By  Bruce Bartlett, Published: July 7

 

In recent months, the federal debt ceiling — last increased in February 2010 and now standing at $14.3 trillion — has become a matter of national debate and political hysteria. The ceiling must be raised by Aug. 2, Treasury says, or the government will run out of cash. Congressional Republicans counter that they won’t raise the debt limit unless Democrats agree to large budget cuts with no tax increases. President Obama insists that closing tax loopholes must be part of the package. Whom and what to believe in the great debt-limit debate? Here are some misconceptions that get to the heart of the battle.

1. The debt limit is an effective way to control spending and deficits.

Not at all. In 2003, Brian Roseboro, assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial markets, explained it best: “The plain truth is that the debt limit does not affect the deficits or surpluses. The critical revenue and spending decisions are made during the congressional budget process.”

The debt ceiling is a cap on the amount of securities the Treasury can issue, something it does to raise money to pay for government expenses. These expenses, and the deficit they’ve wrought, are a result of past actions by Congress to create entitlement programs, make appropriations and cut taxes. In that sense, raising the debt limit is about paying for past expenses, not controlling future ones. For Congress to refuse to let Treasury raise the cash to pay the bills that Congress itself has run up simply makes no sense.

Some supporters of the debt limit respond that there is virtue in forcing Congress to debate the national debt from time to time. This may have been true in the past, but the Budget Act of 1974 created a process that requires Congress to vote on aggregate levels of spending, revenue and deficits every year, thus making the debt limit redundant.

 

2. Opposition to raising the debt limit is a partisan issue.

Republicans are doing the squawking now because there is a Democrat in the White House. But back when there was a Republican president, Democrats did the squawking. On March 16, 2006, one Democratic senator in particular denounced George W. Bush’s request to raise the debt limit. “The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure,” the senator thundered. “Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. . . . Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren.”

That senator was Barack Obama, and he, along with most Democrats, voted against a higher limit that day. It passed only because almost every Republican voted for it, including many who are now among the strongest opponents of a debt-limit increase.

 

3. Financial markets won’t care much if interest payments are just a few days late — a “technical default.”

Some Republicansbelieve that bondholders know they will get their money eventually and will understand that a brief default — just a few days — might be necessary to reduce future deficits. “If a bondholder misses a payment for a day or two or three or four,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told CNBC in May, “what is more important [is] that you’re putting the government in a materially better position to be able to pay their bonds later on.”

 

This is nothing but wishful thinking. The bond-rating agencies have repeatedly warned that any failure to pay interest or principal on a Treasury security exactly when due could cause the U.S. credit rating to be downgraded, which would push interest rates up as investors demand higher rates to compensate for the increased risk.

J.P. Morgan recently surveyed its clients and asked how much rates would rise if there was a delay in payments, even a very brief one. Domestic investors thought they would go up by 0.37 percentage points, but foreign buyers — who own close to half the publicly held debt — predicted an increase of more than half a percentage point. Any increase in this range would raise Treasury’s borrowing costs by tens of billions of dollars per year.

Some may think that a rise in rates would be temporary. But there was a case back in 1979 when a combination of a failure to increase the debt limit in time and a breakdown of Treasury’s machines for printing checks caused a two-week default. A 1989 academic study found that it raised interest rates by six-tenths of a percentage point for years afterward.

 

4. It’s worth risking default on the debt to prevent a tax increase, given the weak economy.

While Republicans’ concerns about higher taxes are not unreasonable, most economists believe that any fiscal contraction at this time would be dangerous. They note that a large cut in spending back in 1937 brought on a sharp recession, which undermined the recovery the country was making after the Great Depression.

Republicans respond that tax increases are especially harmful to growth. However, they made the same argument in 1982, when Ronald Reagan requested the largest peacetime tax increase in American history, and again in 1993, when Bill Clinton also asked for a large tax boost for deficit reduction. In both cases, conservative economists’ predictions of economic disaster were completely wrong, and strong economic growth followed.

 

5. Obama must accept GOP budget demands because he needs Republican support to raise the debt limit.

Republicans believe they have the president over a barrel. But their hand may be weaker than they think. A number of legal scholars point to Section 4of the 14th Amendment, which says, “The validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned.”

