Many people are hoping that House Speaker John Boehner will do big things before he vacates the job and Congress. I count myself among them. But there is one thing on that to-do list that absolutely must get done: Raise the debt ceiling.
Contrary to myth and ill-informed bombast, raising the legal limit on the nation’s borrowing is not akin to giving the federal government or the president a blank check. Raising the debt ceiling is not about future spending, but past spending approved by Congress. “Refusing to raise the debt limit does nothing to reduce those existing obligations or cut the deficit,” the Treasury Department explained during the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011. And it’s not as bad as a government shutdown. It’s worse, as the president would have to rob Peter to pay Paul and still come up short in satisfying creditors and anyone else who relies on cash from Uncle Sam.
There are three reasons for my alarm here, in no particular order because they are all terrifying. One, the vote on the incoming speaker will not take place until Oct. 29, the day before Boehner “zip-a-dee-doo-dahs” his way back to Ohio. Two, the nation will cease to have the ability to pay all of its bills “on or about” Nov. 5. Three, the next speaker of the House might not have the rest of his leadership team in place to corral the votes to raise the federal debt limit. And heaven help us all if Boehner’s successor is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).
Boehner’s resignation is effective Oct. 30, so the vote on his successor the day before makes sense. That the rest of the Republican House leadership — the majority leader and the whip — won’t be voted on that day does not. According to the Hill, “It’s possible those elections won’t take place at all” if McCarthy fails in his speaker bid. He would then stay put as majority leader and Rep. Steve Scalise (La.) would remain the whip. But NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent Luke Russert tweeted Wednesday morning that Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told him that McCarthy “will win” on the first ballot.
If that prediction proves true, McCarthy won’t have a leadership team to help him tend to his raucous caucus. And in three more tweets Russert spelled out why a McCarthy victory is worrisome. In short, the older members of the House Republican conference want Boehner to get the debt ceiling off the table for his presumed successor because they fear it “[could] blow up” due to compromises McCarthy will have to make to conservatives to secure the necessary 218 votes.
And this brings me back to the Nov. 5 deadline for raising the debt ceiling. That was the date Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned Boehner that the federal government would “exhaust” the “extraordinary measures we have been employing to preserve borrowing capacity.” Lew also explained what would happen if Congress failed to act by the deadline.
At that point, we would be left to fund the government with only the cash we have on hand, which we currently forecast to be below $30 billion. This amount would be far short of net expenditures on certain days, which can be as high as $60 billion. Moreover, given certain payments that are due in early to mid- November, we anticipate that our remaining cash would be depleted quickly. Without sufficient cash, it would be impossible for the United States of America to meet all of its obligations for the first time in our history.
This would all go down exactly one week after the House speaker elections. If Boehner doesn’t take this fiscal bomb off the table, I fear that the Republican-controlled Congress and the House conservative caucus in particular would be content to let the timer run out. The newly minted House majority tried that in 2011 and brought the United States the closest it has ever been to being a global financial deadbeat. Now that there are more of them and they control both houses of Congress, the possibility is very high that the full faith and credit of the United States will be destroyed.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj