Why is this an issue now?
The nation’s debt is inching closer to the legal limit of $14.3 trillion. According to
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, the ceiling could be breached as soon as May 16, though the government could take unconventional measures such as halting contributions to pension funds to delay that point until July 8.
What happens if the debt ceiling is breached?
If Congress does not increase the limit, borrowed funds would not be available to pay bills and the United States may be forced to default on its debt obligations. There’s no precedent for this situation. Treasury has never been unable to make payments as a result of reaching the debt limit. With a fragile global recovery counting on U.S. economic stability, the debt limit issue could roil international financial markets. Democrats and Republicans agree that if the debt limit is not raised we would be inviting economic catastrophe.
So if both parties agree, why not just raise the limit? What is everyone arguing about?
In the past, raising the debt ceiling has mostly been a perfunctory matter. The ceiling has been raised almost 100 times since it was established and has gone from less than $1 trillion in the 1980s to $6 trillion in the 1990s. The most recent time the ceiling was boosted was in February 2010. Legislation to raise the debt limit usually prompts partisan posturing about fiscal responsibility, but little real drama. This time is different.
With the national debt at its highest point in 50 years compared with the size of the U.S. economy, the debate about the ceiling has become entwined in the larger issue about slashing the budget. The budget debate is shaping up around trying to balance two perhaps equally unpopular remedies: sharp cuts to popular government-funded programs and major tax increases. Republican lawmakers say that if they raise the limit they need a commitment from the White House for more spending cuts. The Obama administration has resisted the idea of including spending caps or other budget-process reforms in legislation to raise the debit ceiling, arguing that ensuring the government’s solvency is too important to be held hostage to other issues.
What happens if we don’t raise the debt ceiling but continue to pay interest on our bonds?This is an option known as “prioritization.” The Bipartisan Policy Center released a report attempting to think through how this would work in practice, as it has
never been attempted before. The raw numbers are chilling: In August,
the federal government would have to cut expenditures by about $134
billion, or 10 percent of the month’s GDP. If it chose, for instance, to
fund Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, supplies for the troops and
interest on our bonds, it would have to stop funding every other part of
the federal government. The drop in demand, when coupled with the
turmoil in the markets and the general financial uncertainty, would
undoubtedly throw the economy back into a recession. Also keep in mind
that we have to roll over $500 billion in debt that month, and if there
was uncertainty about how we were going to pay our bills, it is not
clear we could find buyers for our debt at anything less than an
exorbitant rate. In this way, “prioritization” could actually increase the deficit.