Debt Ceiling Negotiations Are Now Almost Unavoidable

Now that the government shutdown does not seem to be ending anytime soon, liberals are going to have to accept the fact that the debt ceiling is no longer non-negotiable, at least from a messaging standpoint. With both sides digging in, there seems to be little hope of solving the government shutdown before October 17 when we hit the debt limit. That means that any negotiations over a continuing resolution – which will happen eventually – will also have to include a debt ceiling raise. From Politico today:

Reid is highly unlikely to accept a budget deal if it does not increase the debt ceiling, Democratic sources said Tuesday. If the House GOP won’t back the Senate’s stopgap plan by later this week, Democrats are prepared to argue that it makes little sense to agree to a short-term spending bill if Congress is forced to resolve another fiscal crisis in just a matter of days.

A White House official said Tuesday night that the president could get behind Reid’s strategy.

Across the Capitol, House Republicans were quickly coming to a similar conclusion. Republicans were internally weighing including a debt ceiling hike in their demands to convene a House-Senate conference committee to discuss a bill to reopen the government. In the coming days, the GOP leadership is likely to change its rhetoric, with Republicans arguing about government funding and the debt ceiling in the same breath.

The two issues are now inherently connected. The president can maintain his position that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling, but it will be harder to prove that is the case. In a worst case scenario, Democrats actually do negotiate over the debt ceiling and it becomes a piece in the compromise. That would once against set precedent for the debt ceiling to be used as an extortion device. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) cannot let that happen.

But even the best case scenario is not very satisfying. In that situation, Reid declares that Congress must raise the debt limit and Republicans acquiesce. Except because of the tight schedule, the two sides continue negotiating over the CR. Eventually, they come to some type of agreement and both sides pass a bill with that includes a debt ceiling increase. In this case, the debt ceiling was never part of the negotiations and was never used as an extortion device, but that’s hard to prove. The media will analyze the deal as if it was part of a compromise. Republicans will head home to their constituents and say that they made the Democrats negotiate over the debt ceiling. They will say they broke President Obama’s no-negotiating position. Democrats will have no way to prove otherwise. It will be their word versus the Republican’s and the final deal will have a debt ceiling increase in it. Once again, the precedent will be set for using it as an extortion device.

There is one way to avoid all of this though: President Obama can unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely to happen. The Administration ruled out using the 14th Amendment again yesterday and minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin seems even more absurd. Nevertheless, this would eliminate the need to raise the debt ceiling and prevent any negotiation over it. If Obama is really determined to not negotiate over the debt ceiling, he will look at both options carefully, because negotiating is now unavoidable.

Advertisements

Rand Paul is Willing To Breach the Debt Ceiling

Republican Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has been a rising star in the GOP the past couple of months, particularly after his drone filibuster. He’s been the leading libertarian voice, following in his father’s footsteps, but with a more populist tone that could give him a legitimate shot at the Republican nomination in 2016. However, he is very, very confused about how harmful breaching the debt ceiling would be. Here’s what Paul said on Glenn Beck’s radio show this afternoon:

With the debt ceiling, I’ve always been willing to go through the deadline. I’m willing to go a month, two months, three months, as long as it takes. And I think we could use that leverage to bring the Democrats to the negotiating table.

AHHHHHHH. I honestly don’t understand how Paul can think this. By all accounts, he’s a smart, hard-working guy who believes in what he says. But he can’t possibly think that breaching the debt ceiling for three months would be acceptable? That would be a disaster of unheard of proportions. Our interest rates would rise significantly, increasing the cost of our debt by trillions of dollars in the long-term. Vital government services that keep the country going would stop. Three months of that could lead to anarchy.

And this was all after Paul said that he doesn’t want a government shutdown, because it would be bad for the Republican Party. Undoubtedly, Paul understands that a government shutdown would be bad for the country as well. But does he really think that breaching the debt ceiling for 90 days is more acceptable than a government shutdown?

