Deadlocked over a deal to raise the debt ceiling, Congress and the White House are flirting with a federal default. But that's not the worst of it: Because the exact date of default is uncertain, any number of unforeseen events could push our federal finances over the edge.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told Congress on Monday that the government is likely to default on its debts by mid-October unless the debt limit is raised. But mid-October could just as easily be early October. Or it could be late September. Or Treasury's extraordinary measures may, as some analysts are still predicting, stave off default until November.
Setting an exact default date is difficult, if not impossible, because the government's day-to-day finances are dictated by a wildly unpredictable cocktail of political, economic, and natural forces. Here are a few hypotheticals that could buy Congress more time — or trigger default more quickly than anyone saw coming.
Few events wreak more havoc than military interventions. Federal budgets, of course, do not escape unscathed. And now it's looking like there's a decent chance there will be some form of U.S. intervention in Syria.
Such an intervention, even if it's just a targeted missile strike, could cost billions of dollars and alter the debt-limit timeline. In July, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey told Congress that the cost of targeted strikes against Bashar al-Assad's military "would be in the billions" and that just instituting a no-fly zone over the country would cost about $1 billion a month.