Tag Archives: debt ceiling

Think Tanks? Or Propaganda Mills?

For the past couple of years, I’ve had occasional exchanges of emails with a former government official who has gone by the name of Peter the Citizen, in order to protect his identity.I don’t know why he considered that necessary, but since his most recent transmittal–with his name– is available on the internet, I assume I can link to it.

It is worth noting that Peter is a self-described conservative who has worked on welfare issues for the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the White House under both President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. He’s not a bleeding heart liberal; he is a policy person who takes evidence and honesty seriously.

Peter has shared his frustration with the ideologues who twist evidence in order to justify the punitive policies they favor. Most recently, he has shared inaccurate claims made by think tanks and Kevin McCarthy in support of imposing additional work requirements on the needy American beneficiaries of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. He especially zeros in on misinformation currently being produced by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

In seventeen pages of text (followed by two pages of footnotes), Peter responds to what  AEI researchers present as summaries of the existing research on work requirements. One example:

AEI: “Higher labor-force participation translates to less poverty, and employment correlates to many other nonfinancial benefits, such as better physical and mental health. Encouraging work among benefit recipients gives them an opportunity to escape poverty and achieve upward mobility without depending on government assistance.”

Peter: To support the claim that “more work leads to less poverty,” Weidinger and Rachidi cite a recent study by Child Trends. This is hardly a surprising conclusion. The real question is, do work requirements lead to more work? Notably, Weidinger and Rachidi leave out the following statement from that same report:

We did see an increase in single mothers’ labor force participation in the 1990s. Yet, evidence from early-1990s welfare-to-work experiments and more recent research consistently indicate that, while work requirements can boost short-term employment and earnings, they do not have their intended effect of getting people into stable jobs that sustainably lift them out of poverty with their incomes. For example, previous research found that welfare reform accounted for only a small amount of the increase in single mothers’ employment rates in the mid-1990s….

In short, Weidinger and Rachidi celebrate a relatively small increase in employment (relative to the caseload decline), but ignore the fact that far more families are made worse off with detrimental consequences for children.

I chose the above example because it is one of the least technical (the paper’s language is nothing if not densely academic.)  Suffice it to say that all seventeen pages follow the same trajectory: the argument put forward by the AEI researchers is followed by analysis and data showing that AEI has cited to studies which have been refuted, or has omitted language limiting the applicability of  the portion they quote. In a couple of cases, AEI presents “facts” that aren’t: for example, the paper claims that the “pro-work TANF provisions in this proposal” are the same as those in the 2018 House Ways and Means legislation– the JOBS for Success Act.” Peter offers evidence showing that this assertion is factually inaccurate.

I am sharing this “in the weeds” effort by a Rightwing think-tank to justify reintroducing a policy that has proven to have substantial negative unintended consequences because –thanks to Kevin McCarthy and the mis-named “Freedom Caucus”– these proposals are part of the GOP’s debt ceiling legislation. Proponents argue that work requirements will grow the economy by helping more low-income adults enter the workforce and obtain higher earnings–addressing current labor shortages along the way.

There are two major problems with that argument for “reviving these proposals.”

One is that–as Peter points out– policymakers are not knowledgeable about work requirements or the evidence about their effectiveness. “Instead, they are swayed by the misinformation provided by conservative think tanks and other politicians who simply repeat uninformed talking points.”

The other, of course, is both more obvious and more infuriating: the debt ceiling fight is not an appropriate venue for any policy argument. Raising the debt ceiling allows the government to pay bills it has already incurred. Using a refusal to raise it as a weapon is despicable and deeply disturbing–a threat by blackmailers to upend the global economy if they don’t get their way.

One thing does come through loud and clear from reading that 17-page analysis; if sane Americans ever get control of our government, we really do need to strengthen and simplify our complicated and unwieldy social safety net.


My Obligatory Rant About the Debt Ceiling

Okay–I’m sure that readers of this blog are well aware of the current threat by the usual suspects to hold the debt limit hostage in order to get concessions on spending from the administration and the Democrats in Congress.

I’m also sure that most of those readers understand what the debt limit actually is–unlike the intended targets of the crazies’ messaging.  America’s debt ceiling does not authorize spending–it authorizes government to borrow funds as necessary to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. (That’s why the GOP obediently voted to raise it during the Trump administration–even though the Trump tax cuts significantly increased the deficit and thus the amount to be borrowed.)

Here’s an analogy: you went shopping and maxed out your credit card. The bill from the credit card company comes due, and your spouse says “We aren’t paying it until you agree to [whatever].” You either accede to the whatever, or destroy your credit rating, find yourself unwelcome in the places you shop, and incur higher interest rates in the few places that still accept your business.

In 2011, when Republicans last played this game, the delay in raising the limit caused a  downgrade of U.S. Treasury debt, raising government borrowing costs by $18.9 billion over ten years.

