Congratulations, America: Austerity, Not Default, Is the Only Threat Now

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The debt ceiling showdown is essentially over. But another manufactured crisis is stalking the recovery.

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(Reuters)

We are not deadbeats! We are not deadbeats! We are not, well, you get the point.

With the Treasury fast running out of "extraordinary measures" to keep the government from hitting the debt ceiling, and consequently defaulting on its obligations (and maybe the debt too), House Republicans voted to "suspend" the debt ceiling until May 19 -- which, as the Bipartisan Policy Center points out, means raising the debt ceiling until at least August. That's right: a three-month suspension is actually a six-month increase. Remember, there are really two limits when it comes to the debt limit. The first is when the Treasury "hits" the debt ceiling, and the second is when the Treasury really hits the debt ceiling. In other words, the former is when the Treasury has to resort to accounting shenanigans, those "extraordinary measures," to avoid the debt limit, and the latter is when those accounting shenanigans are no longer enough. The Republican plan suspends the debt ceiling until May 19, at which point 1) it will be raised by as much as the government borrows between then and now (probably $450 billion), and 2) the clock will re-set on the Treasury's extraordinary measures. Default day won't come until early August.

Not that default day will ever come. House Republicans don't actually want to play Russian roulette with Treasury bonds, and will raise -- or, if they prefer, "suspend" -- the debt ceiling again when the time comes. And that won't be long in coming. The sequester kicks in on March 1, and the continuing resolution that funds the government runs out on March 27, setting up Fiscal Cliff 2: This Time's It's Budget-y, with some kind of longer-term debt ceiling hike almost certainly figuring into the final deal. If history is any guide, Republicans will demand some smaller cuts in return for not shutting the government down, and try to turn the sequester into more palatable, for them, spending cuts. 

For those of you who have trouble keeping all of our manufactured crises straight, the sequester is the $1.2 trillion of purposely painful cuts over the next decade, which was supposed to encourage the super-committee -- remember that one? -- to reach some kind of alternative, long-term debt deal. It didn't, and now Congress is left with a giant pile of automatic spending cuts it doesn't want. As you can see in the chart below from the Bipartisan Policy Center, it would cut almost half a trillion from defense, more than a quarter trillion from discretionary spending (which is already at 40-year lows), and $92 billion from Medicare.

SequesterBreakdown2.png

As Jonathan Chait of New York points out, John Boehner has tried to claim the leverage in the upcoming sequester battle by saying he and his caucus really don't mind if it goes into effect. Maybe ... although it strains credulity that a party that has criticized Chuck Hagel for his willingness to cut defense spending doesn't care about cutting defense spending. The operative questions in this game of fiscal chicken are whether President Obama and House Republicans can find mutually agreeable cuts to replace the sequester cuts, and whether they will postpone whatever cuts come out of this latest (though certainly not last) cliff. The first matters more when it comes to protecting the recovery, while the second gets at the deep philosophical divide between the two parties. The risk, of course, is that wrangling over the latter prevents a deal on the former, and that the sequester subsequently starts on schedule, rather than at a later, more opportune, date.

With the default caucus within the Republican party fading into irrelevance, the specter of missing an interest payment on Treasury bonds has thankfully receded. Now we just have to worry about too much austerity too soon.

Hooray, we're not a banana republic. But we still might become Europe.


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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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