Potential Long-Term Economic Consequences of the Federal Response to the COVID-19 Lockdowns

Report Markets and Finance

Potential Long-Term Economic Consequences of the Federal Response to the COVID-19 Lockdowns

June 4, 2020 39 min read Download Report

Authors: Norbert Michel, Paul Winfree and Doug Badger


Government imposition of widespread lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have produced profound economic dislocations. Congress has sought to mitigate this economic damage by enacting a series of bills that have raised federal spending, deficits, and debt to extraordinary levels. Current deficits and debt are instructive, but insufficient, measures of a government’s financial sustainability. There are, however, ominous signs in these current levels. Unlike in previous eras, federal fiscal policy—largely because of health care entitlement spending—has not normalized after recent economic recessions. The Federal Reserve has doubled down on the unprecedented monetary policy that it instituted after the Great Recession of 2008, and never unwound. This combination of exotic fiscal and monetary policy is moving the federal government into dangerous waters. Policymakers can make a favorable outcome more likely by reconsidering the widespread use of lockdowns, pausing before authorizing more COVID-19 spending, normalizing monetary policy, and reforming entitlement programs.

Key Takeaways

Widespread COVID-19 lockdowns prompted the federal government to adopt risky fiscal and monetary policies to mitigate historic economic damage.

Current deficits and debt are insufficient measures of government financial sustainability, but pre-virus fiscal and monetary conditions were already problematic.

For a stronger recovery, policymakers should reconsider widespread lockdowns, curb new borrowing, normalize monetary policy, and reform entitlement programs.

The discovery that the novel coronavirus—SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19—could be spread by human transmission set off a cascade of government interventions that may have long-term consequences for Americans’ living standards. A number of studies have addressed the contours of the pandemic itself, offering various assessments of the transmissibility, lethality, and prevalence of the virus.REF Others have examined the utility of the stay-at-home orders and other “lockdown” policies while assessing the effects on the economy.REF This Backgrounder examines the potential long-term consequences of fiscal and monetary policies undertaken to mitigate the economic effects of government lockdowns.

Federal policymakers are acutely aware that lockdowns are causing profound economic dislocations. As a result, Congress, with the support of the Administration, has so far enacted four coronavirus bills that will increase the federal deficit by $2.1 trillion during fiscal year (FY) 2020.REF Combined with the economic and fiscal effects of the lockdown, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) currently projects that the FY 2020 deficit will increase to $3.7 trillion.REF On May 15, the House passed an additional bill that is estimated to necessitate an additional $3 trillion in federal borrowing.REF

This borrowing, in turn, has put the federal government in fiscal circumstances that neither the U.S., nor most other highly developed countries, has ever experienced during peacetime. Much of this debt is being absorbed by the Federal Reserve, swelling its balance sheet to unprecedented levels and blurring the distinction between fiscal policy and monetary policy.

The current deficit and levels of debt are instructive, but insufficient measures, of whether a government’s finances are sustainable. Rather, determining the sustainability of a government’s fiscal position is based on future growth in spending and revenues.

This means that even with no, or relatively low, levels of debt as a share of the economy, the budget can be unsustainable. At the same time, a budget could be sustainable even with high levels of debt. The implication with regards to the current situation is that public health measures aimed at combating the novel coronavirus or short-term fiscal stimulus may add to the debt without changing the federal government’s fiscal sustainability.

The U.S. government is in the unfortunate position of having to borrow substantial sums of money to ameliorate the economic effects of lockdown orders in addition to a large and growing debt load. Entitlement spending—especially on health care entitlements—has contributed to systemic fiscal imbalances. The rate of spending on these entitlements will continue to grow into the future, absent structural reform.

As with fiscal policy, monetary policy has followed a pattern that does not track the economic cycles of recession and recovery. After the Great Recession ended in 2009, the Federal Reserve decided against normalizing monetary policy. The Fed maintained its abnormally large balance sheet and kept its crisis-era operating framework in place, thus failing to end its credit-allocation policies and outsized involvement in financial markets. Using this new framework, one that separates the Fed’s monetary policy stance from the amount of assets it buys, the Fed has abruptly enlarged its balance sheet by nearly $3 trillion—an increase of more than 70 percent in the space of three months—as part of the government’s efforts to offset the economic consequences of the lockdown orders. These operations erode the lines between fiscal and monetary policy, and invite political pressure for the Fed to fund elected officials’ favored projects directly.

