A big question hangs over Janet Yellen this week at her confirmation hearing to become U.S. Treasury secretary: How much debt is too much?
In the past four years, U.S. government debt held by the public has increased by $7 trillion to $21.6 trillion. President-elect Joe Biden has committed to a spending program that could add trillions more in the year ahead. At 100.1% of gross domestic product, the debt already exceeds the annual output of the economy, putting the U.S. in company with economies including Greece, Italy and Japan.
When Ms. Yellen served in the Clinton administration as Chairwoman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, she was among those who pushed for a balanced budget. Today, she has joined, cautiously, an emerging consensus concentrated on the left that more short-term borrowing is needed to help the economy, even without concrete plans to pay it back. Central to the view is the expectation that interest rates will remain low for the foreseeable future, making it more affordable to finance the borrowing.
The Biden administration will now contend with progressives who want even more spending, and conservatives who say the government is tempting fate by adding to its swollen balance sheet. Ms. Yellen’s challenge, if confirmed, will be to keep Democrats together and persuade some Republicans to come along.
Ms. Yellen, who will be a top economic adviser to Mr. Biden, is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee, which will vote on her nomination. She served as top White House economist in the 1990s and Federal Reserve chairwoman in the 2010s. Confirmation of Ms. Yellen as Treasury secretary would make her the first person to achieve such a trifecta of economic leadership roles.