Angry at the size of the government debt, House Republicans have passed a bill that ties spending cuts to any lifting of the US’s debt limit. A tense fight is escalating, with Democrats refusing to budge and hard-line Republicans digging in. Without a solution, economists and others warn, the US could be plunged into an “economic catastrophe”.
You can be forgiven a sense of déja vu. This has all happened before. Only this time, it could be worse.
The federal government has a legal maximum on how much debt it can accumulate –often called the debt ceiling or the debt limit. Congress has to vote to raise that limit and has done 78 times since 1960 – often without fuss. But in recent years, the debt negotiations have become Washington’s most heated – and potentially dangerous – debate.
This year’s fight looks like the most high-risk one since 2011, when Republicans used the debt limit debate as a bargaining chip for spending cuts. It was a fight to the bitter end. One former congressman told the New York Times that the battle drew “parallels and distinctions with other tumultuous times such as the civil war”.
With stock markets reeling and 72 hours left before the US would have defaulted on its debts, a disaster that threatened to wreak havoc on the economy, Republicans and Democrats finally agreed on a bill that raised the debt ceiling by $900bn and cut spending by nearly the same amount.
For Republicans, particularly the new rightwing Tea Party members who refused to budge even as default loomed, it was a political win.
Politics are once again deeply embedded in this year’s debt ceiling debate and many see a mirroring of the debt ceiling crisis of 2011.
The House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, is caught between his party’s moderate and far-right factions. Though McCarthy rallied his party behind a House bill, Democrats are so far refusing to negotiate.
The US treasury is already running on fumes. In January, the treasury started using “extraordinary measures” to avoid defaulting on US debts while the debate over raising the limit started. Some estimate that the US government’s default date – the so-called “X date” when the government officially runs out of funds to pay its bills — will arrive in late July, giving the GOP and Democrats less than three months to find a solution.
The US has never defaulted on its debt. Failure to find a solution would send stock markets reeling, recipients of federal benefits might not get their monthly checks, parts of government would grind to a halt and “long-term damage” would be inflicted on the US economy, according to the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome Powell.
Fights over the US debt ceiling are common and usually resolved after a session of bloviating. Wall Street has so far ignored this scrap, betting on a repeat. But, as in 2011, all that could change as the X date approaches. This time the Tea Party Republicans have been replaced by even more hardline politicians – the Freedom Caucus – who begrudgingly signed on to McCarthy’s plan but have sworn to hold out for cost cuts no matter the price.
“What will damage the economy is what we’ve seen the last two years: record spending, record inflation, record debt. We already know that’s damaging the economy,” Representative Jim Jordan, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, told Reuters.
David Kamin, a New York University law professor who served as an economic adviser to the Obama and Biden administrations, including during the 2011 crisis, said: “Congress has negotiated [the debt ceiling] over the many decades that it’s been in its current form. But what is different about this episode, and the episode in 2011, is the very credible threat from the Republican side to not raise the debt limit, to demand a large set of policy in exchange for a vote.” He added: “That then sets up a dangerous negotiation where what’s at stake is severe repercussions for the economy.”
A default would be catastrophic for the US and global economy, creating instability in financial markets and interrupting government services. But, as the 2011 crisis showed, even getting close to default comes with a price. Markets plummeted and the ratings agency S&P downgraded the US’s credit rating for the first time in history, making it more expensive for the country to borrow money. The cost to borrow went up $1.3bn the next year and continued to be more expensive years later, essentially offsetting some of the negotiation’s cost-cutting measures.
To some economists, that was just the short-term impact. The spending cuts ushered in years of budget tightening whose impacts were felt for years.
“We were still in a pretty depressed economy and in recovery from the great recession when those cuts were instituted. They just made the recovery last far longer than it should have,” said Josh Bivens, chief economist for the Economic Policy Institute, a leftwing thinktank. “Over the next six or seven years, really valuable public goods and services were not delivered because they were cut so sharply.”
Government spending tends to rise after recessions but per-capita federal spending fell after the debt crisis. Bivens argues that if government spending had continued at its normal levels, the unemployment rate would have returned to its pre-recession level five or six years before 2017, when the job market finally recovered its losses.
This time around the Republican bill, called the “Limit, Save and Grow Act”, would increase the debt ceiling by $1.5tn in exchange for $1.47tn in cuts during the next fiscal year and a 1% spending increase cap thereafter. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would cut federal spending by $4.8tn over the next 10 years.
The bill would mean cuts to things like defense, education and social services over time, though Republicans have outlined few specific cuts in the bill. House Republicans are proposing scrapping Joe Biden’s student relief program, making more stringent work requirements for government benefits, namely Medicaid, and rolling back several Inflation Reduction Act investments, particularly clean energy tax credits.
The IRS would lose $71bn in funding under the new bill, a move that would lead to more lenient tax collection and ultimately cost the federal government $120bn over the next decade. Republicans have been targeting the IRS for budget cuts for over a decade, weakening the agency’s tax enforcement over corporations and the wealthy and allowing $18bn in lost government revenue, ProPublica estimated in 2018.
While Republicans are using old tricks from 2011, Democrats appear to have learned some lessons from the Obama-era spat. After 2011, the Obama administration refused to negotiate over the debt ceiling. Biden and other Democratic leaders have continued the practice: the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, called the Republican bill “dead on arrival” when it got to the Senate.
“President Biden will never force middle class and working families to bear the burden of tax cuts for the wealthiest, as this bill does,” the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said in a statement Wednesday. “Congressional Republicans must act immediately and without conditions to avoid default and ensure that the full faith and credit of the United States is not put at risk.”
The question now is: what are the political costs for the Democrats and Republicans? As the crisis deepens, how long will they hold and who will fold?
Despite Republicans preaching fiscal discipline, US debt actually rose by $7.8tn under the Trump administration. Spending cuts would also likely target GOP-friendly expenditures. The party has already had to make a tough compromise over ethanol tax credits, which were ultimately left untouched at the behest of “Corn Belt” Republican lawmakers. And McCarthy still lost four Republican votes, the most he can afford to lose with the Republicans’ slim House majority. He has little room to compromise even if he can get Biden to negotiate.
Matt Gaetz, a Republican representative from Florida and another Freedom Caucus member, voted against McCarthy’s bill and said in a statement that it would “increase America’s debt by $16tn over the next ten years”.
“Gaslighting nearly $50tn in debt to America is something my conscious [sic] cannot abide at this time,” Gaetz said.
Kamin pointed out that Republicans only focus on the debt ceiling as a leverage point when there is a Democratic president – the debt ceiling was raised three times during Trump’s presidency – showing that their objective is less about actually reducing the deficit than it is about playing politics.
“The Republican party – at least elements of the Republican party – have organized themselves using this as a litmus test for adherence to their beliefs and are really focused on it as a central element of their agenda,” Kamin said. But the fight is “not fundamentally about deficits and debt”, he said. It is a fight about politics.
As in 2011, the two sides are locked in a game of chicken and waiting for the opposition to cave. If neither side blinks, the impact on the economy will be felt for years to come.
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