This Backgrounder distinguishes between federal debt that is incurred as a one-time response to economic exigencies, and a debt load that is attributable to more permanent factors, such as entitlement spending. It frames recent congressional actions that have abruptly increased federal debt in their historical context. It further examines the Federal Reserve’s response to the lockdown orders, places them in their historical context, and discusses the potential problems with this approach.

It concludes with a series of recommendations, calling on policymakers to re-examine the use of widespread and long-standing lockdown orders, urging Congress to examine the effects of COVID-19-related legislation it already has passed before requiring the federal government to take on more debt, recommending that the Federal Reserve normalize monetary policy, and recommending that Congress address federal indebtedness in a systematic way by reforming federal entitlement programs, especially health care entitlement programs.

The Federal Debt

One-Time-Borrowing Increases Related to COVID-19 Lockdowns. In all but five of the past 50 years, the budget of the United States has been in cash deficit.REF For example, in 2019, the federal government ran a cash deficit of $984 billion—after collecting $3,463 billion in revenues and spending $4,447 billion.REF The continuous level of deficit spending has increased public debt, which, during the same period, rose from 32 percent to 79 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).REF

Prior to the onset of the 2019 novel coronavirus in the United States, the CBO estimated that the 2020 budget deficit would be $1,073 billion.REF Over the past 12 weeks, the federal response to the virus has been robust. At the urging of federal public health officials, most states and jurisdictions have imposed some form of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, with potentially devastating economic consequences.REF

Congress has enacted four bills that seek to mitigate these consequences.REF The House of Representatives has passed a fifth bill and is expected eventually to reach an agreement with the Senate on new legislation.REF On March 13, the President declared a COVID-19-related national emergency, which provided access to $50 billion in federal financial assistance for states, localities, and territories.REF Finally, federal and state safety-net program spending has increased as people have lost income by becoming unemployed or having their hours significantly reduced in response to the dramatic reduction in economic activity associated with efforts to combat the coronavirus.REF

The CBO now expects that the federal budget deficit in 2020 will be $3.7 trillion, based on the policy actions already taken and the downward revisions to the economic outlook.REF If no other legislative actions occur, debt held by the public is projected to exceed 100 percent of the economy by September—an increase of more than 20 percentage points relative to previous projections.REF The most recent House-passed bill could add another $3 trillion to the 10-year budget deficit.REF

The fifth coronavirus bill will not necessarily be the last one that Congress enacts on this subject. The pandemic is tracing an uncertain course and government stay-at-home orders may persist into the summer in some areas, particularly in densely populated places. Economic dislocations may continue in the third quarter of 2020, putting pressure on Congress to provide additional funding to distressed businesses and to the tens of millions of workers who have been added to the unemployment rolls. Congress already has added funding for a special loan program for small businesses after the one it created in late March was quickly depleted. That fund may again be tapped out soon. And it is certainly possible that Congress will continue the temporary $600 increase in weekly unemployment benefits beyond its scheduled July 31 expiration.REF

Unlike with previous stimulus legislation, Congress is following an iterative process in increasing government borrowing and spending, where it ratchets up both in a step-wise fashion as the crisis unfolds. That process has already contributed to more than tripling the projected 2020 deficit. The cumulative effects of that spending are illustrated in Charts 1 to 5.


BG3498 Chart 1


Chart 1 shows that federal spending has risen to 32.84 percent of GDP, eclipsing the previous record of 32.24 percent, set in 1945. It is the highest level recorded over the past 90 years.


BG3498 Chart 2


Chart 2 shows another way of placing the uptick in spending in its historical context. It shows that federal spending will be 224 percent of revenue this year. This is the first time since 1932 that the government has spent more than twice what it collects in taxes. The government exceeded this year’s ratio only once in the past nine decades—in 1931, when it reached 226 percent of revenue.