If the GOP’s  current game of chicken succeeds–if America fails to pay the bills Congress has previously racked up–the country (and globe) would descend into recession, Social Security and Medicare payments would stop, federal workers, soldiers and defense contractors wouldn’t be paid… And you could kiss your tax refund goodby.

The U.S. is one of only two countries requiring a separate vote to raise the debt limit–most countries understand that a vote to spend X on program Y implicitly authorizes payment even if funds need to be borrowed. For many years, rational lawmakers in both parties routinely raised the limit.

Since “rational” no longer describes most GOP lawmakers, what should the administration do? I’ll let Paul Krugman answer that question.

Krugman  warns that “it’s not even clear that the Biden administration could surrender if it wanted to.”

The current crop of House Republicans makes the Tea Party, which (alas) used the debt limit to blackmail President Barack Obama, look reasonable. Today’s G.O.P. doesn’t even seem to have a coherent set of demands; a significant number of caucus members may well want a crisis, preferring to “watch the world burn” under a Democratic administration.

If surrender isn’t an option, what is?

Democrats could seek a “discharge petition” to force a vote on raising the debt limit despite opposition from G.O.P. leaders. This would both take time and require support from a handful of sane Republican House members. But it’s surely worth trying.

Second, it’s probably possible to use financial engineering to bypass the debt limit. The most famous proposal calls for minting a platinum coin with a face value of, say, $1 trillion, depositing that coin with the Federal Reserve and spending out of the bank account thus created. Believe it or not, this would almost certainly be legal.

Another option would involve raising money by issuing “premium bonds” when existing debts come due — bonds whose face value is the same as that of the bonds they replace, so that they don’t officially increase the debt, but offer high interest rates, so they sell for much more than their notional value.

Krugman also points to language in the 14th Amendment providing that “the validity of public debt shall not be questioned,” and suggests that language might be construed as authorizing the government to ignore the debt ceiling rather than defaulting on payments.

Which option should Democrats pursue? I’d say all of them. Above all, this is no time for officials to worry about seeming silly or undignified. The Biden administration is facing the threat of economic terrorism — that sounds extreme, but it’s basically what creating an artificial debt crisis amounts to. And it should do whatever it takes to face down that threat.

So–what now? The Treasury department is ramping up what it calls “extraordinary measures” to avoid default, but without a resolution, the country will stop being able to pay its bills sometime around June 5th.

Even if the administration was willing to “negotiate,”  Republicans cannot seem to agree on what it is they want. In yet another demonstration of their lack of discipline (and in many cases, sanity), several on the far Right are insisting on cuts to Social Security and Medicare, while others are focused on cutting the Defense budget. 

And what, you might ask, about the “moderate” members of the GOP? That’s easy: there aren’t any. Bret Stephens was right-– today’s GOP consists only of reptiles and invertebrates.

Stay tuned….

McConnell And Civic Ignorance

I know you are all tired of reading my periodic rants about Americans’ lack of civic/constitutional knowledge. But we are witnessing a perfect example of the damage caused by widespread civic ignorance, and not just on the part of citizens, but on a substantial part of the media.

Mitch McConnell–aka the most evil man in America–is refusing to allow Republican Senators to vote to raise the debt ceiling, or even for cloture–for ending his filibuster of the measure. If the ceiling isn’t raised, the United States will default on its obligations and plunge the world into a financial crisis. (I’m not the only person saying that–Janet Yellen, among others, has been making that point.)

Now, there are two things most Americans don’t understand about the current impasse over raising the debt ceiling.  First of all, a vote to raise the ceiling is not an authorization to spend money. It is an authorization to pay for spending that has already been authorized–permission to borrow the money needed to pay for things that the Congress has previously voted to do. (It’s actually a weird sort of holdover vote that could well be dispensed with, but that’s a different conversation.) So pious pronouncements about fiscal responsibility as an excuse for failing to raise the ceiling are the stuff excreted by bulls.

Second, even fewer people understand how the arcane rules of the Senate have enabled McConnell to play an anti-democratic and truly despicable  game of chicken.

You may have seen articles about the current fight in which the pundit or reporter has said that the Democrats could raise the ceiling without the GOP. That’s technically true-but so long as McConnell prolongs the filibuster, such passage would be at the cost of not passing the infrastructure bill. That’s because the only way Democrats could raise the ceiling without Republicans ending their filibuster is through reconciliation, which cannot be filibustered. But the Democrats get only one chance to pass a bill through reconciliation this year, so using that one chance to save the country from default would force them to dump the immensely popular infrastructure bill, which–thanks to McConnell and the filibuster– can also only be passed through reconciliation.

And that is McConnell’s game of chicken.

