What Is the Debt Ceiling Debate All About?

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It's very dangerous for the new Tea Partying Congress to "play chicken" with raising the debt ceiling, said Austan Goolsbee, top economic adviser to President Obama, over the weekend. But Wednesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said it was just fine for then-Senator Obama to play the very same gave five years ago, ABC New's Jake Tapper reports. In 2006, Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling, offering a justification that now reads like something ripped from an activist's t-shirt: "Leadership means that 'the buck stops here.' Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren."

Aside from the desire to stick it to the opposing party, what is the real debate over raising the debt ceiling? What would actually happen if it's not raised?

  • Treasury Would Run Out of Money, Bruce Bartlett told Salon's Andrew Leonard. The conservative historian explains that if the debt ceiling is not actually raised, Treasury can make do for a little while with money from payroll taxes and income tax withholding. But eventually, it just wouldn't have enough cash to pay the bills, "so somebody at the Treasury is going to have to decide ... who gets paid this month and who doesn't. And, of course, there is a problem with this, because not everybody can be put be off. By law, Social Security benefits have to go out on the first of the month. But the Treasury literally would not have the cash in its account to cover those benefits, or to pay interest on the debt--at which point you have a default."
  • And Default Would Be Really, Really Bad, Bartlett continues.
Do we really want to introduce an element of doubt into the financial markets, that a security that is primarily bought because there is assumed to be risk zero risk of default is no longer safe? There is no other security on earth that has that reputation, not even German government bonds. The U.S. Treasury is the gold standard and we have benefited enormously from this fact. Every time there is some disruption in the world financial markets, people flee to quality by buying Treasuries. As a result, we have benefited by not having to pay for the consequences of our own profligacy. Foreign central banks hold trillions of dollars of Treasuries as the backing for their own securities.
  • Or Maybe Not Raising the Ceiling Wouldn't Be So Bad After All, Rep. Mick Mulvaney says on Fox Business. Mulvaney, a freshman Republican from South Carolina, says he's done some research into what would happen if the debt ceiling isn't raised. "I've asked that question, I've asked that question a lot. I've heard Goolsbee on Sunday say it'd be catastrophic, I've heard others say that. I've asked the question what does that mean? What does catastrophic mean? No one seems to have the answer to that. I did some research last night from CSR [the Congressional Research Service], they don't even know what that means. I think they're guessing."
  • Actually, CSR Has a Pretty Good Idea of What Would Happen, Think Progress's Zaid Jilani notes. Responding to Mulvaney, Jilani pulled up a 2008 CRS report about the consequences of such an action. It reads, "Although not all the possible consequences of a government default are known, it would mean that the government could no longer meet all of its legal obligations. Not only the default, but the efforts to resolve it would arguably have negative repercussions on both domestic and international financial markets and economies."
  • No, the U.S. Defaults All the Time, Rep. Ron Paul counters on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. "There's always a default, [Goolsbee is] just talking about a different type of default. Every year we default because we just print the money and then we pay our bills with cheap money ... Not raising the debt limit is admitting that we are in default and cheating people all the time. So it is very, very important that we do this and this would stop and make us think."
  • Use the Controversy to Get Deficit Cuts, The National Review's Conrad Black urges. "Instead of threatening not to lift the debt ceiling, the Republicans in Congress should lift it with notice that it will not be lifted again and attach suggestions for deficit reduction, which will take automatic effect if the ceiling is pressed again."

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