National Debt Cracks $12T Limit, Rattling Pundits

While the artificial limit is on its way to being raised, topping the debt ceiling is an ominous sign

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The U.S. national debt on Wednesday surpassed the $12.104 trillion limit imposed by Congress, hitting $12.135 trillion, according to CBS News. Without some "extraordinary accounting tools," as Mark Knoller reports, crossing this threshold would forbid the government from further borrowing. The debt ceiling is artificial, however, and Congress is acting quickly to raise it so that the government retains access to funds. But it's an embarrassing reminder of the gargantuan national debt that's accrued in the past ten years, especially during the financial crisis and ensuing efforts to end it. The level of panic varies pretty widely, but no one thinks this is good news.

  • Short-Term Solutions  CBS News's Mark Knoller reports, "A senior Treasury official told CBS News that the department has some 'extraordinary accounting tools' it can use to give the government breathing room in the range of $150-billion when the Debt exceeds the Debt Ceiling." He writes, "The Debt Limit has been raised about a hundred times since 1940, when it was $49 billion - about five days worth of federal spending now. The White House projects a record $1.5 trillion dollars deficit this year alone, and a 5-year deficit total of $4.97 trillion." Conservative legal blogger Jonathan Adler adds, "[T]his doesn’t mean the government is about to shut down or stop spending money — at least not yet. [...] Congress is expected to increase the debt limit by $290 billion, if not more, in coming weeks."
  • Wrong, Wrong, Wrong  EconoBlogger Jonathan Adler calls this the "STUPIDEST THING I HAVE READ TODAY." He knocks Knoller's assertion that the national debt hit $12.135 trillion, "No it has not: as the Treasury says, the National Debt is a different debt concept than the debt subject to the Congressionally-mandated limit: the difference is made up of 'unamortized discount[s] on Treasury bills and zero coupon Treasury bonds, miscellaneous debt (very old debt), debt held by the Federal Financing Bank[,] and guaranteed debt.'"
  • 'The Coming Debt Panic'  The Washington Post warns, "It's time to stop worrying about the deficit -- and start panicking about the debt. To put it another way, short-term deficits aren't the real problem. The punishing hangover of borrowed money is. The ballooning national debt once looked like a long-term problem. Now, the long-term has become the middle-term, fast-forwarded by the cratering economy and the unavoidable and immense spending in the service of saving it." They write. "Failing to do so will lower the national standard of living and ultimately threaten America's economic stability."
  • Opportunity For GOP To Kill Spending  24/7 Wall Street's Douglas A. McIntyre advises, "The only chance that Republican House members and other Congressmen have to cap the rise of new spending bills is to put a ceiling on the national debt. There are simply too many expensive programs such as health care coming through the legislature which have too much support to attack the federal debt issue one bill at a time," he writes. "If there is one action that could derail the Administration’s spending plans on health care, economic stimulus, and unemployment assistance, it is an ad hoc decision by Congressmen who have little in common with one another beyond a concern that the national debt will cause higher taxes or unsupportable debt service. A vote to hold the debt ceiling where it is would force the federal government to comb through programs and take out what would have to be explained as 'non essential' spending."
  • 'Debt-Driven Panic'  The Washington Post's David Broder worries, "In addition to robbing the country of the flexibility to deal with future crises, the rapidly rising debt level could push up interest rates, threaten the economic recovery, slow the growth of wages, depress living standards, make the United States even more dependent on foreign lenders and leave us vulnerable to a shock wave if those lenders lose confidence in our ability to repay the loans."
  • Debt Limit Vote Reveals Dem Vulnerability  Congressional Quarterly's Greg Giroux explains, "What was striking about the vote breakdown was that the overwhelming majority of Democrats who voted no -- 32 of 39 -- are first or second-term members who represent districts that they wrested from Republican control. The GOP will be contesting many of these districts in what they expect will be a more Republican-friendly 2010 election midway through President Obama's term."
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