While the budget showdown is happening, it's worth keeping our eyes on the bigger issue that's just a couple of weeks away: hitting the debt limit or ceiling, which is the total amount of money the federal government is allowed to borrow at any given time. For a good primer on the topic (and the last big showdown in 2011) go here.
The temptation among those who want to raise the debt limit with no obligations to curb spending is to conflate hitting the limit with defaulting on our debt.
Here's an MSNBC report on Treasury Secretary Jack Lew's take:
The government already hit its borrowing limit in May, but the Treasury Department has been able to use what it calls "extraordinary measures" to increase its borrowing capacity temporarily. Such measures, however, will be exhausted by mid-October, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said, when the government will run out of money to make its legally obligated payments.
At that point, the government would have only $30 billion in cash on hand, while its daily expenditures "can be as high as $60 billion," Lew wrote in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner. In other words, the government wouldn't have enough money to pay its bills and would risk default every day thereafter.
You see variations of this formula everywhere: If we hit the debt limit, we won't be able to pay some of our bills or all our bills, or whatever, and we'll be in default, which would be catastrophic.
There's every reason to believe that defaulting on debt payments would likely cause significant disruptions in the U.S. and possibly the world economy. But hitting the debt limit is in no way the same thing as defaulting on the national debt. That's because federal debt payments come to about 6 percent of total federal expenditures—and about 10 percent of federal revenues. As long as the Treasury Department keeps making interest payments on the debt, which is likely no matter what happens, there's no default.
At the same time, federal spending would need to be cut by about 32 percent, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. That would reduce GDP by definition, since GDP counts virtually all government spending (though not all business spending) as increasing economic activity.
If the last time is any indication, there might be interest-rate spikes—especially if the ceiling gets raised without a "credible" deal to actually reduce debt over time (recall that ratings agencies downgraded the U.S. government's credit rating after the deal that eventuated in the sequester was brokered in August 2011).
Which is the president's position. He continues to reiterate that he will allow no conditions to be placed on any debt-limit increase. It's also the position of media observers who liken the debt-ceiling talks to a "hostage-taking situation." As The Atlantic's Matthew O'Brien sums it up:
Remember, the Republicans aren't threatening economic calamity, because they want to rein in spending. They're threatening economic calamity, because they want to stop poor and sick Americans from getting health insurance. That is, they want to stop Obamacare. But that obviously isn't happening as long as someone named Obama is living in the White House. The Republicans had their chance to make sure someone named Obama wasn't living in the White House in 2012, and they did not succeed. Throwing a temper tantrum won't change that, even if that temper tantrum involves holding the world economy hostage.
As I noted last week, it's true—and awful—that the GOP is not talking about cutting future spending in exchange for an increase in the debt limit. Which means the Party of Lincoln's position is the same as the president's and that of Senate Democrats: They all are willing to increase borrowing as long as they get to do so however they want. Given that "credible" plans to reduce the national debt aren't on even the table, it's no surprise that markets are already getting skittish; there's every reason to believe things will end badly even or especially if there's an increase that doesn't tackle drivers of debt. Which means that in fact all players in the debt-limit situation are taking hostages. And media observers who pick sides among them are simply suffering from ideological Stockholm Syndrome when they claim only one party is taking prisoners.
It's well past time to orient the debt-ceiling debate toward the amount of government spending in the short term and the long term. Of course politicians will use whatever they can to win whatever concessions they want. But that doesn't mean the public, not to mention the media, should simply let them bullshit their way past the graveyard. Especially since it's the taxpayers who will be paying for the funeral.