The White House and Republican congressional leaders insist the debt ceiling will be raised well before the United States has to default, which would cause massive economic disruption. But a resolution seems less than assured. In the last few days, Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty have joined a growing conservative chorus loudly denouncing a deal, and antagonism among the various parties appears to be growing, not diminishing. Still, nobody in Washington or on Wall Street seems very alarmed. The Treasury says it can hold out until August 2. But a look at the current politics and the recent history of debt-ceiling showdowns suggests that alarm might soon become warranted.
There are two reasons why. The first has to do with how difficult it will be to settle on something that can get through Congress in time to stave off any damage. This struggle has been largely misportrayed and crudely simplified as a tug-of-war between Republicans set on spending cuts and Democrats who want tax increases to accompany them. It's actually a three-way struggle, because Republicans themselves don't agree on their ransom demands to permit a larger debt.
House Republicans want to cut $2 trillion without raising any taxes or closing any loopholes. They're focused strictly on spending. But Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, wants any deal to include Medicare reform. He's focused on politics. McConnell worries that the House Republican budget passed in April, which takes the deeply unpopular step of privatizing Medicare, presents a mortal threat to Republican candidates in next fall's elections. A debt-limit deal on Medicare that drew the support of President Obama and Democrats would inoculate the GOP against this danger. The trouble is, House Republicans don't share McConnell's concern, so an agreement among Republicans seems nearly as remote as one between Republicans and Democrats.
That gets to the second reason for alarm: The United States need not default on its debt in order to incur costly and potentially lasting damage. A February report by the Government Accountability Office examining the recent history of "debt-ceiling events'' -- none nearly so serious as the current one -- showed that government borrowing costs began to rise well in advance of default. Call it a taxpayer premium for congressional squabbling: the disruption of Treasury auctions and the threatened loss of liquidity among Treasury notes and bills caused billions in additional borrowing costs in the form of higher interest rates.
One reason why the debt showdown isn't causing more alarm is that interest rates have been falling. But that's due mostly to declining economic forecasts in the United States and fear of a Greek default -- currently more powerful influences, but also ones that would mask worries about a U.S. default. At some point, perhaps as soon as in a few weeks, the fight in Congress could eclipse those factors and drive interest rates higher. That's been the historical pattern, and it is already causing worry about what might trigger such a rise.
"The nervousness on our end is that the markets will misperceive what's going on," an aide to a conservative House Republican told me. "If something fails on the House floor, people might react as if all life is about to end -- just like they did when the TARP vote failed." That could cost taxpayers dearly, even if a default is ultimately avoided. One reason why U.S. borrowing costs are so low is the universal belief that the government will always make good on its debts in a timely manner. But if that faith is shaken -- and a good scare could do the trick -- investors might decide that government debt is a riskier investment than they had imagined and demand a better return. That will hurt. The Office of Management and Budget determined that a mere 1 percent rise in interest rates would cost taxpayers $973 billion over the next decade [pdf, pg. 23].
So a fight purportedly about cutting the deficit could actually cause it to grow much larger. That's worth worrying about now -- especially as Republicans threaten a default and claim there's no cause for alarm.