In recent months, the federal debt ceiling — last increased in February 2010 and now standing at $14.3 trillion — has become a matter of national debate and political hysteria. The ceiling must be raised by Aug. 2, Treasury says, or the government will run out of cash. Congressional Republicans counter that they won’t raise the debt limit unless Democrats agree to large budget cuts with no tax increases. President Obama insists that closing tax loopholes must be part of the package. Whom and what to believe in the great debt-limit debate? Here are some misconceptions that get to the heart of the battle.
1. The debt limit is an effective way to control spending and deficits.
Not at all. In 2003, Brian Roseboro, assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial markets, explained it best: “The plain truth is that the debt limit does not affect the deficits or surpluses. The critical revenue and spending decisions are made during the congressional budget process.”
The debt ceiling is a cap on the amount of securities the Treasury can issue, something it does to raise money to pay for government expenses. These expenses, and the deficit they’ve wrought, are a result of past actions by Congress to create entitlement programs, make appropriations and cut taxes. In that sense, raising the debt limit is about paying for past expenses, not controlling future ones. For Congress to refuse to let Treasury raise the cash to pay the bills that Congress itself has run up simply makes no sense.
Some supporters of the debt limit respond that there is virtue in forcing Congress to debate the national debt from time to time. This may have been true in the past, but the Budget Act of 1974 created a process that requires Congress to vote on aggregate levels of spending, revenue and deficits every year, thus making the debt limit redundant.
2. Opposition to raising the debt limit is a partisan issue.
Republicans are doing the squawking now because there is a Democrat in the White House. But back when there was a Republican president, Democrats did the squawking. On March 16, 2006, one Democratic senator in particular denounced George W. Bush’s request to raise the debt limit. “The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure,” the senator thundered. “Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. . . . Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren.”
That senator was Barack Obama, and he, along with most Democrats, voted against a higher limit that day. It passed only because almost every Republican voted for it, including many who are now among the strongest opponents of a debt-limit increase.
3. Financial markets won’t care much if interest payments are just a few days late — a “technical default.”
Some Republicans believe that bondholders know they will get their money eventually and will understand that a brief default — just a few days — might be necessary to reduce future deficits. “If a bondholder misses a payment for a day or two or three or four,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told CNBC in May, “what is more important [is] that you’re putting the government in a materially better position to be able to pay their bonds later on.”