debt ceiling

The Real Dysfunction: A $17 Trillion National Debt

Gentlemen may cry default, default, but there will be no default. (With apologies to Patrick Henry.)

Once again the media are full of talk about dysfunction and default, as the partial government shutdown threatens to linger until the federal government hits the limit of its borrowing capacity, possibly on Oct. 17. The parties in Congress are still far apart on passing a budget bill to keep the government running, and Republicans are also promising not to raise the debt ceiling without some spending reforms.

If in fact Congress doesn’t raise the ceiling by mid-October—or by November 1 or so, when the real crunch might come—then the federal government would be forbidden to borrow any more money beyond the legal limit of $16.699 trillion. But it would still have enough money to pay its creditors as bonds come due. The government will take in something like $225 billion in October, but it wants to spend about $108 billion more than that. You see the problem. If it can’t borrow that $108 billion—to cover its bills for one month—then it will have to delay some checks. 

Now the U.S. Treasury isn’t full of stupid people. Back in 2011, when the debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion was about to be reached, the Washington Post reported:

The Treasury has already decided to save enough cash to cover $29 billion in interest to bondholders, a bill that comes due Aug. 15, according to people familiar with the matter.

You can bet they’re making similar plans today.

Back in that summer of discontent I talked to a journalist who was very concerned about the “dysfunction” in Washington. So am I. But I told her then what’s still true today: that the real problem is not the dysfunctional process that’s getting all the headlines, but the dysfunctional substance of governance. Congress and the president will work out the debt ceiling issue, if not by October 17 then a few days later. The real dysfunction is a federal budget that doubled in 10 years, unprecedented deficits as far as the eye can see, and a national debt bursting through its statutory limit of $16.699 trillion and heading toward 100 percent of GDP.

And Next Year There Will Be an Eighth Budget “Showdown”

The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold counts six budget “showdowns” in Washington over the past two and half year. The looming battle this fall over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling will be number seven. That led Fahrenthold to examine what the six showdowns have accomplished with regard to the size of government. 

In sum: we had big government two and half years ago and today we have…big government.  

Some left-leaning pundits are in a tizzy that the Washington Post would dare run an article that doesn’t speak of “draconian” spending cuts to “popular programs.” Instead, Fahrenthold looked at four measures and concluded that little has changed: federal spending is slightly down, the number of federal employees is slightly down, the number of regulations is up, and the federal government still has a lot of real estate. 

Fahrenthold’s sin (one of them) is that in pointing out that spending has gone flat after the bipartisan spending explosion of the 2000s he didn’t recognize the alleged virtues of increasing government spending to “stimulate” the economy. I’m guessing Fahrenthold didn’t get the memo that a journalist writing for a mainstream news outlet is supposed to supply a quote from some macroeconomic forecasting Nostradamus like Mark Zandi.    

I do wish, however, that Fahrenthold would have explicitly differentiated between the size and scope of government. When it comes to the scope of government activitybasically, what all Uncle Sam doesI don’t know how anyone could argue that it has receded in the past two and a half years. Or the past ten years. Or, well, you get the point. 

The Fiscal Cliff and Congress’s Dysfunction

The words “default” and “dysfunction” are again showing up on the front pages as the debt ceiling suddenly looms along with the Taxmageddon deadline. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s letter to Congress, raising the specter of “default” and “extraordinary measures,” set off much of the new hand-wringing. Journalists and pundits lecture Congress about its “dysfunctional” failure to raise taxes and promise to cut spending.

But as I told a journalist who was very concerned about dysfunction the last time the debt ceiling began to bite, the real problem is not the dysfunctional process that’s getting all the headlines, but the dysfunctional substance of governance. The real dysfunction is a federal budget that has doubled in 10 years, an annual deficit of some $1.5 trillion, and a national debt bursting through its statutory limit of $14.3 trillion and approaching 70 percent of GDP.

We’ve become so used to these unfathomable levels of deficits and debt—and to the once-rare concept of trillions of dollars—that we forget how new all this debt is. In 1981, after 190 years of federal spending, the national debt was “only” $1 trillion. Now, just 30 years later, it’s more than $16 trillion – and all that debt rung up during a period without a major war or Great Depression. Here’s a graphic representation of dysfunction (through mid-2011; now you can visualize the blue line bursting through the $16 trillion level at the top of the chart):

National debt

Those are the kinds of numbers that caused the rise of the Tea Party and the election of members of Congress who vowed to stop out-of-control spending and debt. It’s too bad that Congress hasn’t been able to rein in spending without the pressure of a debt ceiling or a “fiscal cliff.” But it hasn’t. And so if fiscal conservatives in Congress can use those deadlines to put some caps on the money-shoveling, more power to them. 

Federal Budget Cap at 3%

The federal government is approaching its legal borrowing limit, and fiscal conservatives in Congress are wondering what spending reforms they can extract in return for supporting a debt-limit increase. Various sorts of balanced budget amendments and debt limits relative to GDP are being kicked around. I support those ideas, but I fear that they may be too complicated to gain traction right now.

“A Closed ‘Super Congress’? Oh, I Don’t Think So.”

That was my inner conversation when I heard that the “Super Congress”* (or “Super Committee”) created by the debt ceiling deal might operate behind closed doors.

Congress is free to create any committee it wants, of course. Congress determines the rules of its proceedings. But ordinary committees and subcommittees are too opaque. A “Super Committee” should lead—not lag—in transparent operations.

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