Unlike the current increase, which is driven largely by a surge in federal spending, the sharp increase in spending as a percentage of revenue during the Great Depression was primarily driven by a reduction in revenue. Between 1930 and 1932, total revenue fell by 53 percent, while the global reduction in the demand for goods contributed to the reduction in customs revenue by 44 percent. Many of the New Deal programs that increased spending during the period were also relatively short lived. That said, the legacy of spending created by these programs became the new normal for federal involvement in the economy; matters formerly handled by the states would be established as federal responsibilities by the end of World War II.REF

Congress’s spending in response to economic shutdowns is thus far greater than previous peaks during the 20th century. The magnitude of this spending should serve as a signal to lawmakers that they may have wandered off course.

Debt Snapshots an Insufficient Measure of Future Borrowing Capacity. While the size, abruptness and open-ended nature of the borrowing is without precedent, current levels of deficits and debt are insufficient measures of whether a government will spend beyond its means in the future. Whether a government’s future fiscal path is sustainable is contingent on future growth in spending and revenues—not on current debt, although the size of that debt is hardly irrelevant. Even with no debt, a government’s budget can be unsustainable; likewise, a budget could be sustainable even if the debt is immense.REF Furthermore, short-term deficits based on short-term policy changes, such as spending on public health measures aimed at combating the novel coronavirus or fiscal stimulus, may add to the debt without necessarily changing a government’s fiscal sustainability.REF

It is also the case that short-term deficits in the U.S. appear to have become habit-forming in recent decades. The federal government began the new millennium with an annual budget surplus. 9/11 followed by a recession led to deficits in excess of 3 percent of GDP in 2003 and 2004. The financial meltdown caused the deficit to increase to nearly 10 percent of GDP in 2009. Despite a sustained recovery, the deficit never shrank lower than 2.4 percent of GDP and reached nearly 4.6 percent in 2019, even with continued recovery, historically low unemployment rates, and buoyant equity markets. The CBO currently projects this year’s deficit to be 18 percent of GDP, nearly twice the level it reached during the Great Recession. The combination of pandemic, “social distancing,” and congressional efforts to ameliorate the economic fallout may take it deeper still. It is not possible to say what the government’s fiscal posture will look like once this crisis is over.

Debt has been an important part of the federal government’s response to previous crises. Prior to the expansion of the permanent federal income tax in the 1930s, debt was, arguably, an even more significant means of financing short-term shortfalls in cash flow. For instance, spending as a percentage of revenues was an average of 485 percent during the Civil War (with a peak of 913 percent in 1861). Spending was also 134 percent of revenues during the recession that preceded the Civil War, 237 percent during the War of 1812, 163 percent during the Mexican American War, and 228 percent during World War II.REF However, after each of these crises the stock of debt fell as measured as a share of the economy.

Fiscal and Monetary Policy in the 21st Century

Returning to fiscal normalcy after spikes in the federal debt has not been the experience of the U.S. in the 21st century. As Chart 3 shows, debt held by the public stood at 31.4 percent of GDP in 2001 and climbed steadily as the economy recovered from a recession, reaching 34.8 percent in 2007. Since then, it has taken a steeper upward ascent through bad times and good, more than doubling to 78.4 percent in 2019. It may fall from the CBO’s current 2020 projection of 101 percent, but it seems unlikely to drop to levels that prevailed during the 45-year period between 1963 and 2008, where it rarely exceeded 40 percent of GDP and never reached 48 percent.REF As Chart 3 shows, federal debt held by the public (as a percentage of GDP) has risen steadily during the 21st century, especially since 2008. The CBO expects federal debt held by the public to eclipse 100 percent of GDP in 2020.


BG3498 Chart 3


Monetary policy—discussed below—has followed a similar pattern that does not necessarily track the economic cycles of recession and recovery. As Brookings Institution political scientist Sarah Binder has noted, the Federal Reserve succumbed to “a whole range of political pressures” during the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in an overly accommodative policy stance.REF After the stagflation of the 1970s, the Fed developed inflation-fighting credibility during the 1980s. However, evidence suggests that the Fed engaged in overly accommodative policy again in the early 2000s by keeping their federal-funds-rate target below the natural federal-funds rate.REF That policy stance likely contributed to the housing boom of the early 2000s, and the Fed became embroiled in even more controversy—centering on bailouts and large-scale asset purchases—after the housing market imploded in the late 2000s.REF

