The federal government reached its $7.4 trillion debt ceiling yesterday, forcing Treasury Secretary John W. Snow to delay contributing to one of the federal employees' pension systems to avoid running out of cash and possibly defaulting on government debt.
The situation will probably be temporary, as it has in the past. Congressional leaders said that when they return for a lame-duck session after the election, they will raise the debt ceiling to allow the government to borrow the money it needs to pay its bills. At that point, any overdue contributions to the pension fund would be paid, with interest.
Snow has pleaded with Congress since Aug. 2 to raise the debt limit, but Senate Republican leaders -- whose aides said they were worried about the possible political backlash -- adjourned for the campaign this week without acting on Snow's request. The Treasury secretary repeated his plea yesterday in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), appealing to his "commitment to maintaining the full faith and credit of the U.S. government."
"Given the current projections, it is imperative that the Congress take action to increase the debt limit by mid-November, at which time all of our previously used prudent and legal actions to avoid breaching the statutory debt limit will be exhausted," Snow wrote.
Congressional leaders in turn promised to raise the borrowing limit as soon as they reconvene. The House passed a $690 billion increase in the debt ceiling in a 2005 budget resolution, but it was never adopted by the Senate.
"Typically with Congress, they do it when they need to do it," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "And we'll do it when we need to do it."
The federal government regularly sells Treasury bonds to finance the difference between the amount of money it collects in taxes each year and the amount it spends. The debt ceiling was first imposed in 1917 to act as a brake on the total amount of accumulated debt the government owes. Today the total debt includes money owed either to private investors or, in the case of funds borrowed from surplus Social Security taxes, to other government programs.
Since then, the Treasury has on five occasions delayed pension fund payments as it approached its limit on borrowing. Three of those incidents came under President Bush -- in 2002, 2003 and yesterday -- as Republicans in Congress have become leery of voting to raise the debt limit. The others were during the rapidly spiraling deficits of 1985 and the budget showdown between the new Republican Congress and President Bill Clinton in 1995.
When Bush came to office, the debt ceiling was $5.95 trillion and had last been raised in 1997.
Since 2002, Congress has raised the borrowing limit by more than $1.4 trillion, as the government ran increasingly large deficits of $158 billion in 2002, $375 billion in 2003 and $413 billion for fiscal 2004, which ended in September. Yesterday the Treasury Department released its final 2004 deficit figure, which came in below initial forecasts but still at a record level in dollar terms.
If Republicans had hoped to avoid the issue before the election, Democrats sought yesterday to make them pay with a litany of accusations.
"This is a heck of a burden to pass on to the next generation," said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
Campaign aides of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) noted that Bush's 2001 budget anticipated the debt ceiling would not have to be raised until 2008. And, they said, , the government has run up more debt in the past 17 months than was amassed under all the presidents from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.
"George Bush continues to make history for all the wrong reasons," said Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer.
Budget watchdog organizations took both Kerry and Bush to task for what they see as a failure to take the deficit seriously.
"Following the presidential debate, where more attention was given to the candidates' wives than to the budget deficit . . . it is hard to see where the leadership to put the country back on the path of fiscal responsibility will come from," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
A number of independent analyses have concluded that the mix of tax cuts and spending plans outlined by both candidates would balloon the budget deficit.