The US Debt Ceiling: The Only Way Is Up

With Democratic lawmakers currently working to pass a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure bill, Republican senators have rediscovered their fiscal conservatism, which appeared to temporarily desert them during the Trump era. Given their minority status in both Congressional chambers, McConnell and co are relying on a tool that served them well under the Obama administration – the debt ceiling.

Republicans are demanding that Democrats reduce the scale of their planned infrastructure bill, whose price tag could be as high as $3.5 trillion. Without cooperation on that issue, Republican senators say they will refuse to cooperate on the issue of the debt ceiling. With Senate Majority Leader Schumer already ruling out the use of the reconciliation workaround, which allows for a simple majority for a bill to pass, the only path to resolution on this issue is through a normal Senate vote. This is critical, given the 60-vote requirement for regular bills to pass in the Senate – any debt ceiling resolution will require at least 10 red-state senators to break ranks and vote aye. The achievement of 60 votes is made yet more difficult by the potential for moderate Democrats to join their Republican colleagues in blocking action on the debt ceiling, with Joe Manchin having previously expressed his discomfort with the national debt.

Secretary Yellen now says that the US is likely to hit its debt ceiling on the 18th of October, meaning the federal government will be unable to fulfil its financial obligations after this date unless the ceiling is raised or suspended. This latter point is crucial and has been somewhat muddied by Republican spin on this issue. In reality, the debt ceiling is not about new government spending at all, it is about the government’s ability to fulfil spending promises that it has already made. Such obligations include both welfare payments and the maintenance of the national debt, meaning the potential economic consequences of this saga go far beyond the passage or non-passage of Biden’s infrastructure plan.

This is not the first time that Republican lawmakers have employed such a strategy, using it in both 2011 and 2013 to extract concessions from President Obama. In both of these cases, the concessions achieved were relatively minor, and the Republicans were eventually forced to settle for a moral victory at best. On top of that, the Democrats were able to avoid the bulk of the political backlash, with only 31% of the country saying that they were to blame for the crisis in 2011. So why use such a tactic again, given that it appears on the surface to have been so unsuccessful in times past?

  • Firstly, the political landscape has shifted drastically since episodes one and two of this trilogy. President Biden is a far less formidable political adversary than his former boss, particularly with regards to charisma and control over the media narrative. McConnell will be betting that his party can do a better job of deflecting blame towards the Democrats now they don’t have to compete with Obama’s overwhelming political celebrity. This strategy already appears to be paying off, with just 16% of poll respondents blaming the Republicans for the potential default.
  • Secondly, let us not forget who the intended audience of this political stunt really is – the Republican base. Having the support of even just 31% of the country is more than enough to achieve success in US elections given their historically low turnout, especially in the midterms which are now on the horizon. Turnout will be key in 2022 and this savvy political ploy will increase Republican chances of breaking the Democratic stranglehold on Washington next year by enticing conservative voters to the polls.

With all of this being said, the actual probability of US debt default is virtually zero. This Republican routine would be much more convincing if we hadn’t seen it twice before already. Does anyone really believe that it is a coincidence that all three debt crises have come in the year prior to a midterm election? Or that lawmakers (and their donors) with combined stock portfolios in the billions would seriously allow the devastating economic damage such a default would guarantee? The final nail in the coffin for the convincingness of such a threat is the Republican voters themselves. One of the best-kept secrets in Washington is that red states receive far more in net federal spending per capita than blue states. Whilst conservative voters may love the idea of national fiscal responsibility in theory, they are far more attached to personal financial solvency in practice. If the Republicans actually allowed this debacle to get to a point where the government stopped sending welfare checks, it would be their voters who would suffer the most, and the potential political benefits of this gambit would be nowhere to be seen.

This is not to say that no economic damage will be done or that no panic will occur. In 2011 a resolution was agreed just two days before the debt ceiling was due to be reached and resulted in a US credit rating downgrade and the loss of 1.2 million jobs by 2015. Rather, the very worst fears of the financial markets will not be realised – the debt ceiling will be raised and the infrastructure bill will pass in one form or another. But it’s going to get very messy and very noisy before we get there.

Outcomes:

  1. The panic and political manoeuvring will continue, and may even stretch beyond the October 18th date stated by Yellen, if the Treasury gets creative with their accounting. This uncertainty will hit markets and the real economy but this is a sacrifice Republicans are willing to make. McConnell looks set to trade a few points in the S&P 500 for a few points at the polls in the midterms – a bit of a bargain in political terms.
  2. Moderate Democrats will use this pressure as leverage against the left in their own party who are pushing for the headline $3.5 trillion bill to be realised. This will lead to further infighting among the Democrats which the left will likely lose, meaning a smaller infrastructure package than initially intended.
  3. The chances of the Democrats maintaining or expanding their control in Washington just went down.