As Chart 4 shows, the Fed never fully normalized its monetary policy after the 2008 Great Recession, implementing a new operating framework that divorced its policy stance from the size of its balance sheet, and maintaining a relatively large balance sheet. The primary cause of this abnormally large balance sheet is the Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing (QE), a supposedly temporary intervention (consisting of large-scale asset purchases) that began in 2008 and has become a seemingly permanent state of affairs.REF The Fed embarked on three rounds of QE during the Great Recession, each time announcing its intention to eventually unwind the policy. It did not. Instead, it has now launched a new round of QE, increasing assets on its balance sheet from the $4.2 trillion, where it stood after the third round of asset purchases, to nearly $7.1 trillion as of May 27.REF


BG3498 Chart 4


As Chart 5 shows, Treasury securities make up the lion’s share of assets on the Fed’s balance sheet. As of May 27, those holdings exceeded $4.1 trillion, representing more than 21 percent of federal debt held by the public.REF


BG3498 Chart 5


Novel changes in fiscal and monetary policy have thus been normalized over the past two decades. Actions begun as one-off, emergency responses in times of economic stress—like rising debt and accommodative monetary policies—have lingered long after crises have passed and have become a new normal from which federal policy does not retreat.

Measuring and Forecasting Debt Sustainability

Though they may be insufficient, measures of deficit and debt are far from meaningless, especially when the government establishes a pattern of increasing deficits and debt regardless of economic cycle, rather than one-time increases. The conventions of federal budgeting adopted by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the CBO require the government’s financial position to reflect the standards of cash accounting. Expenditures are recorded when money is paid, and revenues are recorded as money comes into the U.S. Treasury. Measures of spending, revenues, deficit, and debt provide a snapshot of the government’s current and past fiscal position. Although they do not provide a definitive measure of the government’s future financial position, a pattern of increasing deficits and debt from which the government does not deviate over a period of years despite improved economic conditions sends ominous warnings that policymakers should not overlook.

Determining whether the federal budget is sustainable presents a number of challenges. Economic historians can tell somewhat accurate stories of the past, but predicting the future is another matter altogether. Foresight—let alone foresight into the distant future—is not easy. That said, tools are available to provide some insight into a governments’ financial sustainability. For instance, methods of accrual budgeting convert projections of future cash flows into measures of fiscal sustainability.REF The long-run fiscal gap between spending and revenues is quantifiable as a net present value.REF Recent estimates of the U.S. federal government’s sustainability measured as future obligations minus revenues are around 10 percent of the net present value of GDP over an infinite time horizon.REF

However, these methods have their disadvantages. First, they take present projections of cash budgeting at face value. There are reasons to believe that certain expenditure projections by the CBO, such as spending on health care programs, are underestimated. Second, they are heavily dependent on discount rates that can result in differences of tens of trillions of dollars, depending on the assumptions. Finally, these methods provide an estimate of the size of the problem, but rarely point to the cause.

In the real world, policy choices are relevant to the sustainability of the system. Not all revenue increases or spending reductions are equal. At the same time, measures to restrain climbing deficits do not equally affect economic activity.REF Furthermore, as The Heritage Foundation’s Paul Winfree, one of the authors of this Backgrounder, has previously examined, all revenue increases, and almost all spending reductions, are insufficient to meaningfully change the long-term fiscal sustainability of the federal government.REF

Sources of Unsustainability. The sources and underlying causes of the unsustainability are fairly contained within the U.S. budget. Winfree examined which budget accounts contributed to the underlying unsustainability.REF In an update to that paper, we have concluded that less than 2 percent of nearly 1,800 spending accounts that fund all government activities drive the long-run unsustainability.REF But while the problem is contained, it is large, as spending from those accounts is equivalent to 60 percent of gross spending over the next 10 years, with spending on government-funded health care programs contributing the largest component to fiscal unsustainability. This fact is particularly concerning given that the growth in spending on public health care programs is unlikely to slow down to a sustainable rate without structural reforms.REF

Governments have a number of options for dealing with short-term increases in debt. For instance, when the real interest rate (the price of debt) is less than the rate of economic growth, it is possible to issue new debt to pay the interest on existing debt. In essence, the federal government can continue to roll over debt for some period of time without significantly increasing welfare costs associated with debt accumulation.REF This is especially true in the current environment where real rates on debt are negative, meaning that the federal government can borrow today while paying back less than it borrowed (in real terms) in 10 years or 30 years. This is also not a particularly new circumstance. Debt rollover has been a normal strategy used in the management of federal debt since the 1790s.REF At some point, however, even this strategy falls apart as the existing stock of debt becomes so large that it cannot be rolled over.REF

