How We'll Deal With the Debt Ceiling

The Atlantic | April 28, 2011
By Joshua Green

Members of Congress are still on spring break. But the next crisis in Washington is already clear and almost upon us: avoiding default on the national debt obligations.

Raising the debt ceiling is an arcane problem that stems from a quirk of our political system. The United States requires one vote to pass a budget and another to issue the debt necessary to finance it. That second vote has not yet happened. If it doesn't, or if it fails, the federal government will run out of money, which has never happened before. The consequences, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned, would be "catastrophic."

One way to understand the issue is to think of it as like dining at a restaurant. You order your dinner and enjoy it. When the bill arrives, you pay for it. Most people wouldn't imagine arguing over the bill after they've eaten — how tacky! But in Washington, it's a long-standing tradition in both parties. Even then-Senator Barack Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling when George W. Bush was president.

Where the analogy with restaurant dining ends is what happens if you don't pay. The country can't wash dishes. Were the United States to default, interest rates would soar, the stock market would crash, and the good faith and credit of the US government would be ruined, which would raise future borrowing costs substantially. Even the perception that a default was possible could roil the markets.

That's never been a problem before, because threats not to raise the ceiling were always understood to be empty grandstanding. "It is a huge and unnecessary waste of time," said Richard Gephardt, the former Democratic House Majority Leader. "If you're serious about cutting spending, you vote for it in the budget, not when the bill comes due."

In 1979, Gephardt helped change the rules to eliminate the second vote. But Republicans reinstated it in 1995 to pressure members of Congress to limit spending. How well did that work? The debt ceiling was less than $1 trillion in 1979; today it's $14.3 trillion, driven higher by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush tax cuts, Obama's economic stimulus, and the additional borrowing necessary to offset declining tax revenue from the recession.

Some Tea Party Republicans say they're willing to bring on default unless the White House and Democrats agree to major deficit-reduction measures. Having already indicated that he won't insist on a "clean" vote to raise the debt ceiling, Obama has effectively agreed to open negotiations. But a deal could be much harder to strike than during the recent showdown over the current budget because the savings Republicans won in that fight turned out to be so paltry. Though touted as saving $38 billion, the Congressional Budget Office determined that the deal would trim only $352 million, leaving many conservatives frustrated and upset.

This has led them to demand much larger cuts in exchange for allowing the necessary increase in federal borrowing. "Trillions, not billions," is the new Republican mantra. In theory, it should be feasible to cut trillions from future projected deficits, since both parties agree on how it might be done: by reforming the tax code and entitlement programs, like Medicare and Medicaid. But such an ambitious agenda couldn't possibly be achieved by May 16, the date the Treasury anticipates it will hit the debt ceiling.

The likeliest solution will be some sort of procedural reform, rather than just cuts. Republicans would love a balanced-budget amendment, but that would entail draconian cuts. Another option is to cap spending by statute. Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri have proposed limiting federal spending to 21 percent of GDP, the average from 1978 to 2000. But this would also require severe cuts, and most Democrats want tax increases to be part of any plan.

The negotiators may ultimately settle on a simple mechanism that Obama put forward in his April 13 budget speech, awkwardly named a "debt fail-safe," which guarantees that, should Congress fail to agree to trim the debt by a certain date, certain spending cuts and tax increases will go into automatic effect.

This offers something to each side, and an additional feature that both sides secretly prefer: it puts off the tough decisions a little longer.

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