Some scholars, including Michael Abramowicz of George Washington University Law Schooland Garrett Epps of the University of Baltimore Law School, think this passage may make the debt limit unconstitutional because by definition, the limit calls into question the validity of the public debt. Thus Treasury may be able to just ignore the debt limit.

Other scholars, such as Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School, say the 14th Amendment will force Obama to prioritize debt payments and unilaterally slash spending to pay bondholders. But this would involve the violation of laws requiring government spending.

Either way, a failure to raise the debt limit would force the president to break the law. The only question is which one.

 

Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan and a Treasury official in the George W. Bush administration, is the author of “The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward.” He will be online at 11 a.m. on Monday, July 11, to chat. Submit your questions and comments now.

Want to challenge everything you know? Visit our “Five myths” archive, including “Five myths about interest rates,” “Five myths about the Bush tax cuts,” “Five myths about defense spending,” and “Five myths about the deficit.”

Written by Jon Ward as reported in Huffington Post

WASHINGTON — The big numbers from Paul Ryan’s budget: It will reduce spending by $6.2 trillion over the next decade and reduce the deficit by $4.4 trillion.

It also cuts the top income tax rate by nearly a third, from 35 percent to 25 percent.

A big part of the House Budget Chairman’s plan rests on the assumption that President Barack Obama’s health care law will be repealed. Over the next decade, that would cut $1.4 trillion in spending alone, according to Ryan’s budget. Those savings, however, wouldn’t go directly to deficit reduction, because Ryan would also repeal the elements of health care reform that are aimed at raising revenue or reducing costs.

The Wisconsin Republican’s budget spends less on nearly every major category of the budget. Over the next decade, Ryan (R-Wis.) wants to cut $389 billion from Medicare, the public health insurance program for seniors. Over the same period, Ryan’s budget puts $735 billion less toward Medicaid, which benefits Americans too poor to afford private insurance. Discretionary spending on domestic programs is also reduced by $923 billion.

Two exceptions are security and defense spending and spending on Social Security, the public pension program for the elderly. Both are kept steady and relatively unchanged from Obama’s proposed budget.

A draft proposal from Ryan’s House Budget Committee says that under his plan, the national debt would be $1.1 trillion less than it would be over the next five years under Obama’s budget, and would add $3 trillion less to the debt than Obama’s budget proposal over the next decade. Ryan’s budget proposal would bring the debt held by the public to $13.9 trillion by 2016 and $16 trillion by 2021, compared to $15 trillion in 2016 and $19 trillion in 2021 under the president’s proposal. (The full national debt of just over $14 trillion also includes money owed to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, but the public figure is the one normally used for budget forecasts.)

Though Ryan’s plan would reduce the size of the national debt as a portion of the economy – which is the key factor when considering the country’s obligations to creditors – the addition of new debt in the short term shows the gap between talk of not raising the debt ceiling by many Republicans and fiscal reality.

Ryan’s plan has $40 trillion in spending over the next 10 years compared to $34.9 trillion in revenues. Obama would spend $46 trillion in the coming decade while bringing in $38.8 trillion in revenues. So Ryan’s plan would still result in the government spending $5.1 trillion more over the next decade than it brings in, but that’s less than the $7.2 trillion in deficit spending that Obama has proposed.

The most fundamental difference between the competing budget proposals is seen in the way they envision the size of government’s imprint in the economy, as measured by spending and revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product.

Obama’s budget plan would take spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), the total economic output of the American economy, from 25.3 percent this year to the 22 percent range for much of the next decade. But by the end of the 10 year horizon, his plan has spending back at 23 percent. Revenues, meanwhile, which are currently at an anemic 14.4 percent, would creep up to 19 percent by 2015 and then hit 20 percent in 2021.

It would be the highest amount of government spending since World War II. During the 12-year presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, spending went from 8 percent of GDP to 41 percent, driven by FDR’s New Deal but even more so by war spending.

