With the first quarter of the year now behind us, let’s take a moment to remember just how rocky a start it was.
The federal government entered the year with a whimper, as a shutdown paralyzed Washington over the politics of funding a southern border wall. Hundreds of thousands of civil servants had to work through two pay periods and the holidays without timely compensation. Still others were told to simply stay home because they don’t conduct what the Office of Personnel Management considers “emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.”
The ranks of these supposedly “non-essential” employees included financial experts in departments across the government. Furloughing the financial experts had a cascading effect which in turn delayed the collection of data needed to publish the Financial Report of the U.S. Government on time. The end result was a clear signal about the government’s view of financial transparency and accountability: “non-essential.”
This is just one example of poor financial decision-making in modern American politics — a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.
Many hoped that President Donald Trump would use his State of the Union Address in February to provide a public update on the country’s fiscal health over the last year. Instead, the annual budget deficit went unmentioned. The word “financial” appeared only once in his speech, in a reference to border security.
The Treasury Department made headlines the very next week as the national debt passed a sobering new milestone. On February 11, the reported outstanding public debt crested the $22 trillion mark for the first time in U.S. history. (Of course, since it does not count all the government’s unfunded liabilities, the “national debt” is itself a massive undercount.) Yet again, this seemingly critical financial event seems to have gone unnoticed by our government leaders, who have said and done little in response.
Then last month it was announced that the annual budget deficit is up 77 percent compared with the same period last year. To no one’s surprise, tax cuts combined with increased spending has produced larger funding gaps. The damage: $310 billion over just the last four months. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that the 2019 deficit will rise to approximately $900 billion by the end of the fiscal year.
The financial state of the U.S. government often feels like the great unreported story of our time. Think about the levels of press coverage devoted to analyzing earning statements from large companies like Apple and Facebook. Nothing like that exists about the national debt. Imagine how strange it would seem if Elon Musk held a shareholder meeting without mentioning anything about Tesla’s latest financials. That’s exactly what is happening with the federal government today.
Let’s hope someone in charge starts paying attention soon and begins providing citizens understandable, reliable and accurate financial information.
Sheila Weinberg, CPA, is the founder and chief executive officer of Truth in Accounting, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Chicago that researches government financial data and promotes transparency for a better-informed citizenry.