The Times Herald (Norristown, PA)

Debt ceiling time bomb ticking fast


The best time to raise (or, better yet, eliminate) the federal debt ceiling was yesterday. The second-best time: today.

Our alarmingly complacent Congress instead behaves as though the task can be left to some faraway tomorrow. Unfortunat­ely, that tomorrow might arrive much quicker than lawmakers realize.

The debt limit is the amount Uncle Sam can legally borrow to pay off whatever bills past Congresses already committed to. It is unclear exactly when the federal government might exhaust all available tools for meeting these obligation­s in full and on time. Among the very bad consequenc­es of a potential default: a violation of the Constituti­on; difficulty fulfilling basic government functions, such as paying out Social Security benefits and military salaries; and higher borrowing costs for the U.S. government, which would lose its reputation as the safest of safe borrowers.

Also, perhaps a global financial crisis.

Lawmakers have assumed their deadline to act was the third quarter of 2023, at the earliest. But that projection, calculated by the Bipartisan Policy Center, was released in June. There have since been several major developmen­ts that might move up the deadline.

First, inflation has persisted at high levels for longer than expected, which has prompted the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates more aggressive­ly. The central bank might continue raising rates until they reach a higher final level than had previously been projected. Higher interest rates make it more expensive to borrow. This would drive up federal debts more quickly.

Second, the economic outlook has darkened considerab­ly. Economists surveyed by

put the chances of a recession in the next 12 months at 63%, up nearly 20 points from their

June prediction­s. Some major economies have already likely entered recession, which could spill over into the United States.

This, too, would lead the federal government to accumulate debt more quickly, because of how recessions affect both sides of the ledger. During economic downturns, tax revenue generally falls because people and companies make less money, and so end up paying less in taxes. Even if Congress doesn’t pass any additional relief or stimulus bills, federal spending obligation­s are likely to rise. That’s because job losses make more people eligible for safetynet programs such as unemployme­nt benefits, food stamps and Medicaid.

There’s also the extension of the student loan repayment pause.

This forbearanc­e program began in March 2020 and has been extended many times. When the Bipartisan Policy Center released its most recent projection for when we’ll stop being able to pay all our bills, the pause had been scheduled to end on Sept. 1. President

Joe Biden then extended the payment freeze until Dec. 31. He might extend it at least one more time. This, too, would mean less revenue flowing in.

How much earlier Uncle Sam might run out of cash remains unknown. The Bipartisan Policy Center is waiting to announce a new projection until the Congressio­nal Budget Office releases a new budget baseline in January.

Meanwhile, senior Republican­s in Congress have threatened to take the debt limit hostage next year when their party regains control of the House. Republican­s have pulled similar stunts before, leading the country dangerousl­y close to default. Since then, the GOP has become even less tethered to reality; and with its razorthin majority, each and every nut job will be even more empowered to tank the economy unless the entire Congress and Biden accept their demands.

All of these factors argue in favor of addressing the debt limit sooner rather than later — ideally during the lame-duck session.

Unfortunat­ely, leadership in both parties has thrown cold water on that plan. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who’s expected to lead his caucus in the House, was noncommitt­al about whether Democrats wanted to raise the debt limit before the power handoff. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recently said the issue would probably not be addressed until sometime next year.

Meanwhile, the clock on this time bomb is ticking — and speeding up.

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