The point at which the federal debt becomes too large to roll over is associated with whether the fiscal policy of a country (that is, the spending and revenue programs) is sustainable.REF As of today, two things are relatively clear: (1) the debt associated with combating the novel coronavirus crisis is theoretically sustainable as long as it does not increase the spending growth over the long run and, (2) there are a number of federal programs (represented in 34 budget accounts to be exact) that were unsustainable prior to the crisis. What is not clear is whether the coronavirus will meaningfully change the growth in spending for programs that were either sustainable or those that were unsustainable prior to the crisis. However, there is a significant chance that the budget will become even more unsustainable if the crisis increases long-run health costs. The chance for this greatly increases if policymakers fail to do what is necessary to combat the pandemic in a more effective way, and if prolonged social distancing produces a deep and long-lasting recession.

Meanwhile, it seems that interest rates will fall even further in the wake of the current coronavirus crisis, as the demand for investment falls along with the reduction in labor and savings increases.REF This has consequences for any additional fiscal stimulus that Congress might want to pursue. For instance, changes in tax policy will not have a particularly significant effect. Business investment was weak even before the crisis, despite the enactment of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017, thus signaling that there may be something much more going on with the economy than simply being burdened by high taxation.REF However, stimulating demand might also be muted as people continue to respond to both the government-imposed restrictions on the economy as well as the tremendous amount of uncertainty surrounding the future of, and the fallout from, the crisis. This also suggests that, perhaps, one of the best things that can be done right now from the perspective of public policy is to encourage innovation more directly.

Consequently, there are two options for dealing with the underlying fiscal unsustainability: Governments can either reduce the long-run growth in public expenditures, or they can devalue their currencies. However, if many large economies face the same fiscal outlook and are tempted down the latter road, the effectiveness of monetary policy will be significantly muted. Furthermore, unless the growth in spending is reduced, currency devaluation is only a short-term option—a fact that further emphasizes structural reforms to the minority of programs that drive the underlying unsustainability as the most viable method of addressing fiscal sustainability.

Monetary Policy Cannot Fix Poor Fiscal Policy

In late 2007, the Federal Reserve began various emergency lending programs, such as the Term Auction Facility, which increased reserves in the banking system. In 2008, the Fed implemented the first of several QE programs, purchasing large quantities of long-term Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, operations which also increased reserves in the banking system. These operations eventually expanded the Fed’s balance sheet to $4.5 trillion, more than five times the amount of securities it had before 2008, ultimately pushing the Fed to create a new operating framework to implement monetary policy.REF

This new system has at least as far-reaching implications as the QE programs themselves, because it divorces the Fed’s monetary policy stance from the size of its balance sheet. Moreover, it requires the Fed to pay interest to private financial institutions to maintain its policy stance, a problem that will worsen if interest rates rise. Put differently, the framework is designed to allow the Fed to purchase as many assets as it would like, all while paying firms to hold on to the excess cash that these purchases create. The new policy structure is a dramatic shift from the past that makes it difficult for the Fed to adequately regulate the overall availability of credit in private markets without allocating credit to specific groups.REF The framework can all too easily allow the Fed to become a pawn of the Treasury (or Congress), enabling the government to run larger deficits for a period of time. It also opens new opportunities for political groups to pressure the Fed for direct funding, a problem heightened by the new lending facilities the Fed has created in response to the COVID-19 crisis.REF

Between March 3 and April 9, the Fed undertook a massive effort to keep the economy afloat. It cut its interest-rate targets to near zero, removed banks’ reserve requirements, dropped its primary credit rate to near zero, injected trillions of dollars into short-term credit markets, announced a new $700 billion QE program (the Fed will purchase $500 billion in Treasuries and $200 billion in mortgage-backed securities), and created 11 new lending facilities.REF The Fed will be lending directly to commercial firms through one of these new programs and, through at least two other lending facilities, supplying funds for banks to lend hundreds of billions of dollars to small and medium-sized businesses.

