IT WOULD BE IRONIC, if it weren’t so scary. Those who are concerned about the national debt and thereby oppose raising the debt ceiling risk adding dramatically to the debt if they refuse to act. Two leading economic officials made that point in different venues last week.
If default, or fears about default, caused interest rates on government bonds to tick up even slightly, Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf told a breakfast roundtable, it would cost the government billions more in interest payments. An increase of 10 basis points — one-tenth of 1 percent — would add $130 billion to interest payments over the decade. As to the notion that bondholders could be paid while other obligations were postponed, Mr. Elmendorf said that “defaulting on any government obligation is a dangerous gamble.”
Mr. Elmendorf’s comments were reinforced with warnings from Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke. Speaking to a conference organized by the Committee for Responsible Federal Budget, Mr. Bernanke argued that regarding the debt ceiling, lawmakers should practice the political version of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. “Failing to raise the debt ceiling in a timely way would be self-defeating if the objective is to chart a course toward a better fiscal situation for our nation,” he said.
He spelled out the potential consequences: “In particular, even a short suspension of payments on principal or interest on the Treasury’s debt obligations could cause severe disruptions in financial markets and the payments system, induce ratings downgrades of U.S. government debt, create fundamental doubts about the creditworthiness of the United States, and damage the special role of the dollar and Treasury securities in global markets in the longer term. Interest rates would likely rise, slowing the recovery and, perversely, worsening the deficit problem by increasing required interest payments on the debt for what might well be a protracted period.”
Like Mr. Elmendorf, Mr. Bernanke dismissed the notion that those problems could be avoided by continuing to pay bondholders but delaying other payments. Before long, he said, Treasury would be deciding whether to mail Social Security checks or pay soldiers. Meanwhile, “the fact that many other government payments would be delayed could still create serious concerns about the safety of Treasury securities among financial market participants.”
We diverge from Mr. Bernanke on whether it is appropriate to use the debt ceiling as a forcing mechanism for fiscal action. Nothing else seems to have been able to persuade leaders to get serious about the long-term fiscal threat to the nation’s health. The debt-ceiling deadline should serve to focus their attention and induce them to outline at least the beginning of a deal.
But no one should inaccurately minimize the risk of tampering with the markets’ faith in U.S. credit and credibility. In the end, the debt ceiling must be raised, and the Bernanke-Elmendorf warnings about the consequences kept in mind. The need to raise the debt ceiling reflects past choices, not future ones. The latter will be difficult enough. They will become even harder if politicians allow the United States to come close to default.