The statutory limit on how much debt the federal government can accumulate is back in the news, but this time it’s not because Washington is close to breaching it. That’s not a present concern thanks to the year-end bipartisan spending spree that included a suspension of the debt limit until March 2017. The news is that a report from the House Financial Services Committee found that the Obama administration’s Treasury Department has been repeatedly misleading the American public on the matter.
Treasury has routinely rejected the idea that once the government reaches the debt limit, federal spending could be prioritized to avoid a default. During a previous debate over the debt limit in 2011, my colleague Jason Fichtner and I wrote a paper explaining that even if Treasury is unable to issue more debt, it can still avoid a default and thus give policymakers more time to implement reforms that would put the government on a more sustainable fiscal path.
Contrary to Treasury’s claims, we argued that it has several financial management options to continue paying the government’s primary obligations. Specifically, Treasury could use incoming tax receipts to cover high priority claims including the interest on existing debt, the principal on that debt, Social Security benefits, and more. Government assets could also be liquidated to pay bills.