Maybe Paul is bluffing here so that Republicans will be in a better position to extort the President.  Maybe he is trying to shore up support from the base. I don’t know. But the casualness with which Paul speaks about breaching the debt ceiling and causing an international financial crisis is alarming. I truly hope he doesn’t believe what he’s saying.

The Magically Disappearing Deficit

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its 2013 Long Term Budget Outlook today and there’s a lot of good news. Total public debt is projected to hit 100% of GDP in 2038, thanks to growth in entitlement spending and interest payments. However, this number is well below CBO’s estimate last year that public debt would hit 200% of GDP in 2037.*

This is thanks to slightly higher taxes and significantly reduced spending on entitlements and interest payments.

The fiscal cliff deal at the end of last year (officially known as the American Taxpayer Relief Act) made the Bush tax cuts permanent for most Americans and fixed the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) to limit its reach. However, the deal also allowed taxes to rise on the wealthiest Americans. Due to that, the CBO now projects that revenues will equal 19.7% of GDP in 2038, up from 18.5% in last year’s report.

On the spending side, two major developments drastically reduced the CBO’s projected spending totals.

First, health care cost growth has slowed considerably over the past couple of years and there is more and more evidence demonstrating that this slowdown is not a short-term result of the recession, but is a permanent bending of the cost curve. This led the CBO to lower its projected health care costs:

A particular challenge currently is estimating the extent to which the recent slowdown in growth can be attributed to temporary factors like the recession or instead reflects more enduring developments. Studies have generally concluded that a portion of the observed reduction in growth cannot be linked directly to the weak economy, and CBO’s own analysis has found no link between the recession and slower growth in spending for Medicare. Accordingly, over the past few years, CBO has substantially reduced its projections of spending on Medicare and Medicaid during the coming decade and slightly lowered its estimate of the underlying rate of growth for health care spending per person for the country as a whole. CBO’s estimate of that underlying rate takes into account spending trends since 1985 but gives greater
weight to the recent experience; because of the pressures to constrain spending growth, the underlying rate is projected to decline gradually in the long run.

The CBO’s 2012 Report projected Medicare and Medicaid spending (plus CHIP and the exchange subsidies) to hit a combined 10.4% of GDP in 2037. In this year’s report, the Budget Office expected those programs to be just 8.2% of GDP. That’s a significant drop.

Second, the extended baseline scenario assumes that sequestration is not repealed, compared to last year’s extended alternative baseline scenario that assumed otherwise. This projection made sense in 2012 when it was widely assumed that Congress would find a way to replace the sequester. But now, sequestration is already in effect and the parties aren’t any closer to finding a replacement. It’s more and more likely that sequester could be here to say. This reduces the CBO’s spending projections significantly:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that if current laws generally continued without change, other federal noninterest spending would drop from a total of 11.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012 to 7.6 percent in 2023 and then to 7.1 percent in 2038.

Under the extended alternative baseline scenario in 2012, the CBO projected that spending to be 9.6% of GDP in 2037.

The icing on the cake is that all of this reduced spending will lead to significantly lower debt payments, compared with the CBO’s 2012 projections. Debt payments will still rise from today’s low level of 1.3% of GDP to nearly 5 percent of GDP in 2038 (that’s why it’s a sin we aren’t taking advantage of today’s low rates). But that is much less than the CBO’s 2012 projection of 9.5%.

Having gone through all of that, here’s the overall change in U.S. revenues and spending between last year’s Long Term Budget Outlook and this year’s report:

2013 Long Term Budget

The deficit has dropped by almost two-thirds in the last year alone!

Now, the sequester is still dumb policy and the current projections still leave us with an unsustainable budget (economists and budget wonks agree that we need to get our budget down to around 3% of GDP). But the overall picture is abundantly clear: we’ve already done a huge amount of deficit reduction.

*Note: I’m using the extended alternative baseline scenario from the 2012 Report because it more accurately represents the future policy of both taxes and spending. In this year’s report, I’m using the extended baseline scenario as the Fiscal Cliff deal cleared up the unrealistic assumptions that the CBO used under this scenario in 2012.