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Risks To Boehner In Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship

Although John Boehner and the Republicans are coming off what is widely being scored as a victory on the argument over the 2011 budget, they risk overconfidence as Congress turns its attention to the next debate, which is the fight over raising the federal debt limit.

Perhaps the most important piece of reporting that you’ll read on the debt limit debate is this one, from The Times’ Jackie Calmes:

The Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has privately urged the conservatives not to filibuster, without success, say three people familiar with the talks. He argued that if Republicans did not filibuster and just 50 votes were needed for passage, the Republicans could try to force all the votes to come from the 51 Democrats — including 17 who are up for re-election. But if 60 votes are required because of a filibuster, ultimately some Republicans would have to vote for the increase lest the party be blamed for a debt crisis.

Mr. McConnell is discouraging his colleagues from filibustering a vote to increase the federal debt limit because he knows that, if push came to shove, some of his colleagues would almost certainly have to vote yea. He’d rather it pass in a 51-vote environment, where all of the votes could come from Democrats, than in a 60-vote environment, where at least seven Republicans would have to agree to a cloture motion. 

Although Mr. McConnell’s remarks were made privately, other prominent Republicans have said as much publicly (including Mr. Boehner, who has said that a failure to raise the debt limit would create a “financial disaster,” and the G.O.P.’s designated budget hawk, Paul Ryan, who has remarked that the debt ceiling must be raised and will be raised.)

That doesn’t sound like much of a negotiating position. How to reconcile it against comments from other Republicans, such as Eric Cantor, that the debt ceiling vote will provide Republicans with “leverage” to extract additional policy compromises from President Obama and the Democrats. The obvious answer is that Republicans are running a bluff.

If the Congress does not vote to increase the debt ceiling — a statutory provision that governs how many of its debts the Treasury is allowed to pay back (but not how many obligations the United States is allowed to incur in the first place) — then the Treasury will first undertake a series of what it terms “extraordinary actions” to buy time. The “extraordinary actions” are not actually all that extraordinary — at least some of them were undertaken prior to six of the seven debt ceiling votes between 1996 and 2007.

But once the Treasury exhausts this authority, the United States would default on its debt for the first time in its history, which could have consequences like the ones that Mr. Boehner has imagined: a severe global financial crisis (possibly larger in magnitude than the one the world began experiencing in 2007 and 2008), and a significant long-term increase in the United States’ borrowing costs, which could cost it its leadership position in the global economy. Another severe recession would probably be about the best-case scenario if that were to occur.

A second recession would almost certainly hurt Mr. Obama’s re-election chances, regardless of how articulate he were about trying to pin the blame on the Republicans. But it would also hurt virtually every other incumbent, including the Republicans (and likely also the Democrats) in the Congress.

While it’s hard to know exactly what the political consequences might be — a debt default has never happened before — some combination of the following might occur:

1. Mr. Obama would be significantly less likely to win a second term;

2. Mr. Boehner, Mr. Cantor, Mr. McConnell and other Republicans would have more difficulty retaining their leadership positions in the Congress;

3. All incumbents would have more difficulty winning re-election, both because of the magnitude of the policy disaster and because the debt default (in addition to hurting the poor) would have a large impact on wealthy individuals and corporations, who are key to fund-raising;

4. Similarly, all incumbents, including Mr. Obama, would become significantly more vulnerable to primary challenges;

5. The two major parties would be significantly discredited and might fracture, possibly leading to the rise the rise of a credible presidential candidate from a third-party, or a spin-off of one of the existing parties;

6. A Constitutional crisis might ensue, because the Treasury has contradictory obligations in the event of a debt default with few clear rules (and no precedent) to guide them;

7. The challengers that were elected in 2012 would have significant difficulty retaining their seats in 2014 and 2016 because the fiscal crisis brought on by the debt default would probably last for several years and would lead to extremely unpopular austerity measures — so any immediate-term gains by either party could prove fleeting.

In short, this as close as you can get in American politics to mutually assured destruction. No matter how Machiavellian your outlook, it’s very hard to make the case that any politician with a significant amount of power would become more powerful in the event of a debt default. They also would be harmed personally, since many Congressmen have significant investments in credit, stock or housing markets, all of which would be adversely affected.