During Harry Truman’s administration, spending was cut in half, from 41 percent of GDP down to 20 percent, and went down further to 18 percent under Dwight Eisenhower. It stayed at 18 percent of GDP through the John F. Kennedy presidency, crept up to 19 percent under Lyndon Johnson, and then went up to 20 percent while Richard Nixon was in the White House. Gerald Ford brought spending back down to 19 percent of GDP, it then went up to 22 percent during Jimmy Carter’s term, down to 21 percent under Ronald Reagan’s two terms and George H.W. Bush’s four years as commander in chief. Bill Clinton brought spending back down to 18 percent of the U.S. economy.

No president since FDR has increased spending as a percentage of GDP by more than George W. Bush, taking it from 18.4 percent of GDP to 22.8 percent.

Obama’s budget does not show what happens beyond the 10-year window. So, compared to George W. Bush’s spending, he seems to be about on par. However, projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) show spending growing at its current pace will grow to more than 26 percent of GDP in 2022, over 32 percent of GDP in 2030, 38 percent of GDP in 2040, and 45 percent of GDP by 2050, with the bulk of that spending driven by ever-rising health care costs.

Revenues under CBO projections would not move above 19 percent of GDP, leading to a gap between spending and revenues that would be difficult to sustain.

Ryan said a computer simulation program of what would happen in the future “crashes in 2037, because it can’t conceive of any way in which the U.S. economy can continue because of this massive burden of debt.”

Ryan’s plan would move spending back to historic levels, keeping it at 20 percent of GDP through 2030, and actually reducing it to under 19 percent by 2040. Ryan’s plan predicts revenues growing to 19 percent of GDP by 2040, allowing the national debt to be reduced over time.

The proposal landed in the middle of a busy news cycle where Washington is consumed with a spending fight over the current fiscal year budget, a much smaller portion of government spending that nonetheless will shut down the federal government if it is not resolved by Friday.

“Right now we’ve got some business in front of us that needs to be done,” Obama told reporters Tuesday afternoon, declining to respond to Ryan’s budget.

The reaction to Ryan’s plan was predictably split along ideological lines, though even those who supported the broad contours of Ryan’s plan did not embrace it in all its detail.

Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future, delivered the harshest rebuke of the day to Ryan’s plan.

“This is being hailed as courageous. It isn’t courageous; it is corrupt,” Borosage said in a statement.

“Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan will push rising health care costs onto those least able to afford them – the elderly, the disabled and the poor,” Borosage said. “It will do nothing to curb the rising costs imposed by the powerful complexes – insurance and drug companies, private hospitals – that now force Americans to pay twice per capita of any other industrial nation for worst results.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who is Ryan’s foil as the Budget Committee’s ranking member, said the plan was a “lopsided approach” to deficit reduction that took too much from the disadvantaged and elderly in order to benefit wealthy Americans and big business.

“Behind the sunny rhetoric of reform, the Republican Budget represents the rigid ideological agenda that extends tax cuts to the rich and powerful at the expense of the rest of America – except this time on steroids,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

However, David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general and founder of the Comeback America Initiative who is generally a fiscal hawk, said Ryan “should be commended for having the courage to lead in connection with our nation’s huge deficit and debt challenges.”

“His budget proposal recognizes that restoring fiscal sustainability will require tough transformational changes in many areas, including spending programs and tax policies,” Walker said.

Among the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls, only former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was quick to comment on Ryan’s plan.

“Thanks to Paul Ryan in Congress, the American people finally have someone offering real leadership in Washington,” Pawlenty said, but he otherwise steered clear of the details and focused on the coming fight over the debt ceiling.

“President Obama has failed to lead and make tough choices his entire time in the White House. While the budget is going to be debated for several months to come, the more immediate issue we face is President Obama’s plans to raise the debt ceiling next month. That’s a really bad idea,” Pawlenty said in a statement.

“With over $14 trillion debt already, we should not allow Washington’s big spenders to put us further in the hole. We must get our fiscal house in order with real spending cuts and with real structural reforms that stop the spending spree before it bankrupts our country,” he said.

Even the conservative Heritage Foundation, which heralded Ryan’s plan as “a monumental budget proposal for monumental times,” dinged it for insufficient levels of defense spending and for not addressing Social Security.