Debt to top World War II peak within 20 years

Never mix up the debt and deficit again
Never mix up the debt and deficit again

Lawmakers have twisted themselves in knots in recent years to get the federal budget "under control."

But a new report Tuesday shows that those efforts have not done enough to rein in the country's debt, which remains on track to hit historically high levels within 20 years.

The reason is not mysterious: Lawmakers have focused on making cuts to the smallest part of the budget, and not the parts that are actually driving the debt higher.

On top of that they've expanded the menu of permanent tax breaks.

End result: Without changes to current law, the United States' debt could rise to 141% of the size of the economy by 2046, up from 75% today, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The historical peak of 106% following World War II could be exceeded by 2036 -- or even sooner.

"The prospect of such large debt poses substantial risks for the nation and presents policymakers with significant challenges," the CBO noted in its long-term budget outlook.

The biggest drivers of the debt are spending on Medicare and other major health programs, along with Social Security and interest on the country's debt.

That's because demand on those entitlement programs is going up as the population ages and Americans live longer. In 30 years, the CBO expects that half of all federal government spending will go to programs supporting people 65 and older.

On top of that, interest payments on the debt are expected to balloon as well.

Meanwhile, the spending on everything else is on track to fall to levels not seen in more than 50 years. That includes everything from education to defense to research to cybersecurity to environmental protection to national parks. The CBO estimates this "discretionary" spending will drop to 5.2% of GDP by 2026, down from 6.5% today.

These low levels are partly due to a series of across-the-board cuts that were agreed to in 2011 to resolve the debt ceiling crisis. And it's partly due to a number of politically targeted cuts to agencies like the IRS.

Where do the candidates stand?

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump have offered any plans to improve the country's debt outlook.

But Trump's proposals would worsen it considerably, according to a number of analyses, most recently from the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Related: Fiscal showdown: Clinton vs. Trump on taxes, spending and debt

Trump frequently laments the country's current debt load of $19 trillion and counting, but his policy proposals -- and most significantly his tax plan - would add an estimated $11.5 trillion to the debt in the first decade alone, the CRFB estimates.

Clinton's policies would also add to deficits in the first decade - but by far less: an estimated $250 billion, not including changes she announced in the past week to her health and college proposals.

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