A lot of the reporting I’ve seen on the debt limit vote, especially in those publications that focus more on politics than policy, has portrayed it as a zero-sum game. That’s the wrong characterization. In contrast to a government shutdown — which could have some negative consequences for incumbents of both parties, but not ones so large that they couldn’t be outweighed by strategic considerations — a debt default would be a bigger emergency by at least an order of magnitude. Its consequences are also much less linear and much less predicable than those of a government shutdown: you can’t partially default any more than you can be half-pregnant.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Republicans won’t be able to extract any concessions at all out of the Democrats. It’s possible that the White House — which has been risk-averse in recent months as it has focused on Mr. Obama’s re-election — might not be willing to take the chance of something going wrong. It’s possible that the White House could give the Republicans some concessions that they viewed as minor, inevitable, or actually desirable from a political and policy standpoint.

But Mr. Boehner may face just as much risk as Mr. Obama, if not more. He has promised his more conservative members that he will extract significant concessions from the Democrats before he agrees to an increase in the debt limit. A White House that was willing to play hardball could put him to the test, and perhaps cause a substantial loss of face.

I don’t know that this particular (and rather cautious) White House is likely to do that. But the equilibrium outcome is probably some fairly token concessions — enough to provide Mr. Boehner with some cover with the Tea Party but not much more.

That’s assuming, of course, that both sides play the “game” optimally, which is far from assured. If Mr. Obama is a good poker player, he’ll know not to disregard Mr. Boehner’s earlier rhetoric, which gave away the vulnerability of his hand. And he’ll recognize Mr. Boehner’s more recent and more confident rhetoric for what it is: the oldest “tell” in the poker book, a show of strength betraying the ultimate weakness of his position.

By: Nate Silver, Five Thirty Eight, April 11, 2011

April 12, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Constitution, Corporations, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Elections, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideology, Lawmakers, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, Right Wing, Tea Party, Voters, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Actually Happens If The U.S. Hits The Federal Debt Ceiling?

Are you just now recovering from the migraine induced by months of partisan feuding over the 2011 federal budget? Looking forward to a lengthy reprieve before Congress tackles next year’s budget? Sorry, but you’re in for a rude awakening. (And you might want to reach for some aspirin.) Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner warned Congress last week that the United States — currently liable for more than $14 trillion of debt — will collide with the federal debt ceiling around May 16. Once the government hits the current limit of $14.3 trillion it will be legally prohibited from incurring any additional debt; problematic since the U.S. only takes in around 60 cents for each dollar it spends.

Congress has raised the debt ceiling 74 times since 1962. Ten of those increases occurred in the past decade. It’s a routine vote. However, the political calculus has shifted in the newly anointed “age of austerity.” House Speaker John Boehner acknowledged that a failure to raise the ceiling could have calamitous implications. However, congressional Republicans appear unlikely to authorize an increase in the debt limit without significant Democratic concessions, setting up yet another high-noon scenario on Capitol Hill. 

This poses the question: What would happen if the U.S. hit the debt ceiling?

In the immediate aftermath of such an event, the Treasury Department can impose “extraordinary actions” to help pay the bills. Those measures include, “suspending investments in a savings plan for federal workers and pulling Treasury securities out of a trust fund for two federal retirement plans. In such cases, the Treasury must make the funds whole again once the ceiling is raised.” However, such stopgap measures would prove ineffective before long, and the government would have to either authorize an increase in the debt limit or cut $738 billion in federal spending in the span of six months, with severe consequences for the economy. Notwithstanding such a massive curtailing of government spending, the U.S. would default on some of its debt obligations. And the implications are frightening

For one, the government would grind to a halt — cutting off military salaries and retirement benefits, along with Social Security and Medicare payments. Worse still, default would also plunge the U.S. back into recession. Interest rates and borrowing costs would surge, while the dollar would plummet. In a worst case scenario, the markets would go into a death spiral as investors distanced themselves from the U.S.

At the very least, defaulting would call into question the true value of U.S. Treasury bonds — heretofore the gold standard of the bond market. Additionally, such an event would damage the country’s credit rating, and significantly hamper its ability to generate revenue necessary to keep government running. A default on government debt obligations could conspire to undermine the United States’ preeminent position in the global economy. Needless to say, all of this would swiftly end the recovery, as Federal Reserve head Ben Bernanke pointed out.

As for the political repercussions, Nate Silver at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog argues that the failure to raise the debt ceiling would equate to nothing less than political ruin for virtually every elected federal official.

This as close as you can get in American politics to mutually assured destruction. No matter how Machiavellian your outlook, it’s very hard to make the case that any politician with a significant amount of power would become more powerful in the event of a debt default.That in mind, it seems unlikely that the ceiling won’t be raised. It’s just a matter of when, and how, we get there.

By: Peter Finocchiaro, Salon, April 11, 2011

April 12, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Elections, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideology, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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