By now we have reached our debt limit of $14.294 trillion here in the United States. As you read this, the U.S. Treasury is already shuffling bits of electronic paper around to stay current on our nation's debt payments. By Aug. 2 even this desperate farce will have come to an end.
The Obama administration's deadline is even earlier. By July 22, there must be a deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling or else there will not be enough time to ratify an agreement before the beginning of August, when Congress begins its recess. The situation is serious enough for both parties to forgo their July vacations and work for a compromise this week in steamy Washington, D.C.
A new development has the president challenging the Republicans to work out a longer-term compromise solution to the deficit right here and right now. It remains to be seen whether the GOP will accept the challenge.
The nation's debt ceiling was first established back in 1917 at a hilariously low $11.5 billion. Since 1962, it has been raised 74 times, without a problem on either side of the aisle. So why has the debt ceiling suddenly become such a contentious issue?
Politics is the short answer. The Republican Party, which passed an increase in the debt ceiling eight times during the Bush presidency, claims to have suddenly found religion when it comes to the nation's debt. And if you believe that one, you deserve to be fleeced by the shills in Washington.
The GOP is demanding $4.4 trillion be cut from the deficit over the next 10 years. They are using the ceiling to affect changes in Medicare and Medicaid spending that would probably not see the light of day in any other circumstances. The Obama administration countered with a plan that would cut $4 trillion over the same time period without changing any of the major entitlements programs. One would think that a compromise could be worked out, but as time goes by it seems as if neither side really wants a solution. As the 11th-hour approaches, opposing politicians are milking the drama for very hour of prime time they can capture.
By now just about everyone realizes there will be major fallout from failing to pass a new debt ceiling. The most obvious and immediate outcomes would be that the U.S. would technically default on its loans, our interest rates would spike, and the stock market plummet. Even if our "leaders" had a change of heart and approved a new ceiling a day later, the damage would have been done.
It would be similar if you or your household declared bankruptcy. Although you might be able to work your way back to financial health quickly, the bankruptcy would be part of your credit history for years into the future and with it would come certain costs.
Everyone from the head of the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury to every elder statesmen of the economy has warned of the folly of allowing the country to default. And yet a recent Gallup poll indicates that 47 percent of Americans are opposed to raising the debt ceiling while 34 percent say they don't know enough to make a decision. I suspect that most Americans mistakenly believe that raising the debt limit will automatically mean an increase in federal spending. That's not true.
Increasing spending would require authorization by Congress. In today's anti-spending environment that kind of legislation would have few backers. But failing to increase the debt limit will immediately make the debt we owe climb higher. It would force the government to suspend interest payments on the debt we already owe. Those interest payments would continue to accrue into the foreseeable future. The same would happen to you if you failed to make your minimum payment on your credit card. So your overall debt continues to rise, and quickly.
At the same time, as a result of our default, investors worldwide would demand higher and higher rates of interest to lend to a country that had already failed to pay its existing debtors on time. The fact that we might change gears later would not mitigate the actions we failed to take when they were required. The damage has been done and we would pay for it in the form of higher rates for years into the future.
I have long since lost faith in politicians. Their actions indicate that time after time they have put their own interest above the common good. So, yes, this debate makes me nervous. I don't want to see Washington once again play with our livelihoods. A U.S. default will severely impact our car loans, mortgage rates, student loans, credit cards and a whole host of personal debt liabilities. If push comes to shove, it may come down to fighting fire with fire.
The Fourteenth Amendment states:
"The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for the payments of pension and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion shall not be questioned."
If the GOP is dead set on using the threat of a U.S. bankruptcy to wheedle spending cuts (but not tax increases) from the administration, than, in my opinion, using the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling without legislation is a proper and responsible alternative. God knows, I am all for spending cuts and have been for decades, but this in not the time nor the arena to force change.
Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at (toll free) or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.
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