President Obama went to St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square on Sunday for the first time since Easter. No doubt to seek divine intervention. The way things are going, that’s what it might take to conclude a deal by the end of this week that will not only raise the debt ceiling but also will not freak out the markets. The problem is that there is a sizable faction within the Republican Party that doesn’t think all the hair-on-fire warnings from the Obama administration are real.
Some argue that the nation’s credit card needs to be ripped up or that Washington cannot be given another blank check to spend, spend, spend. So a national default is what’s needed to snap some fiscal discipline into the federal government. Some argue that a short-term default wouldn’t be so bad, that there’s plenty of money for the nation to meet its obligations to bondholders and as long as they are taken care of everything would be okay. Some argue that there’s no way they go along with an increase in the debt limit without a balanced-budget amendment. And some are making all three arguments in one form or another.
Folks, all three arguments are a recipe for disaster. You better pray something gets worked out.
The debt ceiling. Raising the debt ceiling is not — I repeat, IS NOT — like giving Washington a blank check or adding more to the national credit card. Increasing the legal limit the federal government can borrow allows it to pay for things it has already bought. In short, the money’s been spent. For the United States to not meet its obligations for the first time in its history would destroy the full faith and credit of this nation and could irreparably damage our economy and financial standing in the world.
Prioritization. A default by the United States would force the Treasury to rob Peter to pay Paul. And it’ll be ugly. Meeting obligations to holders of U.S. treasuries is one thing. It’s paying all the other bills that will come due in August that will send the American people into apoplexy.
The federal government will have $306 billion in bills (including $29 billion in interest on Treasury securities) in August and only $172 billion in its wallet to pay them. The remaining $134 billion will have to come by denying checks to seniors, active-duty military, federal workers, etc. Such prioritization has been called unworkable by the Obama administration. And the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that a Standard & Poor’s official told Senate Democrats that failure of the United States to pay any of its bills on time could lead to a loss of the nation’s precious AAA bond rating. This comes despite an intense lobbying by the Obama administration to persuade the bond rating agencies not to issue threats against the nation’s creditworthiness.
Balanced-budget amendment. This week the House will vote on the Cut, Cap, Balance Act.Cutting and capping budgets is a matter of political debate. But given that there are two weeks before the nation runs out of cash to pay all of its bills, requiring passage of a contentious balanced-budget amendment before raising the national debt limit is lunacy. A Post editorial on Thursday made the rational argument for why this perennial “solution” for fiscal promiscuity is a bad idea.
The constitutional cure, while superficially tempting, would be worse than the underlying disease. A balanced-budget amendment would deprive policymakers of the flexibility they need to address national security and economic emergencies. It would revise the Constitution in a way that would give dangerous power to a congressional minority.
This bad policy prescription won’t pass the Senate. But many Tea Partiers in the House won’t vote for a debt-ceiling increase without it. Combine them with the Tea Partiers who signed pledges not to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances, and you have the makings of a willful fiscal train wreck.
The full faith and credit of the United States, a precious asset that took more than two centuries to build, is seriously at risk. To whatever prayer Obama might have said at St. John’s related to the wrangling over a debt-ceiling deal, may I add, “Lord, hear his prayer.”