If you use a credit card to buy $1,000 worth of stuff, you have taken on $1,000 worth of debt. You either have to give the credit card company $1,000 the next time they send you a bill or pay an outrageous amount of interest on what you haven’t paid off.
The federal government is in a similar situation. Since 1970, except for the last four years of the Clinton administration, the federal government has taken on more debt. It’s spent more money than it’s received through taxation, i.e. it’s run a deficit. As a result, the total national debt has increased.
In order to make up the difference, the government has issued bonds, i.e. borrowed money from investors in the bond market (in other words, the government is you and the bond market is the credit card company).
So, in 2020, the last year of the T____ administration, the government spent $6.5 trillion. But the government’s revenue, partly due to tax cuts, was only $3.4 trillion. That means, roughly speaking, the federal government needed to come up with $3.1 trillion dollars to pay its various bills. It was necessary to sell a lot of bonds.
But more than 100 years ago, during World War I, Congress decided that instead of approving the sale of all those bonds, they would set an upper limit on how many bonds the government can sell. That gave the people at the Treasury Department some flexibility. They didn’t have to repeatedly ask Congress for permission to sell more bonds to pay the government’s expenses.
There have been a few changes to the debt limit law since then, but that’s the basic idea. Congress and the president approve a budget. The executive branch then spends a lot of money. When there are too many bills or other obligations to address compared to the taxes collected, the Treasury Department sells bonds to cover the difference, i.e. the deficit. Raising the debt limit doesn’t authorize new spending; it authorizes new borrowing to cover debts the government has already incurred by following the budget Congress and the president approved.
Ordinarily, Congress would simply vote for the debt limit to be increased. But things are not so simple these days. Congressional Republicans don’t believe in governing responsibly. They look for ways to make their Democratic colleagues and the government as a whole look bad. They then claim to be the ones who can fix the problems they’ve done so much to create.
Since the House of Representatives has already addressed the problem by a simple majority vote (218 Democrats voted Yes, 210 Republicans voted No), it’s now up to the Senate to finish the job.
In a more rational world, the 50 Democrats in the Senate could all vote Yes while the 50 Republicans voted No. Vice President Harris could then vote Yes and break the tie. Problem solved (for now).
But the Senate doesn’t have majority rule. It has the filibuster. Sixty votes are needed to do most of the Senate’s business, including raising the debt limit. Without the agreement of at least 10 Republicans, therefore, the 50 Senate Democrats can’t even bring the debt limit increase to a vote.
There are various ways the problem can be addressed before the U.S. government runs out of money and the global markets and the global economy take a dive.
The Treasury Department could mint a special coin and assign it a value of trillions of dollars. Depositing this coin at the Federal Reserve would mean the government suddenly had plenty of money. But it doesn’t look like anybody in authority likes this idea.
The Treasury Department could ignore the debt limit law, citing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment says “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned”, which kind of means the government has to pay its bills. But again, this idea doesn’t have enough support.
A third option, of course, would be for the Republicans to allow the Democrats to proceed to a vote. But the Republicans say they won’t do that.
Instead, they say the Democrats should pursue a fourth option: use the complicated process known as budget reconciliation, which allows a majority in the Senate to pass budget-related legislation. Unfortunately, it’s a very complicated process. In fact, it’s the very complicated process the president and congressional Democrats are (very slowly) using to pass most of Biden’s agenda (the agenda that’s popular with the public but too expensive for two Democratic senators, one who’s actually a moderate Republican and one who’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma).
Reuters explains what the Democrats would have to do in order to use reconciliation to raise the debt limit:
* The budget committees in the Senate and House of Representatives would have to write legislation enabling the debt limit to be raised. . .
* The Senate Budget Committee likely would deadlock 11-11 if all 22 members were present, preventing Chairman Bernie Sanders from sending such a bill to the full Senate.
* The Senate’s Majority Leader could then make a move on the Senate floor to “discharge” the stuck legislation from the budget panel. There would be a maximum of four hours of debate and then the Senate would vote on whether to instruct Sanders to release the bill to the floor.
* The Senate could then start debate for a maximum of 20 hours. But it would be open to a potentially large number of amendments in a procedure that is known as a “vote-a-rama.” Amendments would have to be directly related to budgetary matters however. Vote-a-ramas are often all-night affairs.
* Following votes on amendments, the Senate could vote to approve the debt limit bill and could do so with a simple majority of 51 votes.
* The House also would have to go through the process of debating and passing the bill, also by simple majority.
* As all of this is unfolding, global financial markets could become unsettled as Oct. 18 nears and Washington flirts with a default.
The reason Senate Republicans want the Democrats to use reconciliation for the debt limit is that it would interfere with using reconciliation to pass Biden’s big, popular agenda. That’s the whole reason.
Fortunately, there’s a fifth option. The 50 Senate Democrats could make an exception to the filibuster rule. That’s already been done for budget reconciliation and approving judicial appointments. Why not do it for the debt limit too? It shouldn’t require 10 extra votes in the Senate to allow the government to pay its credit card bills.
But those two Democratic senators (the moderate Republican and the mystery woman who now votes like one) think the filibuster rule is near sacred. They claim it brings the Democratic and Republican senators together in a wonderful spirit of compromise. Maybe it did once upon a time, and once in a while, but all it does now is allow a minority to control the Senate.
So when the Republican Minority Leader says the debt limit problem is for the Democrats to solve, since they control the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, he might as well be speaking in tongues. The only way Democrats can control the Senate is to eliminate or change the filibuster rule, which so far isn’t happening. (While they’re at it, they should make a filibuster exception for voting rights too — that seems obvious but so far isn’t to all 50 of them).