretionary spending, therefore excluding Social Security and Medicare. Second, it included a safety provision that allowed for suspension of the act if the economy enters a low-growth phase, or if the President declares an emergency. A third piece of legislation was the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993. Designed by President Clinton, this Act was an attempt to trim approximately $500 billion from the deficit over a five-year period. With the enormously high deficit in 1993, the act was intended to reduce only the rate of growth of the deficit. The major provisions of this package were tax increases and spending reductions. The program made the personal income tax even more progressive, and targeted the richest percentage of Americans for a tax increase.

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Understanding Impacts: The Effects of Federal Spending and Federal Debt

The United States federal government’s fiscal approach has consistently been a pivotal aspect influencing the nation’s economic trajectory. The dynamics between federal spending and accumulated debt offer a complex narrative, crucial for understanding the financial fabric of the country. Federal spending plays a significant role in stimulating economic growth and providing essential services to the public, which is undeniably beneficial. However, it’s imperative to examine the increasing federal debt critically, as it carries potential risks and burdens for future generations. This essay posits that while federal spending is indispensable for economic stimulation, unchecked accumulation of federal debt may jeopardize the nation’s long-term economic health and financial stability.

Overview of Federal Spending

Federal spending is a powerful tool in the hands of the government, primarily allocated towards various sectors crucial for the functioning and development of the society. It encompasses military expenditure, social security, healthcare, infrastructure, education, and unemployment benefits, among others. The funds are channeled through discretionary spending, determined by congressional appropriations, and mandatory spending, which is formulated by existing laws. Furthermore, there’s a component of interest payments on the federal debt. The federal budget reflects the government’s priorities and policy decisions, illustrating the financial commitment towards various programs and initiatives that aim at serving public needs and fostering economic growth.

Positive Effects of Federal Spending

Federal spending significantly contributes to the stimulation of economic activity. One of the primary advantages is job creation, where government-funded projects and services generate employment opportunities, reducing the unemployment rate and promoting financial stability for individuals and families. Additionally, investments in infrastructure development, such as roads, bridges, and public transport, enhance connectivity and facilitate business operations, leading to a more dynamic and efficient economy.

Moreover, federal spending supports education and healthcare sectors. Government investment in these areas ensures broader access to essential services, promoting social welfare and equity. Quality education and healthcare are not only fundamental rights but also vital for a productive and healthy workforce, driving the nation’s competitiveness and innovation in the global arena. Furthermore, social security and unemployment benefits provide a safety net for vulnerable populations, ensuring that they can maintain a decent standard of living during challenging times.

Overview of Federal Debt

Federal debt represents the total outstanding obligations the government owes, accumulated over time due to deficit spending. The federal debt is composed of two main categories: public debt and intragovernmental holdings. Public debt constitutes money borrowed from investors, both foreign and domestic, through the issuance of Treasury bonds, notes, and bills. Intragovernmental holdings refer to the amounts owed to government trust funds like Social Security and Medicare. Federal debt becomes necessary when government expenditures surpass the revenue collected through taxes and other sources.

Historically, the US has witnessed fluctuating levels of federal debt, with increments often occurring during times of war, economic recessions, or major public health crises, which necessitate increased spending. While debt can be an essential tool for addressing immediate financial needs and supporting economic stability, its management and sustainability are of paramount importance for the nation’s long-term fiscal health.

Negative Effects of Federal Debt

The negative implications of federal debt are multifaceted and potentially detrimental to the US economy. First and foremost, escalating debt levels necessitate higher interest payments, diverting funds that could otherwise be invested in critical public services and infrastructure. These interest payments represent a significant portion of the federal budget, limiting the government’s ability to respond effectively to economic downturns or unforeseen financial challenges.

Another peril of growing federal debt is its inflationary pressures. While moderate inflation can stimulate economic activity, excessive debt can lead to hyperinflation, eroding the value of money and potentially destabilizing the economy. This scenario adversely affects savers and fixed-income recipients, and creates uncertainty in financial markets, hindering investment and economic growth.

Federal debt also imposes a substantial burden on future generations. The obligation to service and repay the debt falls on the shoulders of taxpayers, potentially leading to higher taxes and reduced public services in the future. This scenario compromises the economic opportunities and quality of life for younger and future generations, as they inherit a financial landscape constrained by the need to manage and reduce the accumulated debt.