He’s counting on the Democrats to jettison their most important piece of legislation (which he continues to filibuster) in order to avert a national disaster. He is counting on the ignorance of the public–and a sizable portion of the media–to obscure the naked evil of this tactic. If–as he clearly hopes–the Democrats once again act like the adult in the room, and save us from a fiscal calamity, very few Americans will understand why the promised infrastructure bill didn’t pass; they will join the chorus of uninformed observers blaming the internal divisions of the Democrats for their inability to get the job done.

Others–including most recently President Biden– have pointed out that McConnell’s Republicans raised the debt ceiling three times under Trump –and not so incidentally added $7.8 trillion to the national debt. Anyone who thinks this current intransigence is about fiscal responsibility is smoking something really strong.

It is past time to call the bluff, eliminate the filibuster and get rid of a debt ceiling vote that only authorizes paying Uncle Sam’s bills. But those things aren’t likely to happen this month–so unless there is some Republican Senator willing to put country before party (unlikely), we are once again on the brink of being a failed state.

There is a reason Mitch McConnell is a hated man.

An Observation Worth Pondering

I really did not intend to dignify Ted Cruz’ ambition by paying any attention to him; the man is by all accounts (Republican, Democrat, human) a consummate asshole. (Andy Borowitz, who has been on something of a roll lately, tweeted “Poll: 80% of Americans given a choice between Ted Cruz and Scott Walker choose suicide.”)

But when I read this paragraph at Political Animal, I decided it was worth sharing:

[A]bove all, one particular position should disqualify Cruz—or anyone else who holds it—from the presidency: using the debt ceiling as a hostage device. Breaching the debt ceiling would be disastrous. It’s hard to forecast exactly what would happen, but we can somewhat forecast day one after default. The government would have to prioritize its payments. Do you withhold food stamps from low-income Americans? Delay Social Security checks? Maybe we should stop payments on infrastructure projects. Those missed payments would harm millions of Americans and cause mass disruptions around the country as cash flow problems cause companies to become insolvent. Over the long term, it would permanently raise our borrowing costs, making our interest payments more expensive. In short, it would be self-inflicted economic Armageddon. Cruz considers his willingness to risk that catastrophe a selling point, touting his role in opposing the debt ceiling hikes on his website.

Nothing says “I’m totally ignorant of the way the real world works, and I don’t care who gets hurt, because it’s all about ME” like playing political games with the debt ceiling.


Looking for the Right Word…

I’m looking for a word. Irresponsible doesn’t quite convey what I’m after. Despicable and corrupt come closer. Bat-shit crazy is a bit too inelegant, and besides, being crazy lets people off the hook–it implies that they don’t really know what they’re doing.

Here’s what generated my search for that perfect word: Yesterday, when the House of Representatives voted to raise the debt ceiling, two Democrats and 199 Republicans voted no.

In other words, 201 Representatives favored an American default on its obligations that would probably trigger a worldwide financial meltdown, because….? Because they don’t approve of debt that the House of Representatives ran up? Because they don’t like the President? (There were 19 bipartisan, no-controversy votes to raise the ceiling when George W. Bush was President.) Because they’re pandering to people who are too stupid or uninformed to know what the debt ceiling is? Because they are too stupid or uninformed to know what it is?

Let me spell this out.

The Constitution requires that Congress make all spending decisions—the President proposes, but Congress disposes. Sometimes–okay, a lot of the time–Congress authorizes more spending than the government collects in revenue. That requires government to borrow the difference, in order to cover the deficit that Congress has already authorized.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Congress also votes to authorize that necessary borrowing to the extent that it will exceed the previously-set debt limit, or ceiling.

To many of us, this seems a bit silly, since the debt ceiling vote comes from the same Congress that has already voted for the spending that requires the borrowing, but this practice of raising the debt ceiling has generally been uncontroversial, and for years the ceiling has been routinely raised by votes from large, bipartisan majorities. 

Routinely, that is, until the unthinkable happened, and Barack Obama became President.

Dishonest rhetoric to the contrary, failing to raise the debt ceiling would not do anything to reduce the national debt. Congress has already authorized the spending. Instead, it would be a vote for the U.S. to default on what it already owes.

Even using the threat of nonpayment of the nation’s bills as a bargaining chip sends a chilling message to world financial markets and undermines America’s reputation as a sound place to invest.

If Congress actually refused to raise the ceiling, the results would be catastrophic; such a refusal would require the United States to stop paying many of its bills—including amounts owed to senior citizens for social security, defense contractors and members of the military who defend the country, and many others. Economists warn that such a failure to pay our bills could precipitate a worldwide economic collapse.  That’s why John Boehner–who periodically visits reality– ignored the suicide contingent in his caucus, and brought a so-called “clean” bill to the House floor.

I’m still looking for the word that adequately describes the House members who voted not to raise the debt ceiling. Those who knew what they were doing are beneath contempt; those who didn’t understand the implications of their votes are intellectually unfit to hold office.

Whatever you call them, they need to be sent home.