Romney Discusses the Debt Ceiling and Federal Spending on KSL Sunday Edition

Calls on President Biden to come to the negotiating table to find compromise

SALT LAKE CITY—U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) yesterday joined KSL Sunday Edition with Doug Wright to discuss the ongoing debate around raising the debt ceiling and the reality of what will happen if the U.S. defaults. He also urged President Biden to negotiate with Republicans, saying it cannot just be Democrats’ way or the highway.

In addition, Romney advocated for Republicans and Democrats in Congress to work together to address the main driver of our debt—the two-thirds of government spending that is automatic—and the imminent solvency of entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

A full transcript of the interview can be found below, and video can be found here.

On debate over raising the debt ceiling:

Doug Wright: Welcome back to the program. This week, I had the chance to talk with Senator Mitt Romney about the national debate over raising the debt ceiling. Senator Romney, as we approach what is described as a budget crisis in the United States of America, I’m hearing [Secretary] Yellen say that it could be in June. I’m hearing people on Wall Street saying “day x” as they’re referring to. It could be in August. We’re hearing rumblings from the President about vetoes. We’re hearing all kinds of things regarding, well, “unless energy things are included, I won’t sign it.” Where do we stand right now with the threat of defaulting on national debts here in the United States?

Senator Romney: Well, we’ve never done it before, obviously. And I think it’s broader than just defaulting on the debt. That’s something which is very frightening to people in the world of commerce and frankly, our allies around the world when they hear that we may default on our debt. But it’s broader than that. It means at that point, the United States of America could no longer send out any checks.

That means Social Security checks could not be sent out after that date. It means checks to our soldiers that are defending our country would not be sent out. We basically have no more money to send out because as a nation, as you know, we get two sources of revenue to pay for things. One is the tax revenue that comes in. And then number two is the money that we borrow. And the truth is that we borrow a lot of money—about a trillion dollars a year. We have been doing that for the last ten years or more. And so, to pay our bills, to pay the things we’ve agreed to pay, we have to both borrow and tax. And we have to raise the debt ceiling in order to keep borrowing.

And if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we will not pay Social Security. We will not pay our soldiers. So, it’s a very serious threat. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not going to do that. We’re obviously going to meet our obligations. But it’s a negotiation. It’s a bit of a game of chicken to see, all right, who’s going to blink to make sure that we’re able to get all the things we want to get done. And frankly, the Republican position, which I agree with, is that we’ve got to rein in the spending and move towards a balanced budget. And we want the President to agree to that before we agree to raising the debt ceiling.

Wright: Well, how many times have you talked about this in campaigns and interviews like this one? I know how often you and I have talked about this. There was a great quote in an article attributed to you and you said, by the way, if somebody is counting, it’s approximately 80 deals like this have been made since the 1960s. But you said, of course, “Last time you had President Trump who was the individual pushing to raise the debt ceiling. But somehow when we have a Democratic president, we’” referring to Republicans, “find religion.” I’ve seen this go back and forth and back and forth of blame and blame and blame. And, you know, sometimes I’m just amazed at how apparently dense we are. 

Romney: It really is frustrating that, frankly, anything the Democrats do, why we automatically oppose. Anything we do, they automatically oppose. And I would be happy to engage in this kind of, if you will, political warfare, were the stakes not so high. But when it comes to paying our bills and paying Social Security and paying for our soldiers, we shouldn’t be negotiating over that.

In my view, the right way for us to proceed is if we don’t agree with how much the government is spending, we should battle over the budget. And if we have to close down government, we close down government. But don’t stop sending checks to people who depend on them. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. That doesn’t make sense. But, you know, we’re now in this battle.

Fortunately, the Republicans in the House have passed a measure. It raises the debt ceiling. It calls for a reduction in spending as well. And it’s time for the President to say, “All right, let’s sit down and negotiate.” Because when you have divided government—Republicans have one branch, the White House, another—you have to have compromise. And the President says it’s basically his way or the highway and that’s just not going to work. We’re going to have to have people sit down and negotiate together.

On federal spending and the national debt:

Wright: Back to what you were talking about a moment ago: paying our soldiers, Social Security, all kinds of things. These checks are already in the mail. I think a lot of Americans don’t get that. We’re already obligated to this debt. We are already sending the checks out. As the phrase is common, “they’re in the mail right now.” It’s just a matter of whether or not we allocate the money to be in the bank, so they clear.

Romney: You know, one of the big surprises when I became involved with government was recognizing that the overwhelming amount of spending we do in the federal government. Two-thirds of spending isn’t even voted on by the House, the Senate, signed by the president. It’s automatic. It’s our Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, our interest payments. These things happen whether we want them to or not.

And they are the cause of the massive deficit that we have. The things we vote on—our military and other areas of spending—those things grow only as fast as the economy. They’re not the problem. We just haven’t been honest with the American people about the fact that we’re an aging population. We have enormous expenses associated with retirees, and we’re not willing to admit that and make the accommodations necessary to make sure those programs are in balance.

Wright: Over the years, we’ve talked about many numbers. I can remember the shock at 15 trillion, 17 trillion, 21 trillion. Now we’re talking about $31.4 trillion in national debt. And I recall a conversation back when you were running for president about what would happen, and I think it was $17 trillion then, what would happen if, all of a sudden, the interest rates went back to normal?

They were practically nil at the time we talked about that. But now that interest rates are climbing and they are getting back to—we think of them as high, historically, they’re really still quite low—but when the interest rates go from maybe 2% to 3, 4, 5, 6%, what does that mean? How do we pay that kind of debt?

