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Trillion dollar club: Leaders in Congress who helped amass $34 trillion in national debt

The national debt rose by $22 trillion during Pelosi's tenure as leader of the House Democrats and nearly $25 trillion during McConnell's time as leader of Senate Republicans.

Published: December 10, 2023 10:48pm

Updated: December 11, 2023 12:46pm

The national debt continues to rise sharply to record levels during the ongoing debate in Congress over the next federal spending bill.

The federal government has already piled another $383 billion onto the debt so far into the 2024 fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1.

It appears that increasing Americans' debt burden is a non-partisan issue: Throughout the last 15 to 20 years, the national debt has steadily risen under the leadership of lawmakers from both political parties.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, the longest-serving Senate Republican leader in history, was elected Republican whip in 2003. He started as GOP leader in January 2007 when the national debt was approximately $9 trillion.

The national debt is now fast approaching $34 trillion, according to the most recent U.S. Treasury Department data, meaning it has gone up by $25 trillion since McConnell became leader of the Senate Republicans. Some conservative lawmakers have called on McConnell to retire but he remains.

Control of the House, Senate and White House changed during the period of time covering McConnell's leadership position but he has been a key player with a seat at the table during budget negotiations with the House leaders and the White House.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the current Senate majority leader, was first elected Democratic leader in 2017 when the national debt was nearly $20 trillion. The debt has risen close to $14 trillion since that time. Schumer remained the leader of the Democratic Party, becoming the majority leader in January 2021.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., first elected in 1987, became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in April 2018 when the national debt was $21 trillion.

He served until the Democrats took over the majority in February 2021 with the debt at $27.8 trillion, which represented a $6.7 trillion increase during his chairmanship. Shelby has since retired from the Senate. According to Al.com, a local news site in his constituency, a non-profit group called Citizens Against Government Waste, which tracks federal spending, labeled him in 2023 the "King of Congressional Pork" bestowing upon him the "Whole Hog Award” after he racked up $666 million in earmarks.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., elected in 1975, became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in February 2021 and served until January 2023, representing an approximately $3 trillion increase to the debt during his chairmanship. Leahy has also retired from the Senate.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., became House Democratic leader in 2003 when the national debt was $6.3 trillion. Pelosi first became Speaker of the House in January 2007 when the national debt was at about $9 trillion. She left the speakership in January 2023 when the national debt was $31 trillion, representing a $22 trillion increase to the debt during her time as leader of the Democratic Party.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., first elected in 1991, started as chair of the House Appropriations Committee in January 2021 when the debt was $27.6 trillion. She served until January 2023 when Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, took over as chair with the national debt about $3 trillion higher than when she started her leadership role.

Granger, who was first elected in 1997, became ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee in January 2019 when the national debt was $23 trillion. She was selected as chair in January 2023 with the national debt at $31.3 trillion. Granger is still in charge of the key committee, which handles the federal budget, as the national debt nears $34 trillion, representing $11 trillion increase since she became the leading Republican on the committee. 

The federal government is currently borrowing about $6 billion each day, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

"There’s no way around it: Congress has a sleigh full of problems this holiday season. Not least of which is the fact we just borrowed $383 billion in the first two months of the fiscal year – $6 billion borrowed each day – without even doing anything differently in that time," Maya MacGuineas, president of the CRFB, said in a statement Friday.

Last week, for the first time in history, the national debt averaged $100,000 per every American, a once unthinkable burden.

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