Boehner’s debt ceiling crisis would be so much worse than you think

at 01:22 PM ET, 05/16/2012

There’s some chance that House Speaker John Boehner’s threat to provoke another debt-ceiling crisis doesn’t much matter. If it does matter, it’s only because fiscal policy has already gone very, very wrong.


If we have another debt ceiling crisis, then Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, or whoever replaces him, will be facing a 2008-like crisis. (JEWEL SAMAD - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
As Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Tuesday, “we’re likely to hit the debt limit sometime before the end of the year, but Congress has given the executive branch a set of tools that buy them some time. And those tools will probably take us into the early part of 2013, thus separating somewhat the timing of the expiry of the tax cuts and the sequester with the ultimate need for Congress to act on the debt limit.”

In other words, the Bush tax cuts expire on Dec. 31. The automatic spending cuts begin on Dec. 31. The debt ceiling likely won’t come due till February, or perhaps even March. So the scenario in which we reach a debt ceiling showdown is a scenario in which the two parties have already failed to come to an agreement on spending and taxes.

That is to say, it’s a scenario in which we’ve already reached the fiscal cliff and fallen over the edge. It’s a scenario in which the Bush tax cuts have probably expired, and the spending cuts have probably begun. It’s a scenario in which the markets are already in some amount of turmoil, and the forecasters are already sharply warning that Congress is dragging the country into a double-dip recession. It’s a scenario in which the two parties are already under tremendous pressure, in which Washington has been in some sort of semi-crisis for months, and in which all the possible deals have already been tried and failed. (It’s also a scenario, incidentally, in which our projected deficits are much lower, because our expected tax revenues are so much higher.)

The alternative possibility is that Congress has passed, and the president has signed, some sort of short-term patch to prevent the tax cuts from expiring and the spending cuts from triggering. But Boehner just radically reduced the odds of that: Why would Democrats patch the Bush tax cuts, which give them leverage, just so Boehner could provoke a debt-ceiling crisis in order to give his party leverage?

So we’re not likely to have a “debt-ceiling crisis.” We’re either likely to solve our fiscal problems early in the year in way that defuses Boehner’s debt-ceiling threat or we’re likely to spend 2013 in a state of permanent crisis in which Congress lights the economy on fire by failing on the Bush tax cuts, the automatic spending cuts, the debt ceiling, and the appropriation bills needed to keep the federal government open.

That’s not a scenario that looks like August 2011, when the debt ceiling was the only thing on the docket. It’s an economic crisis that looks more like September 2008, when Lehman was collapsing. And in that world, it’s so hard to predict the resulting financial chaos, public outrage, interest group pressure, and political terror that it’s almost impossible to say anything about how the crisis would be resolved, or who might benefit.

 
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