A Standoff Is Coming in Summer 2023 — and It’s Over the National Debt

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A Standoff Is Coming in Summer 2023 — and It’s Over the National Debt
Credit: © Reuters.

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden is headed toward a standoff over the national debt next year, when Republicans newly in control of the US House threaten to demand concessions for raising the government’s legal borrowing limit.

Democratic leaders in Congress say they’ve run out of time to force through an increased debt ceiling this year, with most Republicans opposed. Two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — insist that any vote should be bipartisan.

That will push the fight off until 2023, when Republicans will assume the majority in the House. From that perch, they’ve promised to win Biden’s signature on some of their priorities in exchange for a vote to increase the borrowing limit before a default on US payments as soon as July.

Their demands could include large spending cuts — including to Social Security and Medicare, the retirement and health programs for the elderly and disabled — or policies such as stricter immigration controls. Biden has vowed that he won’t yield. The result may well be a crisis.

The last time Republicans and the president engaged in such political brinkmanship, in 2011, the prospect of a default on the nation’s debt caused huge volatility in the stock market. Standard & Poor’s for the first time ever downgraded the US credit rating. Consumer confidence plummeted.

“The situation is far more perilous than it was 10 years ago. The Republicans’ conference is so much further to the right,” said Tom Kahn, a former Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee who is now a distinguished faculty fellow at American University.

Some conservative Republicans insist a default would simply force government spending cuts without widespread economic repercussions. Financial markets dismissed the S&P downgrade in 2011, pushing the yield on the 10-year Treasury note to a record low just seven weeks later.

But many economists say a default would be catastrophic, especially with a recession already looming for the US economy. 

The 2011 crisis was resolved after then-President Barack Obama agreed to more than $2 trillion in spending cuts over a decade. Republicans are trying to force Biden into a similar negotiation again next year, with their House majority buttressed by Democrats’ narrow margin in the Senate.

“The debt ceiling is a real opportunity to figure out how to live within our means,” Florida Senator Rick Scott, a member of GOP leadership, said Tuesday. 

Democrats will hold a 51-49 majority after Senator Raphael Warnock’s re-election on Tuesday. Because of the Senate’s filibuster rules, 60 votes are required to advance most controversial measures.

The government right now is roughly $98 billion away from reaching the $31.4 trillion statutory limit, although analysts doubt the government is actually at risk of defaulting until the second half of 2023 because of the extraordinary measures it usually uses to avoid exceeding the cap.

Treasury has been cutting the size of its bill auctions as of late, an indication that the department will be running significantly lower cash balances than it forecast in its quarterly financing estimates. Wrightson ICAP (LON: NXGN ) estimates Treasury’s cash balance level will be around $500 billion by the end of the year.

Privately, the administration anticipates the government will run out of methods to avert a default on some payments in the third quarter of 2023. The Treasury Department has declined to provide a more specific estimate.

Analysts from Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) predict government accounts could run dry as early as July. 

Joshua Frost, Treasury’s assistant secretary for financial markets, said in a Dec. 1 speech that even without a default, a fight over the debt limit can cause real economic damage, citing research on the 2011 confrontation. 

“We witnessed a decline in household and business confidence, a fall in household wealth as equity prices fell amid a spike in market volatility and wider credit and mortgage spreads,” Frost said. “Each of these shocks contributed to a slowdown in economic activity.”

Read more: What’s the Debt Ceiling, and Will the US Raise It?: QuickTake

Senate Republicans want to leverage the next debt limit increase to force cuts in projected federal spending and changes to Social Security and other entitlement programs, John Thune, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican told a panel of Bloomberg editors and reporters last week in Washington. 

Thune said that should include weighing an increase in Social Security’s full retirement age, currently 67 for people born in 1960 or later. But he didn’t rule out a deal that might simply start the process of making key changes, pointing to a proposal by GOP Senator Mitt Romney, Manchin and Sinema to create special “rescue committees” to recommend ways to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent. 

The resulting proposals would get fast-tracked votes in Congress, similar to a failed deficit commission created during the Obama administration.

Scott, who has championed cuts to entitlement programs, said balancing the federal budget should be the goal of debt limit talks. 

“The only way that you are ever are going to fix this is you have to dramatically grow our economy,” he said. “As your revenue grows, you can fix things.”

In the House, some conservative Republicans may hinge their support for Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid to be speaker on assurances that he’ll insist on their demands as part of a debt-limit deal.

The White House and congressional Democrats have sought to portray the Republican maneuvering as dangerous, casting the GOP as trying to hold the economy hostage over policies that would harm the most vulnerable Americans, including the elderly.

“The notion that extreme MAGA Republicans have threatened to default on our nation’s debt for the first time in American history in order to blow up Social Security and Medicare is stunning,” said Hakeem Jeffries, who is poised to become House Democratic leader in January, referring to former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. 

“It’s my hope that we can find a way out of the brinkmanship,” he added.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre pointed out that Republicans in Congress supported raising the borrowing limit three times under Trump, who presided over a $7.8 trillion increase in the national debt.

“The sooner they act, the better for our economy and our country,” she said.

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