The Fed will buy newly issued corporate bonds directly from commercial companies through the Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility, and the Fed will use the Paycheck Protection Program Liquidity Facility to provide loans to banks that make loans to small companies (those with no more than 500 employees) under the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).REF Separately, the Fed will use the Main Street New Loan Facility (MSNLF) and the Main Street Expanded Loan Facility (MSELF) to supply up to $600 billion to private banks that make loans to medium-sized businesses (those with no more than 10,000 employees or $2.5 billion in 2019 annual revenues).REF The Fed has also created a Municipal Liquidity Facility, one that allows any district Federal Reserve Bank to buy state and municipal bonds (up to an aggregate total of $500 billion).

It is currently impossible to know precisely in how much lending the Fed will engage through all of its new facilities, or how large its balance sheet will grow. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Economists project the central bank’s portfolio of bonds, loans and new programs will swell to between $8 trillion and $11 trillion from less than $4 trillion last year. In that range, the portfolio would be twice the size reached after the 2007–09 financial crisis and nearly half the value of U.S. annual economic output.”REF Calls will continue to mount for the Fed to create even more lending facilities, because such loans appear to derive from a source of unlimited funding,REF but these operations obscure the true nature of the risks and the fact that Congress has abandoned its constitutional responsibilities with regard to its power of the purse.

The Fed has created the expectation that it has committed to underwriting virtually all emergency spending, and the Fed cannot disappoint that expectation without disrupting markets. The Fed is thus increasingly at the mercy of markets and the markets are increasingly at the mercy of the Fed. Moreover, the Fed’s credit facilities lend directly to private businesses, thus displacing the nation’s private banks. This framework is little more than government banking. The U.S. Treasury’s so-called equity investment in most of these lending facilities illustrates how Congress has circumvented its constitutional responsibilities.

The Fed currently intends, for instance, to lend up to $600 billion through its Main Street Lending program. Yet, the U.S. Treasury made a $75 billion contribution to the program after those funds were appropriated to the Exchange Stabilization Fund via the CARES Act. If the program should lose $75 billion, then the Fed loses an amount of money that Congress was willing to risk when it appropriated those funds. If, however, the Fed’s lending program loses more than $75 billion, then the Fed would lose more than Congress was willing to risk. In this manner, these operations blur the lines between fiscal and monetary policy in a way that serves to undermine confidence in both.

If these programs incur losses, they will come with enormous political pressure to forgive the amounts owed, making it very difficult for the Fed to maintain any semblance of policy independence.REF While it is true that a central bank can technically handle losses, operating with zero (or even negative) equity, it can do so only because it has the power to create all the base money that it needs.REF That process, of course, cannot continue indefinitely without harming the central bank’s ability to hit its inflation target. These risks—both operational and political—increase with the dollar amounts of these quasi-fiscal programs and the length of time the Fed engages in them.

Overall, this quasi-fiscal arrangement clearly conflicts with the underlying structure of the U.S. government, because the Constitution gives the power of the purse to the elected Members of Congress, not to unelected officials of a federal agency. If Congress wants to provide emergency funds to businesses or local governments, or to appropriate more funds for entitlement programs, it can do so transparently without the aid of the Federal Reserve.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Government lockdown orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have caused an economic downturn that is more abrupt than any the U.S. has experienced. Although those orders did not take effect in most states until March, advance estimates show a 4.8 percent decline in the economy in the quarter that ended March 31.REF Nearly 41 million workers filed unemployment claims between the middle of March, when lockdown orders were put in place throughout most of the country, and May 23.REF The unemployment rate rose from 3.5 percent in February to 14.7 percent in April.REF Most observers expect a deeper economic contraction in the second quarter despite the fact that some governors have partially rolled back the restrictions.

The scope and duration of the contraction remain unknown. They both depend in large part on the trajectory of the pandemic and on the willingness of policymakers to modify their response to it. If lockdowns remain widespread and persist into the summer, the economic damage will be large and likely will take years to repair.REF

If, as we have recommended elsewhere, policymakers adapt their strategies to new information about COVID-19, the economic downturn could be less severe.REF In most communities, schools and businesses can be re-opened. In places with high incidence of infection, lockdown orders may have to be retained, but should be coupled with more traditional public health interventions like isolation, contact tracing, and, in some instances, travel restrictions.REF

While the implementation of more targeted strategies could soften the economic blow of lockdown orders, economic dislocations would likely continue. Congress has tried to mitigate the damage through an aggressive spurt of borrowing and spending. Some of this spending has been better targeted than others, but none of it has been subject to evaluation or review.REF Congress should review the effects of the spending it has already authorized before binging again.

