WASHINGTON — For four years, former President Donald Trump ignored a campaign promise to reduce the federal debt, and the COVID-19 pandemic spurred enormous amounts of government spending under Trump and President Joe Biden.
Now, with Republicans out of power, Florida Sen. Rick Scott says he wants to zone in on reducing the debt, a rallying cry of Tea Party Republicans a decade ago.
And he’s attempting to use an upcoming deadline where Congress must increase the amount of money the U.S. government can borrow as leverage for his cause.
On Wednesday, Scott introduced the Federal Debt Emergency Control Act, a bill that would require the U.S. Senate to make procedural changes to pass legislation that increases the debt if the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 100 percent. The current ratio sits at 127.5 percent and would likely rise if Biden passes additional big-money legislation like an infrastructure package that could cost trillions.
“My goal is between now and the end of July, get everyone to focus on the debt ceiling,” said Scott, a potential 2024 presidential candidate who also leads GOP fundraising and messaging efforts for competitive U.S. Senate races.
If Scott’s bill becomes law, the Office of Management and Budget would declare a “Federal Debt Emergency” if the debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 100 percent. The emergency declaration would then require the Senate to offset any new spending or use a two-thirds vote to approve any legislation that increases the debt while the emergency is in place.
A looming deadline
By the end of July, Congress must vote to raise the debt ceiling, a process that normally requires 60 votes. At least some Republicans would need to join Democrats to vote for it. Scott said he recently offered a non-binding amendment within the Senate Republican caucus, which was accepted unanimously, where every GOP senator agreed not to increase the debt ceiling without “structural change.”
Scott said his bill, which counts six Republican senators as co-sponsors, amounts to a “structural change.” The bill also requires the U.S. Treasury to return any unspent COVID relief dollars if a deficit emergency is declared.
“I would never use leverage, that sounds so mean,” Scott joked when asked if he’s using the upcoming debt deadline to raise awareness for his anti-spending crusade. “It’s the same in business though, you use your leverage. I’m going to talk about it every day.”
For four years, Trump never followed through on his campaign promises to rein in spending, and he didn’t make the issue a focus of his 2020 campaign. Instead, Republicans in 2017 passed a bill that cut taxes for many Americans and added at least $1 trillion to the deficit.
“Did he really? What year did he say that?” Scott asked when he was told that Trump campaigned on reducing the debt in 2016. Scott added that “everybody,” including Trump, is responsible for the spending increases and noted that he wasn’t in office to vote on the deficit-raising 2017 tax bill.
The spending went higher under Trump during the pandemic, after Congress passed the $1.2 trillion Cares Act in March 2020 on a near-unanimous vote and a $900 billion COVID relief bill in December. Scott was one of only six GOP senators to vote against the December bill, which included $1.4 trillion in additional, non-COVID spending.
“...We were finally provided the text of the combined $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill and $900 billion COVID relief bill,” Scott said in a statement in December. “It is almost 5,600 pages long and we’re expected to vote on it tonight. Who in their right mind thinks that this a responsible way of governing?”
Every Republican in Congress, including Scott, voted against a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill signed into law by Biden in March 2021.
Making the debt a campaign issue
Scott now says he thinks the debt will be a major campaign issue in 2022 as Republicans seek to regain the majority. And he said the GOP will use inflation as its argument to connect lofty debate about federal spending and the debt ceiling with the average voter.
“It’s practical, it makes people think about it,” Scott said, adding that the average American will care if they believe that rising prices of goods are connected to increased spending at the federal level.
Scott acknowledged that getting his bill passed in a Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate in the next month is a slim possibility. And he said a lot of his ideas will end up as campaign trail fodder in the near future, but if he’s able to convince voters to elect Republicans they have a much better chance of becoming law.
“I think it’s going to be hard to get something done,” Scott said. “My belief up here is everything I want is going to happen, it’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take. I believe inflation is going to be the driver to a lot of stuff.”
And Democrats have an alternative heading into the July 31st debt ceiling deadline. They could use a process called reconciliation to raise the debt ceiling with a simple majority vote, circumventing GOP efforts to change spending rules.
But Scott, knowing that his path to passing bills relies on GOP Senate control, said it’s fine by him if Democrats use Senate rules to bypass Republicans. The reconciliation process allows rank-and-file senators like Scott to propose amendments on the Senate floor, and Scott said he will use that opportunity to force Democratic senators in tough 2022 races to take votes on divisive issues that create a paper trail for Republicans to campaign on.
“I think it’s hard to get 50 people together, and if they do, then I get to make sure [Arizona Democratic senator] Mark Kelly gets to vote on a bunch of stuff that he doesn’t want to vote on,” Scott said, also name-checking Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who all face competitive races. “There’s four in particular that I might be following really closely.”