Lastly, excessive reliance on borrowed funds increases the US’s dependency on foreign creditors. This situation can result in a compromised economic sovereignty, as the nation’s fiscal policy becomes influenced by the need to maintain the confidence of international investors. The concentration of US debt in the hands of foreign entities can also pose national security concerns, as it provides significant leverage to creditor nations.

Advocating for Fiscal Responsibility

Advocating for fiscal responsibility is pivotal in navigating the nuanced relationship between federal spending and federal debt. Fiscal responsibility denotes the government’s commitment to managing public funds judiciously, avoiding unnecessary debt accumulation, and ensuring future financial stability. A balanced budget, where expenditures align with revenues, is foundational to this approach, creating a sustainable fiscal framework that supports economic growth without compromising financial stability.

Reducing reliance on debt begins with strategic spending cuts. While it is crucial to fund public services and initiatives, prioritizing expenditures and eliminating wasteful spending are indispensable. Identifying and addressing inefficiencies within government programs fosters a leaner and more effective administration, thereby conserving public resources. Implementing performance-based budgeting can also facilitate better allocation of funds, directing money towards programs that deliver measurable results.

Tax reform represents another avenue for promoting fiscal responsibility. Revising the tax code to enhance its progressivity, simplicity, and efficiency can generate additional revenues without overburdening taxpayers. Closing loopholes, addressing tax evasion, and revisiting corporate tax rates are viable strategies for ensuring a fair and effective tax system that supports government funding needs without exacerbating debt levels.

Entitlement reforms are equally imperative for sustainable fiscal management. While social security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs are essential for public welfare, revisiting their structures and eligibility criteria can result in significant savings. Implementing means-testing, raising the retirement age, and promoting preventive healthcare are among the strategies for making entitlement programs financially sustainable in the long run.

The government’s role in promoting fiscal responsibility is undeniable. Through transparent, accountable, and efficient fiscal practices, the government can foster trust among the public and international investors, facilitating a conducive environment for economic activity. Engaging the public in fiscal discussions and decision-making processes enhances democracy and promotes a collective understanding and commitment to fiscal responsibility and debt management.


Proponents of increased federal spending argue that it is indispensable for addressing societal needs and fostering economic growth. In times of economic downturns or recessions, increased government expenditure can stimulate economic activity, providing necessary support to struggling businesses and individuals. Furthermore, public investment in education, infrastructure, and healthcare is seen as essential for improving the country’s competitiveness and quality of life.

Some economists and policymakers also subscribe to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which presents a different perspective on federal debt and spending. MMT proponents argue that as the issuer of its currency, the US government can create more money to fund public services and initiatives without necessarily incurring debt. According to MMT, the primary constraint on government spending is inflation, not the accumulation of debt. This approach suggests that concerns over the federal debt may be overstated, as the government has greater flexibility in managing its finances than traditionally believed.

However, these counterarguments often downplay the risks associated with unrestrained spending and debt accumulation. While government expenditure is undoubtedly necessary, fiscal responsibility ensures that it occurs within a sustainable and stable financial framework, protecting the country’s economic health in both the short and long terms.


In analyzing the multifaceted relationship between federal spending and debt, it becomes evident that while government expenditure is vital for economic stimulation and social welfare, the burgeoning federal debt poses significant risks to the nation’s economic vitality and financial stability. Therefore, advocating for a judicious and balanced approach towards fiscal management is not merely a theoretical stance but a pragmatic necessity for safeguarding the United States’ economic future.

The positive effects of federal spending, including job creation, infrastructure development, investment in essential services, and provision of a social safety net, are undeniable. These expenditures play a critical role in maintaining the social fabric, promoting equity, and driving economic activity, particularly in times of economic downturns or crises. However, acknowledging these benefits does not negate the need for fiscal responsibility and careful debt management.

The negative repercussions of accumulated federal debt — including economic constraints, inflationary pressures, generational burdens, and reliance on foreign creditors — are substantial and far-reaching. Without proactive measures to curb unnecessary spending, reform tax and entitlement structures, and promote efficient government operations, the country risks entering a precarious financial trajectory characterized by limited fiscal flexibility and compromised economic opportunities for future generations.

This essay, therefore, advocates for a balanced and responsible approach to fiscal management that recognizes the importance of federal spending while taking deliberate actions to mitigate the risks associated with federal debt. Engaging in a collective commitment to fiscal responsibility, the government, policymakers, and the public can work collaboratively to establish a stable and sustainable financial foundation for the United States, ensuring that the nation can continue to invest in its people and infrastructure without jeopardizing its long-term economic health and sovereignty.


  • Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US). “Federal Debt: Total Public Debt as Percent of Gross Domestic Product.” FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
  • Congressional Budget Office (2020). “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2020 to 2030.”
  • Gale, W. G., & Orszag, P. R. (2004). Budget deficits, national saving, and interest rates. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2004(2), 101-210.
  • Krugman, P. (2014). “Debt Is Good.” The New York Times.
  • Mankiw, N. G. (2019). Principles of Economics. Cengage Learning.
  • Taylor, J. B., & Wieland, V. (2012). Surprising comparative properties of monetary models: Results from a new model database. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 94(3), 800-816.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Effects of Federal Spending and Federal Debt

Federal spending is indispensable for various reasons. First, it’s a vital instrument for economic stabilization and growth. During economic downturns, increased federal spending can stimulate economic activity, supporting struggling businesses and individuals. It also plays a crucial role in funding essential public services and infrastructure, such as education, healthcare, defense, and transportation, which are foundational to the nation’s well-being and prosperity. Federal spending not only ensures that citizens have access to these fundamental services but also helps create jobs, thereby supporting the livelihoods of millions of Americans.

Federal debt accumulates when the government’s expenditures surpass its revenues, resulting in a budget deficit. To cover this deficit, the government borrows money by issuing Treasury bonds, bills, and notes. Over time, continuous budget deficits lead to the accumulation of federal debt. This process might be exacerbated during times of economic recessions, wars, or public health crises, where there is an increased need for federal spending to support the economy and provide necessary public services.

The primary economic constraint posed by federal debt is the obligation to pay interest on the borrowed funds. As the debt grows, so does the amount the government must allocate for interest payments, which can limit the funds available for other critical public services and investments. Furthermore, high levels of debt can lead to a loss of investor confidence, resulting in higher interest rates as investors demand greater compensation for the perceived increased risk.

Practicing fiscal responsibility involves adopting policies that align government spending with revenue, minimize the accumulation of debt, and ensure the efficient use of public funds. Strategies include implementing spending cuts, reforming tax policies, restructuring entitlement programs, and promoting government efficiency and accountability. By actively managing and planning its financial activities, the government can create a stable economic environment conducive to growth and development while avoiding the pitfalls associated with excessive debt.

Some economists argue that concerns over federal debt are overstated. Proponents of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), for instance, believe that as the issuer of its currency, the U.S. government has greater flexibility in managing its finances than traditionally understood. According to MMT, the primary constraint on government spending is inflation, not debt accumulation. Others believe that strategic investments in public services and infrastructure, funded through debt, can lead to economic growth that eventually offsets the initial borrowing.

Not necessarily. Debt can be a vital tool for stimulating economic growth, especially during recessions. Borrowing enables the government to invest in infrastructure, education, and healthcare, which can have long-term positive effects on the economy. However, excessive and unmanaged debt can lead to various economic problems, including higher interest rates and inflation, and may limit the government’s ability to introduce new fiscal policies, especially in times of economic downturn.

Federal debt impacts citizens in various ways. The interest payments on debt take up a significant portion of the federal budget, potentially reducing the funds available for public services and programs that citizens rely on. High levels of national debt may also lead to higher taxes in the future. Moreover, excessive federal debt might contribute to economic instability, affecting employment rates, wage growth, and overall economic wellbeing of the citizens.

To reduce federal debt, the government can either decrease its spending, increase taxes, or implement a combination of both. Other strategies include reforming entitlement programs, improving government efficiency to reduce wasteful spending, and fostering economic growth to increase tax revenues. It’s crucial that debt reduction strategies are implemented carefully to avoid causing harm to vulnerable populations or stifling economic growth.

Federal spending stimulates economic growth by investing in public infrastructure, education, and healthcare, which enhances the productivity and wellbeing of the population. It also provides a safety net for vulnerable individuals, supporting consumer spending and overall demand in the economy. During economic downturns, increased federal spending can help stabilize the economy by supporting struggling businesses and maintaining employment levels.

Continuous growth in federal debt can lead to higher interest payments, reducing the government’s ability to invest in essential public services. It might also lead to higher taxes for future generations. Excessive debt can cause investors to lose confidence in the government’s ability to repay its obligations, potentially leading to increased borrowing costs. In extreme cases, uncontrolled debt accumulation might lead to a fiscal crisis, where the government cannot obtain the funds it needs to operate, severely impacting its ability to meet its obligations and provide services to the public.