JONATHAN COHN JANUARY 2, 2011
The U.S. appears to be the only country in the developed world that forbids its government from accumulating debt without authorizing legislation. And that’s led to some scary moments, including one that the economist Henry Aaron shared with me recently.
During the early years of the Kennedy Administration, Congress passed an increase in the debt ceiling at the last minute. But when JFK went to sign the bill, according to Aaron, nobody could find the document. Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon wanted to know what would happen if the government reached its debt ceiling and an administration lawyer, after some brief research, reported that “it seems, Mr. Secretary, that you are personally liable for interest on the debt.” Dillon, who was an investment banker, pressed the lawyer: How much would that be? “About $150 million a day,” the lawyer reportedly said, prompting Dillon to deadpan “I can’t last more than three days.”
It's a funny story because it had a happy ending: Kennedy’s advisors eventually found the bill. And if they hadn’t, they would have gotten together with Congress and found some other way to raise the debt ceiling. That’s because, relatively speaking, they were grown-ups who took governing seriously.
Fifty years later, can we say the same thing? Sometime in the next few months, the U.S. will reach its debt limit and Congress will, once again, have a choice: Raise the limit or let the U.S. default on its obligations. For a while now, Tea Party Republicans like Senator Mike Lee, who unseated the insufficiently conservative Robert Bennett in Utah, have been threatening to vote against the debt ceiling increase unless they win substantial reductions in government spending. Idle threats about refusing to raise the debt ceiling are nothing new, but the Tea Party crowd seems quite serious about it--in part because they've promised their base they're going to do it.
And now it looks like they have company. On Sunday's "Meet the Press," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham announced that he, too, was willing to engage in serious brinkmanship over the debt:
I will not vote for the debt ceiling increase until I see a plan in place that will deal with our long-term debt obligations, starting with Social Security, a real bipartisan effort to make sure that Social Security stays solvent, adjusting the age, looking at means tests for benefits. On the spending side, I'm not going to vote for debt ceiling increase unless we go back to 2008 spending levels, cutting discretionary spending.
As many others have noted, the demand of going back to 2008 spending levels is radical and, not coincidentally, highly unrealistic: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it’d amount to a one-fifth cut in discretionary spending--forcing cuts that could damage the fragile recovery and starve programs like Pell Grants that most Americans value.
And the alternative—failing to increase the debt ceiling? What precise effects would that have? This isn't my area of expertise, but my colleague Alex Hart knows a thing or two about it. Here's what he wrote last week:
Recent history provides a sense of just how scary this would be. “The reason the markets calmed down [during the financial crisis] is that we took [the banks’] toxic assets and handed the financial institutions Treasurys,” says Kevin Hassett, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “If we’re in a default situation, the Treasurys themselves are the toxic assets, and it’s not clear what we can hand anybody to calm them down.”
The sad thing is, Graham seems to grasp this: In the same interview, he notes that default could be catastrophic. But that's not stopping him from making his demands. And that's particularly disheartening, since he is supposed to be one of the more reasonable members of the Republican Senate caucus.
I suppose none of this should come as a surprise. Bruce Bartlett has been warning about this situation for months. But Bartlett is also a conservative who thinks and talk about governing seriously. And that makes him a pretty rare breed these days.