Can Treasury Prioritize Interest Payments?

Reuters Felix Salmon seems to think it can:

The problem with it is that the government would still need to miss an interest payment on its Treasury securities, and there’s no way that it’s ever going to do that, whatever happens to the debt ceiling.

Think about it this way: if I roll over my debts, then my total debt does not actually increase. So if a T-bill is coming due today, then the government can pay it off in full, and issue a new T-bill, without increasing its total indebtedness.

[W]ith Jack Lew (or anybody else, really) as Treasury secretary, you can be sure that debt service payments would be priority number one.

This only makes sense if the Treasury Department can choose which bills to pay and which not to. Imagine instead of just a T-bill is coming due today, there are millions of different payments coming in. Some are T-bills and the rest are made up by everything else the government pays for on a daily basis. When we breach the debt ceiling, the revenues coming in will not be enough to pay all of those bills. Salmon is suggesting that the federal government use those revenues to pay off all of the T-bills, freeing up more borrowing space and preventing the government from missing any payments. Treasury than could use the new borrowing space to pay off more of its bills, although it would still be unable to pay them all off. This is what conservatives mean when they say that the government can prioritize interest payments. This a pretty simple idea to make sure that the U.S. does not technically default on its debt, since defaulting requires missing an interest payment.

This plan assumes that Treasury has the technical capacity and legal authority to prioritize payments, though. If it cannot do that, then this entire idea falls apart. Treasury will pay whichever bills come in first. If a T-bill comes in when it has no more revenue and no more borrowing space, it would miss an interest payment. The U.S. government would default on its debt.

The question then is: can Treasury prioritize interest payments?

Implicit in Salmon’s piece is that it can, although he offers no evidence to support his belief. Back in 2011, he addressed the legality of prioritizing payments and came to the following conclusion:

As Treasury’s stated idea that it would simply pay bills as they came due, on a pari passu basis, and then stop paying when it ran out of money, it’s simply unthinkable. Treasury bonds and bills will get paid — they have to be. The bond markets know that, which is why they’re still pretty sanguine about this whole debt-ceiling issue.

Salmon seems to believe that there is absolutely no way Treasury would ever default on its obligations. Period. But while he offers a moderately convincing answer to whether prioritizing payments is legal, he doesn’t even try to answer whether Treasury has the technical ability to do so.

Last week, Slate’s Matt Yglesias and FT Alphaville’s Cardiff Garcia both pointed to an RBC Capital report that analyzed those technical abilities and concluded that Treasury wouldn’t be able to prioritize payments. Just today, a senior official at Treasury explicitly said that it “would be impossible to prioritize payments on debt.” Of course, the Treasury Department has every incentive to lie and convince Republican lawmakers that the department can do nothing if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling. Nevertheless, it’s still meaningful.

That’s pretty good evidence to demonstrate that prioritizing debt payments is not possible. At the very least, it should make Salmon question his air-tight conviction that even if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling, Treasury has the technical capacity to ensure we don’t miss an interest payment. Given the evidence against it, that’s a big assumption to make.

Americans Still Don’t Understand the Debt Ceiling

I don’t mean understand it in terms of what it actually is (though I don’t think they understand that either). They don’t understand the consequences of it. Breaching the debt ceiling would be catastrophic, causing irreversible long-term effects on our debt and economy. That’s not hyperbole. The market doesn’t believe that we will breach the debt ceiling, because it would be too idiotic for John Boehner to allow that to happen. The current government shutdown is a drag on our economy and harms many different aspects of people’s daily lives. But a default is many orders of magnitude worse. Yet, a new Quinnipiac Poll today suggests that Americans are a bit confused about which is more dangerous: breaching the debt ceiling or a government shutdown.

Raising the debt ceiling is non-negotiable.
Raising the debt ceiling is non-negotiable.

The poll finds that by 72% to 22% margin, Americans do not want Congress to shut down the federal government over Obamacare. That’s good. However, a smaller margin (64% to 27%) do not want Congress to default over Obamacare. It’s good that in both cases Americans understand that it’s not acceptable to use a fiscal crisis as leverage to extort the opposite party. But these polls demonstrate that more Americans are OK with that extortion when the hostage is the debt ceiling than when it is government funding,

That’s backwards and needs to change. Part of the reason for this may be because this poll was conducted over the weekend, right before a government shutdown, while a possible default is still a few weeks away. Nevertheless, the media must do a better job explaining the consequences of a default to the American people. There should be no pretense that there will be negotiations over the debt ceiling. That’s not how this works. President Obama screwed up in 2011 by negotiating over it, but that was an outlier. It did not set a precedent.

Speaker Boehner will raise the debt ceiling, because if he doesn’t, it will go down as one of the single worst actions a legislator has done in the history of the United States. Once again, that’s not hyperbole. We need to stop treating this as a back-and-forth game, trying to guess what the speaker will do, and start calling it what it is: a foregone conclusion. Boehner will raise the debt ceiling, because it would be apocalyptic not to. The American people need to know that as well.