Ban Extraordinary Measures

The past 24 hours have seen a mini-breakthrough in the stalemate over the government shutdown and debt ceiling  with House Republicans looking to pass a six-week debt ceiling hike in return for formal negotiations on the budget and a permanent ban on the Treasury Department’s use of extraordinary measures to extend the debt ceiling. President Obama has already come out against the condition of formal negotiations on the budget so this deal is a non-starter. But Boehner could easily downgrade the “formal negotiations” to a mere resolution seeking Democrats to negotiate, something non-binding and not a substantial concession. In that scenario, would Democrats accept a permanent ban on extraordinary measures? I hope so, not just because it will get us closer to a solution to both crises, but also because it makes policy-sense as well.

A quick recap: We actually hit the debt ceiling of $16.999 trillion in May, but the Treasury Department has been using some strange budgetary gimmicks to extend our borrowing authority. However, those gimmicks, known as extraordinary measures, have a limit and we’ll hit that limit next Thursday. After that, we default. An example of these extraordinary measures including delaying payments for public employee pension funds (more info here). That’s what Republicans want to permanently ban.

This makes a lot of sense. The only thing that using extraordinary measures accomplishes is delaying us from officially breaching the debt limit. But the only time Treasury actually has to use them are when one political party is looking to fight over raising the debt ceiling. Extraordinary measures delays that fight a couple of months. Think about it this way: why is having the debt ceiling fight now better than having it this past May? There never is a good time for these fights (and the debt ceiling should be abolished), but extending them for an undetermined period of time is pointless.

Since Republicans have not put forward an official proposal, Democrats haven’t commented on the idea of banning extraordinary measures. Wonkblog’s Neil Irwin offers one possible reason for White House opposition:

Such a step would give this and future administrations less leeway to influence when the debt ceiling becomes a binding constraint, so it won’t be shocking if the Obama administration opposes the idea.

One of the dirty secrets of the Treasury’s cash management function is that very few people on earth understand how it really works, and almost all of those people work for the Treasury. So Republicans on Capitol Hill have felt that they don’t have reliable information on when exactly they really, really need to raise the debt ceiling and when Jack Lew & Co. have more tools in their bag of cash management tricks.

That’s all true, but that doesn’t seem like a good reason to keep extraordinary measures. The minority party should never use the debt ceiling as a hostage, but if they are, it’s better for everyone that they have reliable information on when they need to raise the debt ceiling. If House Republicans want to wait until the last second to strike a deal, they really need to know when that last second is. Otherwise, there is a (small) risk we accidentally default. That’s a risk we don’t need to take.

In addition, it’s much easier for journalists and politicians to explain to the public when we hit the debt limit, instead of when Treasury can no longer use extraordinary measures to stop us from breaching it. It’s an unnecessary complication that confuses the public and simply delays a nasty fight with no real benefits. Let’s get rid of it.


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