Too often, the debate over raising the debt limit (the maximum amount the United States is allowed to borrow to pay its debts) turns into a political football when it isn’t political at all. Some argue the 14th Amendment doesn’t say what it does, but you read it and decide.
This year may be the most political it’s become in history, though, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has pronounced Republicans will not support an extension of the debt limit. The Democrats would need to get 60 votes to overcome a filibuster (they only have 50) the likelihood at the moment is the debt limit will not be extended.
Not raising the debt limit is like you not paying your bills. In the U.S. Government’s case, the “bills” include things like Social Security payments, aid to folks hit hardest by the pandemic or hurricanes, the military wouldn’t be paid nor would federal employees. Anything paid by the federal government could not be paid and we, as you would in your financial life, default.
There are those would say, “Great! Those federal employees don’t do anything anyway." But those employees, among other things, pay our bills. If, as is looking more likely than in past years, McConnell maintains control of Senate Republicans. All that is going to happen.
The debt ceiling was raised 72 times from March 1961 to May 2011, including 18 times under Ronald Reagan, eight times under Bill Clinton, seven times under George W. Bush, and five times under Barack Obama.
You really have no choice but to raise it. The ceiling is raised so the U.S. can pay the money it’s already spent. It has nothing to do with future spending. It forces no control on future spending. Republican and Democratic presidents have contributed to the debt and the Congress has approved every dollar spent that led to us owing trillions of dollars.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who also has served as head of the Federal Reserve, wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece last weekend: “Default could trigger a spike in interest rates, a steep drop in stock market prices and other financial turmoil. Our current economic recovery would reverse into recession, with billions of dollars of growth and millions of jobs lost.”
Just the threat of default in the past has had its negative effects.
In 2011, during the Obama Administration, the U.S. credit rating was downgraded from AA+ to AAA because the debt limit was threatened. That was the first time in history Standard & Poor’s downgraded our credit rating. Standard & Poor’s wrote: the “effectiveness, stability and predictability” of American policy-making and political institutions had weakened.
Imagine what would happen today with our political climate what it is, with how other countries are questioning if our democracy will survive. Imagine what Standard & Poor’s might say today.
This is not good. This is not Republican or Democrat, but McConnel is making it so. He wants the Democrats to take the blame if/when the debt limit fails to be increased. It’s politics. It’s about affecting next year’s mid-term election when he hopes to become Majority Leader again. Will he cave? Well, he did flip the "rules" when he stopped an Obama Supreme Court nominee from hearings claiming it was too close to an election, and that's never been done (it has). Then, when President Trump nominate a justice even closer to an election, McConnell's "rule" disappeared.
The federal government will have spent all its cash sometime in the next number of weeks.
Typically there is political brinkmanship played when it comes to raising the debt limit. McConnell’s threat, though, likely cannot be pulled back. He’d look foolish, and he knows it. Though, stranger things have happened.
What will happen? One hopes that somehow the brinkmanship will end. That’s what President Biden thinks anyway.
Biden, though, hasn’t served in the U.S. Senate for years. He’s never been up against the type of “social media driving, base appealing” Republicans that live in the Senate these days.
So what will happen? We’ll see.