During that episode of brinkmanship, lawmakers agreed to impose limits on both military and nonmilitary spending from 2012 to 2021. The Budget Control Act caps were somewhat successful at keeping spending in check, but not entirely.
A Congressional Research Service report published this year noted that during the decade that the caps were in place, Congress and the president repeatedly enacted laws that increased the spending limits. Certain types of expenditures — for emergencies and military engagements — were exempt from the caps and the federal government spent $2 trillion over 10 years on those programs. And spending on so-called mandatory programs such as Social Security was not capped, and those make up about 70 percent of total government spending.
Still, the Congressional Research Service pointed out that spending was lower each year from 2012 to 2019 than had been projected before the caps were put in place.
The strategy is no fiscal panacea.
Caps that limit spending around current levels will help slow the growth of the nation’s debt, but will not cure the government’s reliance on borrowed money.
The Congressional Budget Office said this month that annual deficits — the gap between what America spends and what it earns — are projected to nearly double over the next decade, totaling more than $20 trillion through 2033. That deficit will force the United States to continue to rely heavily on borrowed funds.
Marc Goldwein, the senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, estimated that it would require $8 trillion of savings over 10 years to hold the national debt to its current levels. However, he said that did not mean that enacting spending caps would not be worthwhile.
“We’re not going to fix this all at once,” Mr. Goldwein said. “So we should do as much as we can, as often as we can.”