Congress should also consider the effects of this one-time spike in the debt on the federal government’s borrowing capacity over the longer term. The federal government has, in the past, recovered from high debt loads, most dramatically in the post–World War II era. There are, nevertheless, troubling aspects of this latest surge in debt that warrant the attention of Congress. So far in the 21st century, federal debt has risen in ways that do not track the business cycle. That debt is largely driven by entitlement spending, especially health entitlement spending, which has put the federal government in a difficult fiscal position. Entitlement reform is the key to putting federal finances on more solid footing.

Separately, the Federal Reserve should also reform several of its practices. For more than a decade, the Fed has pursued highly unconventional policies. The policies it has adopted since the COVID-19 outbreak have put it squarely in the political arena, jeopardizing its policy independence and capacity to respond effectively to future downturns.

To better ensure the sustainability of future debt, the Administration, Congress, and the Federal Reserve should consider the following recommendations:

  1. Continue to rescind the widespread use of lockdown orders. Lockdown orders have caused economic dislocations that have prompted Congress and the Federal Reserve to adopt unprecedented fiscal and monetary policies.REF Public health officials advocated lockdown orders early in the pandemic, when little was known about the disease.REF It is now known that the infection is not evenly distributed across the U.S.; that 80 percent of the deaths are among people over age 65 and only 8 percent among people under 55; that 89 percent of deaths are among people with comorbidities; that as many as half the deaths are nursing-home-related and consequently unaffected by lockdown orders; and that more targeted public health interventions are more likely to be successful at addressing the pandemic in hot spots.REF Adapting public policy to this new information would facilitate a return to economic normalcy in most areas of the country, reducing the demand for massive new spending programs.
  2. Pause before authorizing more COVID-19 spending. Lockdown orders and actions already taken by Congress have raised federal spending to more than twice revenue, increased deficits to historical high rates, and at least temporarily raised debt held by the public to more than 100 percent of GDP. Despite an unprecedented flurry of legislating and borrowing, Congress has devoted too little attention to the question of whether these programs have had their intended effect and whether some should be modified or repealed. Before embarking on a new round of spending and borrowing, Congress should ensure that existing funds are producing their intended outcome. Congress should not assume that spending more will automatically produce beneficial results.
  3. Normalize monetary policy. The Fed has pursued unprecedented monetary policy for more than a decade. Its most recent actions threaten to turn the Fed into a pawn of the Treasury (or Congress) and open new opportunities for political groups to pressure the Fed for direct funding. The Fed should move with all deliberate speed to restore its intended role and protect its integrity and independence. After this crisis passes, the Fed should shrink its balance sheet and revert to an operating system that allows it to maintain a minimal footprint in credit markets. The Fed should reject all attempts by Congress or the Treasury to use the central bank as a means of avoiding the congressional appropriations process.
  4. Address systemic debt by undertaking entitlement reform. While one-time spikes in federal borrowing are not worrisome by themselves, high growth in federal debt unrelated to business cycles does raise substantial concerns. Entitlement spending is the principal source of this rising debt and, if left unchecked, will continue to necessitate massive new borrowings well into the future. Health care entitlements are the principal cause of this debt. To dampen the effects of the current wave of borrowing and to prepare for future economic downturns and unforeseen emergencies, lawmakers must reform health care entitlements.

Norbert J. Michel, PhD, is Director of the Center for Data Analysis, of the Institute for Economic Freedom, at The Heritage Foundation. Paul Winfree is Director of, and Richard F. Aster Fellow in, the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, of the Institute for Economic Freedom. Doug Badger is Visiting Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, of the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.


Norbert Michel
Norbert Michel

Former Director, Center for Data Analysis

Paul Winfree
Paul Winfree

Former Distinguished Fellow

Doug Badger
Doug Badger

Former Senior Research Fellow