To state the obvious: a default would be bad.
The government would have trouble paying Social Security checks, military salaries and all the creditors who’d previously lent money to Uncle Sam. A default would also violate the Constitution, which says “the validity of the public debt of the United States ... shall not be questioned.”
Finally, it would trigger chaos throughout the global financial system.
Financial markets currently treat U.S. debt as virtually risk-free, with all other assets benchmarked against it. If we demonstrate that our debt is not really risk-free — that we’re instead cavalier about repaying our creditors — panic would tear through other markets as well.
Again, this is not what anyone needs right now.
Happily, there’s a simple fix: Congress could raise or suspend the debt limit.
Lawmakers have done this 78 times since 1960 — 49 times under Republican presidents, 29 times under Democratic ones, according to the Treasury Department. It should be a relatively uncontentious task, given the catastrophe that would result from default. Unfortunately, that potential catastrophe is precisely why Republicans view the debt ceiling as a valuable political hostage. In theory, having to vote on the debt limit is supposed to regularly remind lawmakers of their profligacy; in practice, it serves only to create frequent opportunities for crises.
When Barack Obama was president, Republicans seized those opportunities and brought the government to the brink of default. One 2011 episode led to the U.S. government’s first-ever credit downgrade.
While Donald Trump was president, however, lawmakers suspended the debt ceiling several times. Democrats voted for these measures because they knew no good could come from a default. Today, Democrats demand Republicans do the same.
This has proven naive.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and even supposedly “reasonable” Republicans such as Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) have said they’ll play no part in lifting the debt ceiling. They say it’s up to Democrats to address the issue using a special legislative process called “reconciliation,” which allows bills to pass with only 50 (that is, Democratic-only) Senate votes.
Democrats don’t want to do this. Why is a bit complicated. Basically, they fear the bad optics of good governance.
If lawmakers addressed the debt limit through the usual legislative process — the one requiring some Republican Senate votes — they could either raise the limit to a specific dollar figure or suspend it for some period of time. For roughly a decade, they’ve repeatedly chosen the suspension option.
Lawmakers prefer this strategy because it avoids scary headlines about how much Congress “added” to the debt; voters are often confused about what the debt limit is and don’t understand that it involves paying off bills already incurred, rather than authorizing new spending.
The reconciliation process, on the other hand, allows only raising the debt limit to a specific number, not suspending it. Democrats worry that Republicans will exploit voter confusion and mount (misleading) attacks against Democrats about that scary new number.
Currently, Democrats are trying to “shame” the notoriously shameless McConnell into voting for Democrats’ plan to suspend the debt ceiling until December 2022. Good luck with that. Worse, Democrats omitted instructions for a debt limit increase from the budget resolution they passed in August. This budget resolution dictates what they can and can’t do through reconciliation.
So, in effect, they handed the hostage over to Republicans.
Democrats could go back and amend their budget resolution, but that’s an involved process that will require lots of floor time. Right now we don’t know exactly when the government will run out of money. Technically the last debt limit “suspension” ended in July; since then, Treasury has been moving money around to avoid default. Treasury has forecast that these “extraordinary measures” will be exhausted sometime in October, but a lot of uncertainty surrounds that date.
Bottom line: Time is short. The GOP has come close to blowing up the global financial system through a debt default before, and the party has only grown more nihilistic in the years since. Democratic lawmakers must immediately begin the long and politically thankless process necessary to lift the debt limit on their own. If they wait around for Republicans to do the right thing, it could be too late.
The optics of acting alone, yet again, are frustrating. But the reality of not acting in time would be much worse.