Romney: Well, you’ve hit on the real key, in my opinion, which is that because the debt is now over $30 trillion, the interest payments this year that we’re going to be making to people that hold Treasury bonds—and these are foreign governments and sovereign wealth funds and so forth—of interest payments the federal government is going to make will total almost $750 billion.

That happens to equal what we spend on our military every year. So, one question is how you remain the leader of the free world if you’re basically, you know, spending money just to pay interest to other people. By the way, sending money to China, which is the nation that we’re concerned about militarily and economically, it makes no sense.

And I would note we’re never going to pay this off. Doug, you and me, we’re getting older. All right? We’re not going to pay off this debt. It’ll not be paid during our lifetimes. But this means that the coming generations are going to get saddled with interest payments every year for the rest of their lives. They’re going to be paying taxes to pay interest on the borrowings we did during our lifetime.

It is immoral, in my view, for my generation, your generation, to continue to receive massive benefits and to say, hey, we’re not going to pay for it, we’re going to borrow and we’re going to send the interest payments on to our kids for their entire lives. That is simply wrong. We should be sitting down and working together collaboratively to either raise the revenues that we use to pay for these programs or cut the long-term expenses.

We’ve got to do something, because the path that we’re on, in my opinion, is unsustainable and has the potential of making America a weaker and weaker nation—unable to defend itself and our freedoms.

On partisanship in debt ceiling negotiations:

Wright: When I see surveys and when I read articles about concerns millennials have about what we baby boomers have done with our stewardship, that’s the number one thing I always hear. It’s the national debt. Kevin McCarthy has been quoted as saying there will be no “clean increase here.” In other words, pretty much what you were talking about, others are talking about—let’s wrangle this somewhere else. Let’s do it through the normal channels. Let’s talk about budgeting. Let’s do other things. But right now, let’s pass something that will pay the bills. What about that? I’ve even heard the term, “everybody’s itching for a fight right now.” What is likely to happen?

Romney: Well, there is a lot of counterproductive action around the political world. I don’t have to tell you that. People want to show they’re fighting. Sometimes when the consequences are so great, they don’t want to think about the consequences. They just want to go home and say, look, I fought for this and I fought for that. But this is the country we’re talking about, and we have to do what we think is in the best interest of the nation.

I wish we were not fighting over something as critical as sending out our checks and allowing people to rely on the government to provide Social Security and defense. But at this stage, that’s the battle which is going on. I think it’s unfortunate that the President has been unwilling to engage on this. He says he won’t negotiate on it. I think by virtue of the House having passed a debt ceiling increase—making sure we can pay our bills—at the same time, putting in place a number of other measures, that the President needs to sit down and say, “Okay, let’s see if we can work out a compromise.” And if we do, then this will all go away.

But let’s not run up into the last minute. By the way, people wonder, why can’t we set a specific date? How do we know whether it’s in June or July that we run out of money? Well, the reason we can’t set a specific date is the government doesn’t know how much tax revenue is going to come in. So, they look and see what the tax receipts are. Every quarter, some people put in a payment, alright? So, whether it’s withholding from your payroll check or whether it’s someone writing a check for their estimated taxes for the quarter, they don’t know exactly how much is coming in. They’re pretty good at estimating how much is going out, but how much is coming in is uncertain. So, we don’t really know when we run out of money. But at some point, unless we raise the debt ceiling, we run out of money and the government is unable to continue to pay its bills.

Wright: It really distresses me when I see in so many of the articles I read that they’re quoting certain senators, certain representatives that are up for reelection in this cycle, and all of a sudden they’re talking about, well, you know, maybe something contentious. “Well, whether this works or not, it’s going to benefit me in my election.” That absolutely drives me nuts.

Maybe I could ask a final quick, well, it’s not a quick question, but perhaps you could give us a little thumbnail sketch just as a final thought. Let’s assume we do move past this crisis and we do get down to business. And for some reason, a miracle occurs. We really decide we need to do something. We try to sit down and reason together. What are the things we should reason over? What would be maybe the top three things that you think we could do to cut down on the debt limit, cut down on the budget?

Romney: Well, I note, first of all, even though so-called discretionary spending—not automatic spending—those things are not the focus that I’m most concerned about. I’d note that during COVID, we spent a lot of new money on a lot of good things, safety net things to help people during a critical time. We need to pull back from the reality that COVID is no longer there, and all those checks that we sent out were probably too much, and so we cut back some of those things that we have control over.

Then there are the entitlements that we don’t vote on. That’s the area of government—two-thirds of spending—which is growing faster than the economy. There’s been almost no political appetite to say, “Okay, how do we make sure that we protect Social Security long-term so that it’s there for someone who’s 20 or 30 or 40?” Let’s make the adjustments we need to protect Social Security and balance what goes out was what comes in. And same thing with Medicare and Medicaid.

The House, for instance, has said, look, if you’re receiving government support from Medicaid for the poor, or food stamps, you ought to be working. If you’re not working, you shouldn’t get these benefits. And now, obviously, both young children or people going to school, that’s a different matter. But we want people to be engaged in our economy if they’re going to receive benefits from the economy and from the government.

So, these are the kinds of things I think we can work on. I’ve got a piece of legislation which is designed to bring balance to our entitlements: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. I hope that we’re able to take that up in the Senate and in the House. We’ve got Democrats that are signed on. Leading Democrats. Leading Republicans. I think we can get there. But it’s going to take some leadership on the part of the White House. We need to get the President to the table.

Wright: Senator, I always appreciate our conversation. Thank you so much for joining us this morning here on Sunday Edition.

Romney: Thanks, Doug. Good to be with you.