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Caroline Baum: Obama's default drama is no way to run a government

January 14. 2013 6:23PM

The United States of America isn't going to default on its debt, even if Congress doesn't increase the statutory borrowing authority in the next couple of months. Everyone in Washington knows, or should know, this. Any assertions to the contrary are tantamount to - perish the thought! - playing politics with the debt ceiling.

This is the second time in less than two years that the nation finds itself at this juncture, with Republicans in Congress threatening to hold the debt ceiling hostage. Some lawmakers are willing to shut down the government in order to pressure President Barack Obama to agree to spending cuts.

A shutdown is certainly possible. A debt default? Not gonna happen.

Why? Because the income taxes withheld from most of our paychecks each month exceed the interest the Treasury owes on its debt outstanding. In November, for example, the Treasury's interest expense totaled $25 billion. That compares with tax receipts of $161.7 billion. The ratio of receipts to interest expense varies from month to month, but what comes in more than covers what goes out in debt service.

Without an increase in the $16.394 trillion debt limit, the federal government can't pay all of its bills: It borrows 40 cents of every dollar it spends. Still, "debt service would come first," said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson Icap in Jersey City, N.J.

Wait. The Treasury claims it has no authority to prioritize payments, to pay bondholders first.

That's what it says, yes. Others beg to differ. In response to a congressional inquiry on the issue in 1985, the Government Accountability Office concluded the following: "We are aware of no statute or any other basis for concluding that Treasury is required to pay outstanding obligations in the order in which they are presented for payment unless it chooses to do so."

The GAO is equally unaware of any new law that would alter its opinion in any way. So repeat after me: The U.S. isn't going to fail to make timely payment of principal and interest on its sovereign debt. If it can't issue new debt, it can roll over maturing debt. Borrowers may very well demand a higher rate of interest, especially if Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner raise the specter of default, as they did in 2011.

Issuing such a threat is irresponsible and even counterproductive if it prompts bondholders to dump Treasuries. That's what happened initially during the debt-ceiling negotiations in July and August of 2011, costing the U.S. Treasury an additional $1.3 billion in interest expense, according to the GAO.

Once Standard & Poor's put the U.S.'s AAA rating on credit watch on July 14, stocks went into the tank and Treasuries ignored the downgrade threat, which became a reality on Aug. 5.

"The bond market has its own credit-rating system," Crandall said.

I am not suggesting that a failure to raise the debt ceiling wouldn't be disruptive or cause undue hardship to those who rely on government checks. Social Security payments might not get processed. Medicare and Medicaid providers wouldn't get paid. Neither would those serving in the military.

The sad part is that the debt ceiling has nothing to do with the debt problem. It merely allows Treasury to borrow what Congress has already spent. It does not authorize new spending commitments.

Options to get around the statutory debt limit, such as invoking the 14th Amendment or minting a $1 trillion platinum coin, seem like a bad precedent (the former) or a gimmick (the latter) to circumvent a relic. Neither is likely to be implemented.

The only solution is to address the debt ceiling directly. Obama has made it clear he won't negotiate with Congress over the government's borrowing authority. Republicans have made it equally clear they aren't going to give him what he wants without extracting concessions on spending cuts. Given the public's view of them as spoilers, Republicans would be better served by using their leverage in negotiations over the sequester. As part of the deal to avert the fiscal cliff, the first installment of the 10-year, $1.2 trillion of not-so-automatic discretionary-spending cuts was delayed for two months.

Obama no longer has the leverage he had in the cliff negotiations: tax increases for all if Congress failed to act. Republicans, as a rule, oppose cuts in defense spending. So does the Pentagon. Obama doesn't want to pare nondefense spending. In fact, he would like to increase it under the guise of "investment." (It sounds so much better.)

Obama has also said that any deficit-reduction agreement must be balanced, by which he means spending cuts only in return for additional tax increases. Congress just made the Bush-era tax cuts permanent for all but the top 0.7 percent of earners. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, echoing the view of his caucus, said the "tax issue is finished, over, completed."

The lines in the sand have been drawn - rather sharply, as it turns out. The negotiations could get interesting if Republicans pick their battles carefully, addressing spending cuts at a time and place that's appropriate.

Caroline Baum, author of "Just What I Said," is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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